It’s been about eighteen years since I last went to a heavy metal gig. Even back then I was more interested in the relatively mainstream output of Metallica, Sepultura and the (still) hilariously-named Pantera. Unsurprising, then, that I was a feeling a little trepidation, maybe even slightly scared as I dithered outside the Divan du Monde for a gig by Mayhem, ready to investigate the darkest realms of the genre: Black Metal. Back in the mid 1990s, I’d only really flirted with the dark side, leering fascinatedly at the pages of Kerrang! which detailed the exploits of the band which, along with Burzum, came to represent the radical Norwegian scene. Mayhem became notorious for their extreme brutalist metal, having pigs’ heads on sticks onstage, wearing corsepaint, making sinister declarations and liberal use of Satanic imagery. There is more than just a whiff of the macabre about Mayhem: they are best known for their off-stage behaviour: the very real-life suicide of their original singer, the appropriately-named Dead, and for their guitarist Euronymous’s murder by Burzum’s mainman Varg Vikernes.
Now, I’m old, but curious and (mostly) without fear, I’ve been recently revisiting my old interests in metal, as part of a broader appreciation of sonic extremity. I thought an intimate gig by the black metal legends, generally associated with slots at Eastern European enormo-fests, on their thirtieth anniversary tour was an opportunity not to be missed. I temporarily put my rabid objections to some of the members’ abhorrent comments to media over the years (more of which later), to one side to see what the appeal was and dive headlong into the black void. Loitering on the pavement outside the venue, however, and watching the motley assortment of black leather-clad metal heads, mostly unsmiling and including a fair number of really sinister looking fuckers, traipse into the venue, I was having my fair share of second thoughts. Not the least of these was down to feeling massively underdressed. I’ve never been known for my sartorial elegance, but I thought sporting a specially-purchased Mayhem t-shirt underneath my tatty anorak was going to be enough to let me pass under the radar. How wrong I was, once I shuffled into the already packed venue, I became aware that I stuck out like, well, a university lecturer at a Black Metal gig.
The venue was also part of the appeal. I’d last been to the Divan du Monde for a sparsely attended gig in what must have been 1999, but back then I hadn’t known that the venue was originally known as the Brasserie des Martyrs, a popular drinking spot for the mighty French poet Charles Baudelaire in the nineteenth century. Baudelaire, lest we forget, was a highly scandalous figure, perhaps most famously for his poetry collection Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) which is liberally and intentionally provocative, blasphemous, anti-Christian and makes liberal use of darkly Satanic imagery. It is highly appropriate, then, that Mayhem, who do all of the above in their art, are strutting in exactly the same space as their poetic forebear. Le Divan du Monde has been renovated since my last trip, but is now a pretty place, too pretty for the black metal hordes, and has been re-done in a post-colonial style. There is a pretty shallow irony in the interior design, since the décor features busts of exoticized black slave characters, gazing down from the upper balcony. Mayhem’s drummer, Jan Axel ‘Hellhammer’ Blomberg, is on record as saying that ‘Black metal is for white people’. Statements such as these deserve, of course, to be treated with wholehearted contempt. While the venue’s décor is crass and nostalgically twee, comments such as those from ‘Hellhammer’ are acutely damaging and idiotic but deserve repeated mention. Highly inappropriately, and more amusingly, for a black metal public no doubt raised on strong cider, animal blood and freshly-roasted human sacrifices, the bar had a special offer on glasses of house white Vouvray.
The bill promised ‘Mayhem and Merrimack’ which, quite frankly, sounded more like an Incredible String Band song title or a folk dancing troupe rather than an evening of evil entertainment, latently racist or otherwise. French black metallers Merrimack were first up. It was a solid example of the genre: they were loud; it was ugly; the complex guitar parts and the drums appear to be going in radically diverse directions and the singer, who had the filthiest hair imaginable, half screamed-half barked his way through the songs as expected. The band made liberal use of corpsepaint, which was pleasing to see. I’d have been disappointed if there hadn’t been any in evidence tonight. There is, though, a pretty good reason why grown men are generally wary of face painting – despite the very clear temptation, you rarely see anyone post pubescent queuing up for the make-up artist at church fetes or village hall events. The reason, of which Merrimack are a sorry example, is the unhappy relationship between face paint and facial hair. You never see photos of Baudelaire with stubble – was it, one wonders, to facilitate the corpsepaint?
