Out of the icy Norwegian winter, nearly two decades ago, came the birth of black metal, one of the most extreme forms of music there is. In basic terms, it was formed by a small group of bands reacting against Christianity and with a general goal to put as much distance between their sound — a convulsing, dissonant, primitive mix topped with torturous screaming for vocals — and everyone else as much as possible. And against all the odds it spread across the metal underground in Europe and even to America. Black metal has sometimes been compared to gangsta rap for its members’ willingness to partake in certain crimes, but black metal has become more like grunge in the sense that all of the movement’s original bands have more or less gone kaput. Immortal and Emperor are in limbo, Satyricon has diversified and outgrown the sound, and Burzum brain Varg Vikernes is doing prison time, which leaves it down to two bands to carry the torch: Darkthrone and, a notorious fourpiece from Oslo, Mayhem.
Recognition as Scandinavian metal’s elder statesmen has come at a high price for the band: two of their former members are lying in some Norwegian grave; one murdered by a member who passed through their constantly shifting line-up, the other whose suicide photo brought one of the band’s bootlegs to infamy. But that’s all old history now, and those unfortunate events from their past have been so well-documented and sensationalized, including in their very own film, Pure Fucking Mayhem, released later this year, that it’s probably a cliché to bring them up when reviewing their music anymore. The band’s line-up has also more or less stabilized, so much so that Ordo Ad Chao (Out of Chaos Comes Order), their fourth full-length album in 23 years of existence, has even achieved some commercial success, debuting in the Norwegian top 20. To the delight of fans, Hungarian-born vocalist Attila Csihar has even returned for his first outing with the group since 1994’s much-ballyhooed classic De Mysteriis dom Sathanas (Lord Satan’s Secret Rites).
And yet, somehow Mayhem still can’t seem to recapture the sinister magic of what once made them sound like the invincible minions of Satan. The reason for this is the absence of one essential ingredient: guitarist Euronymous. Arguably the most influential figure to arise from the black metal scene, his ‘deathsaw riffs’ and radical ardency for the genre proved hugely inspirational to both the band (just listen to their 1987 debut EP Deathcrush) and a generation of musicians with the same beliefs. While the band’s albums without him since his untimely demise have had decent moments, none of them have been outstanding, with new axe-grinder Blasphemer’s guitarwork paling in comparison. Their latest addition to the set ultimately follows this trend, and proves that even bringing back an old-timer doesn’t guarantee a comeback.
Ordo Ad Chao, in short, is really, really fucking weird. The guitars are a conglomerate of — gasp — clean, ringing figures and typical jet-fuel black-metal fare played across a few extremely diminished chords. One very impressive aspect of the disc is the jittery dynamics, bound to leave the band’s followers wishing they could conjure up as broad or incisive a range of sound levels as there is on display here. Speaking of which, the production — described by drummer Hellhammer as ‘necro’ — could use a lot of work. The instruments are mixed in a way that makes them sound hollow and bottom-ended, so that the rigid drum patterns, including a very audible triggered bass drum, sound like they’re being hit with a wet fish. They’re thrown together in a very atypical style for a black metal release. Mayhem might well take note: raw production does not a tour de force make.
Most interesting though is Csihar, who’s earned a reputation as one of the most charismatic vocalists to lend his screams to the dark side. Yet unlike his intriguing stints with Sunn O))) and Aborym, projects that proved his versatility, he spends most of his time on Ordo Ad Chao dully intoning or lazily growling the lyrics, rather than using the traditional black metal scream that could have truly marked a triumphant return.
The lyrics pen what could well be an apocalypse in descriptive, vivid English language. “Pillars supporting sky crumble / Sun, moon, the stars pour down / Rivers and oceans rush where the earth sinks / Great conflagration quenched by raging flood,” are the lines which open the album after instrumental “A Wise Birthgiver”. They end on “Anti” with the same despair hissed: “Deluded versions of revelations / The symbols repulse / Whatever done equals zero / Times nothing.”
The songs are uncharacteristically slower than one would expect, the band conserving their energy until a point of total chaos at promo track “Anti”, after which the album cuts out. Among the long instrumental passages is angular, twisted music, playing in fine fashion on “Deconsecrate” when the tremolo guitars kick in with the drums into turbo-unison. But numbers like “Illuminate Eliminate” are useless and a waste of time, going for nine minutes, about thrice as long as the average Mayhem assault, and rambling and stumbling over itself. We’d listen to Emperor or Burzum if we wanted to hear prog-influenced black metal.
Straying too far from ferocity and brutality brings Ordo Ad Chao down and saps it. While previous efforts from them haven’t exactly been digestible, appealing affairs, this is simply too bizarre for all but the band’s biggest fans to appreciate – those fans, consequently, will surely hail it as their finest hour. Expecting a release of De Mysteriis dom Sathanas proportions was unrealistic without Euronymous, but in this legendary band, inspiration to so many legions of newcomers since, it is hard not to hear apathy. Chao is a fair album, certainly worth chronicling, but nothing else. “I order the consumption of all churches,” Attila demands in “Deconsecrate”, clearly not realizing how stupid he sounds. Maybe they should start eating each other again.