Norwegian black metal moguls Mayhem put on a dramatic exhibit at the Majestic Theatre Tuesday night, playing the entirety of their highly influential 1994 debut album, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. Known for using pseudonyms for their stage aliases, the active lineup featured one founding member, bassist Necrobutcher, who was absent from the group during the record’s production. Active in Mayhem since 1988, drummer Jan Blomberg, who is known for his work as Hellhammer in many black metal groups, was present for the entirety of the album’s development. Singer Attila Csihar joined on temporarily to track its vocals before becoming a permanent member more than a decade later.
The Latin title of their debut album roughly translates to “About the Mystery of the Lord Satan.” Though I am unfamiliar with Satanism, the performance featured elaborate costumes and pantomimed rituals, likely pertaining to death. Of course, the songwriting process for the landmark album began in 1987, with then vocalist Per “Dead” Ohlin and guitarist Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth spearheading the composition. Neither would live to see its release. Dead’s 1991 suicide prompted Necrobutcher to leave the band. Later, Euronymous was killed by temporary bassist Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes in 1993. Vikernes served a 14-year prison sentence for Euronymous’s murder and his role in several church arsons. His bass tracks are included in the final cut of the record.
It bears mentioning that, in addition to band member deaths, Mayhem’s history is shrouded by an extensive array of problematic issues of which I learned researching for this review. The band has sold merchandise bearing swastikas and has been connected with the Norwegian church-burning movement in the 1990s. Hellhammer has been quoted expressing homophobic and white supremacist views. I condemn the violent and hateful nature of Mayhem’s past and current members. A disappointingly small amount of coverage of these transgressions is present in the American press. It is unclear to what extent, if any, Blomberg’s views have impacted his commercial success, or if he has apologized for them.
In addition to the three aforementioned members, guitarists Teloch and Ghul rounded out the touring act, who have been together unchanged since 2011. From my spot on the floor, Hellhammer was mostly out of sight, covered by a cage-like percussion apparatus, including a pair of kick drums and numerous cymbals. The other four members donned hooded cloaks, resembling Jedi knights. Teloch and Csihar wore corpse paint on their faces. Fronting the quintet, Csihar emerged last onto the stage, departed for costume changes and enacted ritualistic choreography, dancing with a skull prop near the end of the set.
Mayhem’s act commenced with lighting and church bells prior to the musicians taking the stage, eliciting cheers and shrieks from audience members. The band would leave stage several more times during the set, while lighting and instrumentation persisted. Amid one such interval, a round of deafening bass filled the theatre, crushing my eardrums. Generally, the electric guitars and bass were indistinguishable from each other, as their collaborative sound was recognizable but generally drowned out by the ringing of Hellhammer’s ferocious blast beat.
Sung in English with some Latin, Csihar’s growled lyrics were nearly incomprehensible, as they are on the recording. Having listened to De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas several times prior to witnessing it live, the familiar percussion in most of the songs coupled with the generally muddled nose from the rest of the group tricked my brain into mixing some of the eight songs up, though they were played in order. During choruses, onlookers reached out toward Csihar with their hands open. It felt cult-like.
In accordance with the title of the genre, the crowd dressed almost exclusively in black. Many adorned biker jackets affixed with patches of metal artists could be seen. Some wore capes and studded accessories. At least one crowd member's face and head were entirely blanketed by tattoos, save their eyes. My companion noted I was one of the only guests not wearing black.
Mayhem have toned down the stage antics from their earlier days, when they famously injured a crowd member with a flying sheep’s head that was severed on stage, a regular practice they have since abandoned.
The moshpit was small and not excessively violent to my tastes. I participated at times, and acquired several harmless bruises on my left arm and one moderately painful one near my right elbow. A mosher wearing a spiked bracelet apologized to another concertgoer when the bracelet struck their eye. Many slipped and fell on the beer-soaked floor — a staple of concerts at the Majestic. Though eerie, the setting felt warm and welcoming. Mayhem never spoke to the crowd, but at the conclusion of the set, Necrobutcher and Attila took separate bows. Attila went last and gestured to the crowd gratefully, much like a leading player would after an opera.