Mayhem occupy a very interesting position in the history of black metal that merits discussion and requires clarification on its own. And the present work, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is only accessory to this discussion, for its quality, though stout and certainly outstanding, is eclipsed by the fame attained by the band members as artificially-inflated personas. This is a tragedy for the music itself, which deserves recognition on its own, and the source of many misunderstandings born out of the caprice of angsty teenagers and irresponsible young adults unable to deal with reality. It is not untrue that the immense popularity of something is usually a reliable sign that something is amiss with it, as this is usually the outcome of an oversimplified aspect either portrayed by the artist or perceived an ignorant and eager audience.
De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas comes out in 1994 and is anything but innovative. We must admit, however, that innovation is not itself the most important aspect of music –not on the surface at least. An innovative work must be possessed of an original impulse that propels it forward to a nuanced expression that is only and wholly its own, even though on the outside its general style and the application of techniques does not differ significantly from the norm. Mayhem display here their only significant album, which we may consider a gateway album for black metal, for its inner simplicity which, compounded with its percussive outside and plentiful short melody-based riffs, account for a jingle-like attraction to its appearance on its own. The success of this album is utterly based on this pop-like inclination that surprisingly does not betray the black metal spirit but comes out as strengthening it, albeit through a one-dimensional expression based on excitement rather than on depth.
Now, what De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas does, it does really well, and its undeniable triumph lies precisely in this. This is why despite Mayhem’s general worthlessness, the present album is uplifted by all as a masterpiece of its own kind, an authentic tribute to the spirit of energy and darkness. The flow of energy of one section, manifested in the arrangement of its rhythm and the direction of its melody and implied harmony, among other, more subtler elements, is usually uninterrupted in its transition to the next, and this provides a cathartic experience where the ecstasy of a delicious moment never ends while the album is still played. The percussion plays no small role here, being both creative yet perfectly adequate in every simple instance, providing both function and entertaining details that enhance rather than distract from the spirit of the work, as do more modern pseudo black metal incarnations (Mgla comes to mind with its drum self-delusion in an extremely poor, though passingly interesting, and repetitive framework). It could be stated without a shadow of doubt that the percussion in this album constitutes its most outstanding trait, giving it a life and uniqueness that it would lack if the rest remained the same and the drumming replaced by an average performance.
The constant vituperation of artists and their works superior to Mayhem and De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, now demand justice and an answer, and there is where we shall briefly proceed. There is a common misunderstanding by people ignorant of musical quality in every aspect except their own enjoyment, that tells them that the expert preservation of jingle efficacy herein found is not only on par with, but superior to the progressive ceremonies of Varg Vikernes in Burzum. The error is twofold and born out of a lack of discernment arising from a missing proper musical training (which includes the development of a real philosophy of art in combination with technique) that is seldom surmounted by individuals which would rely entirely and solely upon an intuitive sense, one which, by the way, only a tiny fraction can reliably develop.
The first of these mistakes consists in awarding this Mayhem the status of a transcendent work of profound significance, when in realization it is but an deftly arranged collection of metal jingles with a slightly dissonant tendency that gives them an air of superfluous evil. This legend comes in part from paying too much attention to the ridiculous musings of Euronymous, who had the tendencies of an immature diva. Testimony and support for this is the fact that for all their talk, this circle of people akin to him were not very good at performing either works of artistic merit or acts of a dangerous nature towards a goal. De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas was the maximum expression of that line of thought, it took years of work, and it came out several grades under most of the classic albums that had come out since its writing begun (see all of Darkthrone’s and Burzum’s discographies from inception, which by 1994 produce works of vastly superior merit). This is mostly because any ideology, religious or otherwise, Satanic or otherwise, is only as good as the degree to which it addresses reality –which is independent of any perceived truth or interpretation and simply is. Euronymous’ brand of child nagging, however, was more of a thinly veiled dead-end nihilism that expressed a wish for destruction above anything else, never actually coalescing towards accomplishment on any of the three levels on which we exist.
Anything and everything transmitted by De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas had already been done at a technical level, and attained in deeper explorations, in albums one, two or three years older. A clear example are 1993’s potent trio in Norway’s Darkthrone, Burzum and Gorgoroth, all of which actualize black metal in unique ways that thin out technique towards pure use in meditative trances. In De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas we see rather a backtracking that pushes towards mainstream accessibility, despite the incessant empty talk of Mayhem’s leader. Burzum’s Det Som Engang Var eclipses the present work to a degree that reduces it to mere child’s play, for in Vikernes’ work we find works of internal and subterranean elaboration that set the mind into a state and then develop from that state to various concrete places, so that the perceived technical simplicity of its expression is only Plato’s simplicity, of which he spoke in The Republic through the mouth of Socrates.
I do not choose death and black metal because they suit my fancy, but because, in their highest expression, they touch on the most objective reality and the profoundest mysteries of human experience, respectively.
De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas has already been given its due, here and elsewhere, time and again, which is why I have taken the liberty to devout a good portion of this space to performing the work of the devil’s advocate. Doing so is always in the interest of anything that shall be called true and sincere, in art or otherwise. What is important is not to vituperate either this or that artist, but to set everything in its place in accordance with what we can agree is reality, and not what we wish it to be. For were it any other way, I would simply choose to follow a prettier fantasy.
I do not choose death and black metal because they suit my fancy, but because, in their highest expression, they touch on the most objective reality and the profoundest mysteries of human experience, respectively. Let this commentary be not ground for petty disputes, but the commencement of an inner search, the sighting of a new shore to conquer, for in discovering the actual nature and place of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas we do black metal a service. Hereby we also do Mayhem themselves honour by assuring their true place for posterity, lest they be swallowed up by the shallow, though enthusiastic, appreciation of lesser minds and the stupidity of the vast majority. This place is very small indeed, and a footnote in the History of Black Metal rather than musical relevance (it has been highly influential as inspiration, but very little in the way of musical evolution was bequeathed by this album in particular) to the developed side of the genre, but it is one the album deserves at the very least.