It’s always a tough spot when an old legend releases a new album, especially when key musicians responsible for iconic or at least recognizable pieces on past recordings have left the fold. I don’t think there are too many bands from the second wave of Norwegian Black Metal who’ve continued to record to this day and who’ve managed to keep their quality somewhat consistent at least without having left the realm of Black Metal almost altogether; some might argue Darkthrone is one example, and though I do admit to enjoying some of their newer stuff, you just can’t deny that it’s vastly inferior to the legendary early albums unless you’re a few cans short of a sixpack. Burzum is the one obvious exception with Belus, which I think is Vargs’ strongest album to date as a whole, though the best single tracks are to be found elsewhere… sadly, Burzum too waned quickly with Fallen and subsequent works.
After reforming with the Maniac-Blasphemer-Hellhammer-Necrobutcher constellation in the mid-90’s to release the rather widely praised Wolf’s Lair Abyss, Mayhem have been in a steady descent. I personally liked Grand Declaration Of War when it was released, though the majority seemed to disagree with me on that one, and though I think it hasn’t stood the test of time as well as great albums do, I can still appreciate it for what it is; dig what was successful and tolerate what failed. Chimera was a tiresome return to a less experimental approach with nary a memorable song. With Maniacs’ departure and the return of Attila Csihar, some might have had at least some hope for Ordo Ad Chao, but I consider it pretty much crap; a futile attempt to sound, I dunno, relevant and prove wrong the naysayers who claim that Mayhem had degraded to overly clinical, triggered and sterile sounding wankery.
With these sentiments, I admit to being a bit baffled why I even bought Esoteric Warfare almost immediately after release, and at full price. It’s not as if I had any expectations for it, especially after having heard the advance track Psywar. But buy it I did.
Mayhem anno 2014 has lost their guitarist and main composer of the past roughly 20 years, Blasphemer, but honestly, it’s not like you could really tell from the album. The tracks – I am loath to call them songs – are full of what could be called the “trademark” modern Mayhem guitar sound. The album is not so much full of actual songs as tracks with aimlessly rambling second-rate riffs, uninspired drum work and Attila doing whatever it is he does and calls it vocals. I suppose the album is somewhat more coherent than Ordo Ad Chao, and the production is a lot less self-servingly fucked up, but apart from that, not much has changed: just like its predecessor, Esoteric Warfare is futile in every sense of the word. Well, the packaging is nice. Even the lyrics seem to be just phrases strung together one after another without much consideration for trivial things such as coherence or theme; the one exception is Posthuman, which, though it also has rather disjointed lyrics, is interesting and fun in a minor way in how it lines up conspiracy theories. Apart from that, the lyrics at the very latest prove that Mayhem anno 2014 is empty: they have nothing to come with, nothing to say, nothing to give; no depth, no substance, no impact, no actual justification for their continued existence – or, if they at least provide a good live show, a justification for continuing to record and release music. Contrasting it with classic Mayhem, where the satanism admittedly often had a cheap and carnivalesque flair but nonetheless managed to be mysterious, dangerous and evocative (and still is today, at least to some extent), where the imagery and the lyrics managed to conjure up something that felt dark and real, Mayhem of today is nothing: lyrics void of meaning, music void of spirit, delivery void of passion. Mayhem anno 2014 sounds lazy.
What in particular strikes me is how the result is so much less than the sum of its ingredients. Though infamous for his overly triggered drums, Hellhammer was once upon a time regarded as a skilled drummer; on Esoteric Warfare, however, his playing is so uninspired, trite and by-the-numbers that it could basically be anyone who can keep up a rhythm, by the sound of it. Attila Csihar, responsible for a large part of the eerie atmosphere and haunting nature of the classic De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, provides an array of growls, screams, grunts and squeals that, yes, are all as uninteresting and ill-fitting as the next; it literally sounds like Attila went in and did this stuff in one take, not giving a single fuck about how the end result sounded. Necrobutcher and his bass are large parts of the time barely audible – how fitting and/or ill-fitting, considering he’s the one original (though not constant) member remaining. The guitars, courtesy of two chaps by the name of Teloch and Ghul, are the only thing that occasionally pique any interest, but that’s a rare occasion as well: for the most part, the guitar work is on par with the uninspiring nature of the rest of the instruments.
Worst of all, though Esoteric Warfare is recognizable as Mayhem, at least if you know you’re listening to Mayhem, to me it bears more resemblance to trite technical black/death metal and that horrible, horrible moniker of “extreme metal” than the form of Black Metal Mayhem helped to define in the early 90’s, or even the melodic, fast and aggressive form of Black Metal of Wolf’s Lair Abyss. Or even the futuristic, experimental Black Metal of GDoW. Superficially this sounds like Mayhem, but when you delve deeper, this is just as empty and soulless as modern day Behemoth.
In conclusion: I do not like this album. I think my money was wasted.