Dad rock a’la Mayhem

MAYHEM: Daemon

Release year: 2019
Label: Century Media

Some years ago, Norwegian black metal legends Mayhem started playing their iconic album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas live in its entirety, to much acclaim. This resulted in the live album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas Alive (2016), which is in every sense a great album. It is sacrilege to say this, I know, but in some ways it is even superior to the original studio album. It seems like since then, Mayhem have truly embraced their status as latter day dad rock, nostalgia for yesteryears’ black metallers: now they are even planning a 30th anniversary celebratory concert for the classic Live In Leipzig album.

Up until Daemon, on the album front Mayhem have refused to fall back into repeating their old patterns, into pandering the nostalgia-hungry who just want another “classic” sounding album. Where Chimera, the last album with long-time vocalist Maniac, represented some kind of return to a more straightforward sound after the experimental and controversial Grand Declaration Of War (but still wasn’t just another Wolf’s Lair Abyss let alone DMDS), Attila Csihar‘s return album Ordo Ad Chao didn’t see the band trying to emulate DMDS to any extent; it’s follow-up album Psywar even less so. But now, along comes Daemon.

People prone to snide remarks – eg. people totally unlike us, I swear! – might be tempted to speculate whether the DMDS tour’s success made Mayhem realize there was real money to be made from pandering to the nostalgia of their long-time fans. Since we’re not prone to snide remarks, we won’t speculate on that, we’ll just say that for the first time ever, on Daemon Mayhem well and truly embrace a sound that panders to the nostalgia of long-time fans. See, no snide remarks there!

From the very first note to the very last, it is obvious that Mayhem have fallen back on a much more straightforward, less experimental and discordant sound than the last two albums. Where Psywar was pretty out there, Daemon embraces the traditions of classic Mayhem, 90’s black metal and norsecore. In other words, it sounds pretty much how I’d imagine a successor to De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas might have sounded like if the group hadn’t, for a number of reasons, taken a large amount of left turns during the mid-90’s.

The results of this are twofold: on one hand, Daemon sounds thoroughly unambitious. It sounds like a band taking the obvious, easy route. But on the other hand, this is Mayhem’s first consistently above average full-length album since – you guessed it – De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. I’m one of the people who liked the rather divisive Grand Declaration Of War, but it had a lot of lows as well as some highs; Daemon is a lot more even.

On most tracks, Mayhem truly embrace their past: the beginning to Black Glass Communion (one of the two bonus tracks on the digibook edition) is an obvious nod to Pagan Fears, which is actually kind of neat. The rest of the album isn’t quite that forward with its referencing, but everything – from the riffs to Hellhammer‘s drumwork (his least plastic in forever!) to the cold, evil atmosphere – reeks of DMDS in particular and early/mid-nineties Norwegian black metal in general. Guitarist Teloch, who is responsible for most of the music, has truly been allowed to take a nostalgia trip back to the glory days of norsecore here.

There is at least one moment of genuine surprise on the album, where Daemon’s nostalgia tripping takes an unexpected turn. Falsified And Hated sounds very much like a song Burzum could have written, the start riff wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Filosofem or Belus. The addition of synths towards the end of the track just manage to accentuate the Burzum-ness of the song. Kind of like a Burzum-Mayhem hybrid. And the neat thing is, it works out quite nicely.

Just like the nature of the album is twofold, so is my opinion of it. On the one hand, it is quite obviously Mayhem’s best album in years and years and years, the first album since Grand Declaration Of War I actually like. But on the other hand, in its shameless cashing in on nostalgia, it comes across as a black metal version of dad rock. I’m tempted to draw parallells between Lynyrd Skynyrd and Mayhem here; both lost key members through death, both continued their recording careers with varying degrees of artistical and commercial success, and, it would seem, in recent years Mayhem has joined Lynyrd Skynyrd in exploiting nostalgia. Dad fucking rock.

But does it even matter? I’m not sure. I mean, cashing in on nostalgia or not, Daemon is a pretty good album. Shouldn’t that be enough? But if it takes that to make a good album, what does it say of the artistic viability of a group? I guess that in a genre like black metal, which at least tries to remain relevant, riffing on pure nostalgia just feels wrong (I touched upon this notion in my review of Warmoon Lord’s album). It feels a bit cheap.

As far as quality goes, the bottom line of Daemon is pretty simple: for the most part it is a good album. It sounds good, Attila Csihar doesn’t go too much into weird mode, and most of the songs are nice, although a good many of them drag on for too long. Daemon is pretty solid.

But listening to it does leave me a bit unsatisfied. Paradoxically, listening to Psywar didn’t leave me feeling empty although I didn’t like it one bit. Daemon I like, but it does leave a hollow feeling.


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