While Merrimack pressed all the right black metal buttons musically, they were also a shining example of a key problematic of the genre. The big bloody (corpsepainted or not) elephant in the room when it comes to Black Metal and, one suspects, metal more broadly is that it is also deeply, frequently hilariously, absurd, an absurdity that also often spills over into laugh-out-loud ridiculousness. There was a moment near the end of Merrimack’s set where all the guitarists stood at the front of the stage in formation, each one foot on the monitor à la Nigel Tufnell, and I actually found myself stifling a giggle. It is just this ridiculousness that is symptomatic of the genre and, for all of its po-faced seriousness and offensive media comments, is naturally tempting to question just how seriously the BM practitioners take it. I suspect the answer, is very seriously. I’m reminded, for example, of how Mayhem bassist and founder, the hilariously named Necrobutcher, responded on having his band described as ‘the Village People in hell’ by journalist John Doran. For all of the songs about death, murder, Satan and suicide, there is indeed something deeply pantomime about Mayhem that seems to undercut the seriousness: Hellhammer’s oversized drum kit/cage, for example, which comes in bigger than many Parisian apartments and (probably for the best in the light of his comments) completely obscures the drummer from sight; the fact the merch-stand sells Mayhem-branded ‘sexy’ knickers and the stern hyper-seriousness of the guitarists Charles (ex-Cradle of Filth) Hedger and Teloch who flanked the stage, one unsmiling, the other actually wearing a monk’s cowl but you can bet he wasn’t grinning like a crazy man underneath.
That said, for all of their absurdity, Mayhem certainly pack a significant punch live. Paris audiences have a reputation for being somewhat staid, but there was a genuine buzz around the venue as the lights dimmed and the band’s traditional entrance music, Silvester Anfang, actually composed for the band by Tangerine Dream’s Conrad Schnitzler, kicked off before they raced into Pagan Fears, arguably the standout track from De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (1994). Happily, the band played a smattering of tracks from this album, also arguably their best, as well as from the semi-legendary Deathcrush EP (1987) alongside less impactful and more generic tracks from their more recent work, including the most recent Esoteric Warfare (2014).
The centre of the Mayhem circus is undoubtedly vocalist Attila Csihar, who has both a presence and a vocal range that transcends the genre and keeps the band from lapsing completely into pantomime. Indeed, it is pretty much exclusively the presence of the Hungarian Csihar, a respected vocal artist in his own right and soon to release his debut solo album, that makes Mayhem a compelling live proposition. I’d even go as far as saying that his presence, here dressed as a blood-splattered ancient Pagan priest and carrying a human skull and doing his distinctive brand of Black Metal voguing, in at least some small way rebuilds at least a small part of the band’s credibility following Hellhammer’s offensive offstage comments. His performance – vocally and theatrically – for the iconic My Death – as he stalked the stage swinging a noose was, aside from the opening track, a highlight of the evening. He certainly provided a more credible counterpoint to Necrobutcher, oafishly swigging from a bottle of champagne and moronically introducing a song by declaring ‘This song is for your girlfriend….she’s a WHORE!’. C’mon, Necro.
In short, Mayhem are a tight and impressively marshalled band but without Csihar’s presence, I’m not sure they’d have sustained my interest for the duration of the set, right up until traditional set closer Pure Fucking Armageddon. For all the dark trappings, the music is at best not much more than a very heavy punk. For me there is, as Spinal Tap memorably declared, a fine line between ‘stupid’ and ‘clever’, and this is exactly the line that Mayhem seem to walk and, despite the best efforts of their frontman, repeatedly stumble over. As my journey into the dark heart of rock continues, I suspect this will be a recurrent trend.