Twenty-five years on from De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (Deathlike Silence) and Norwegian Black Metal act Mayhem still face the unenviable task of living up to their infamous debut. Steeped in arson and murder, the legend of De Mysteriis… will never be surpassed, but with new album Daemon (Century Media), the band have arguably crafted their finest collection of songs since that tumultuous time.
Let’s be honest, the chances of a new Mayhem album being given a genuinely fair hearing in 2014 aren’t high. Even if you can overlook the murder, suicide and hilariously drunk interviews that still follow them around after two decades, their debut album – still considered by many to be THE defining moment in “second wave” Black Metal – casts an equally long shadow. Their career in the twenty years since Euronymous’ death has been both patchy and divisive, each new album being hailed as a return-to-form and dismissed as a betrayal of their legacy by roughly as many people.
In terms of sound, Esoteric Warfare (Season of Mist) is closest to 2007’s Ordo Ad Chao – sinuous, hypnotic riffs and Attila Csihar’s rasping, muttering vocals over drums so precise that they almost sound mechanised. Aesthetically, however, it is perhaps closer to the abstract science-fiction vibe of 2000’s ambitious, but unsuccessful Grand Declaration Of War, the violence and supernatural horror often associated with their work side-lined in favour of an ambient, industrialised kind of menace.
Esoteric Warfare is an altogether more sedate and balanced album than its predecessor – while that raved, gibbered and howled through a series of highs and lows with uncharacteristic emotional depth, the tracks here are mostly content to remain mid-paced or slow, building up an effectively sinister atmosphere. There are some moments of genuine power here – the threatening surge of ‘Psywar’, the thunderous march of ‘Throne Of Time’ – but they’re offset by moments around the middle of the album where momentum almost seems to grind to a halt, trading in dynamics for background atmospherics and pauses that are rather less pregnant than the band probably intends them to be.
Esoteric Warfare is a quietly impressive album highlighting a band who refuse to chase past glories, and deserves considerable praise for that. Many will dismiss it simply for not being De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, and they’re wrong to do so – this is very much its own album, and offers plenty of its own rewards to those who persevere – but it’s hard to silence the selfish inner voice which wants Mayhem to be more dangerous than this.