MAYHEM: Wolf’s Lair Abyss
Release year: 1997/2019
Label: Misanthropy Records/Soulseller Records
Back in 1997, Mayhem’s comeback recordings without guitarist, founder, composer and band leader Euronymous must have seemed like a travesty to many involved in the scene – despite including three members who had been involved with the Norwegian legends for years. Bass player Necrobutcher was a founding member, but had departed in the wake of Mayhem’s legendary vocalist Dead’s suicide; drummer Hellhammer had been involved with the band since 1988 and had overseen the release of the iconic debut full-length De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas in the wake of Euronymous’ murder; vocalist Maniac had been involved in the early stages of Mayhem, recording vocals for the first mini-LP Deathcrush. Only guitarist Blasphemer was entirely new blood.
But despite this, it was still a different Mayhem to re-emerge from the shadows and from the chaos surrounding Mayhem, Euronymous’ murder and the crimes committed by Norwegian black metal scene, which sent many involved in groups to jail for a shorter or longer stint. The change is obvious from the go, including the electronic-chaotic intro The Vortex Void Of Humanity, and the first track proper, I Am Thy Labyrinth.
However, grudgingly or with welcoming arms, since then Wolf’s Lair Abyss has largely become accepted as a part of “the true” Mayhem’s legacy – it is the follow-up studio release, Grand Declaration Of War, which many purists to this day declare the death of Mayhem.
Of course by now, in 2019, it is a quarter century since Euronymous was murdered, and out of the 35 years Mayhem has been active, Euronymous was involved with the band for only the first ten years. The Mayhem reborn with Wolf’s Lair Abyss is, both in terms of age and amount of released material, in the lead. Grand Declaration Of War and all.
The fact that nothing Mayhem do will ever surpass De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas and the recordings leading up to it is a topic for another day.
Wolf’s Lair Abyss is a different beast from before, but it is a beast, without doubt. There are hints of the experimentalism that would permeate Grand Declaration Of War some years later, especially in Blasphemer’s riffs, but for the most part this is fierce, aggressive, fast and dark black metal which doesn’t break against the concepts and ideology laid down by Euronymous. This is dark, satanic and evil.
Hellhammer’s blasting drums have not yet become riddled by the excess triggering he would embrace later, which would lend subsequent recordings a thoroughly plastic feel – or at the very least, they’re mixed better. Blasphemer’s riffs are fast, shredding and sharp, but with a darkly melodic character to them. On top of that, Maniac shrieks his dark visions – although some have compared his style to Donald Duck. I can see where the comparison comes from, but this is one fucking black metal duck from Ducksburg in that case.
I’ve heard people claim that some of the riffs are based on drafts Euronymous had been working on during late rehearsals. I don’t know if there’s any truth to this, but there’s an essential insight in this: Mayhem’s first recordings post-Euronymous did not try to shake off the past, but instead seemed to embrace it whilst at the same time refused to remain trapped in shadows of the past. And perhaps that’s why, after initial reservations, most people accepted Wolf’s Lair Abyss. Not only is it a good recording, it’s also familiar enough to sound like Mayhem – but different enough to not sound like a pastiche of itself.
For me, Wolf’s Lair Abyss was my first contact with Mayhem. I remember hearing Ancient Skin on a compilation CD, and was instantly impressed by the sheer brutality of the blasting, Maniac’s inhuman (but perhaps ducklike?) shriek and the dark melodies the guitars weaved. Combined with the almost mythical status Mayhem had attained at this time, it truly felt like my teenage self, who was only discovering black metal at this time, was at the portal to something truly evil and mysterious. As such, my relationship with the album is far from objective.
And, indeed, for years and years onwards, Mayhem was the solid foundation of my musical habits. I may have parted ways with the band in the wake of Chimera (I admit: I liked Grand Declaration Of War, still do), but returning to Wolf’s Lair Abyss with Soulseller Records‘ high-quality re-release, I can see what it was that captivated me. Even 20+ years later, there’s something magical on these tracks.
The re-release comes with two bonus tracks taken from the Ancient Skin/Necrolust single released some months before Wolf’s Lair Abyss, thus being a complete compendium of the studio recordings released by the new Mayhem in the 90’s. The second version of Ancient Skin is different from the mini-LP version, yes, but not really either better or worse. The new version of Necrolust is somewhat lacklustre; the live album Mediolanum Capta Est contains a much better version of the old classic by the same line-up. Still, it’s nice to have them as extras.
All in all, Wolf’s Lair Abyss is an essential recording from the mid-to-late 90’s Norwegian scene, when the classic era of Norwegian black metal was starting to reach its end and more experimental winds would start to blow in many a project. Wolf’s Lair Abyss is from the time when things were still good and black metal sounded still like black metal, but the seeds of change were already sown.