Can the cover of an album take on a strongly macabre outline until it reaches unprecedented levels of gore? The answer is yes and all this has become reality, indirectly, thanks to Mayhem.
With Mayhem you go down into the deepest and most unexplored depths of the musical underground. The Black Metal, thanks to the Norwegian band and its innovative impulse, reaches very extreme levels. We’re talking about a genre, Black Metal, intrinsically borderline and for the use and consumption of a small niche: elected nonconformist and transgressive people not addicted to fashion according to some, of discomforting outcasts dedicated to the use of alcohol and drugs and of Satanists with very loving instincts according to others. In reality, like all other musical genres, Black Metal can also be appreciated by unsuspected people: undoubtedly, with a very “dark” soul, but anything but assimilable and traceable to the stereotype of the average and most widespread user of this music.
Music objectively not easy to listen to and to appreciate, the Black Metal. It is more than just an artistic expression, it is more than a set of distorted guitars, drums, screaming and cavernous voices, hammering rhythms, often neurotic and melody-free, almost unbearable. It is a way of understanding and living society, the world, the human race. A movement, however, far from unitary and monolithic, both in terms of musical registers and issues addressed: nihilism, misanthropy, satanism, blasphemy, anti-Christianism, paganism, gore, horror porn, suicide, murder, death and blood in the most varied interpretations and facets, nationalism, mythology, traditions and popular legends (odalism), war, homophobia, politics (both neo-Nazi and neo-communist and anarchist). All this and more converge in Black Metal.
The Mayhem, the pinnacle of Black Metal
In 1984, in Oslo, the Mayhem group took shape and came to life, a name inspired by a song by Venom (“Mayhem with Mercy”), a British Heavy Metal group founded in 1979. Jørn Stubberud (Necrobutcher, bassist), Kjetil Esten Haraldsson Manheim (Manheim, drummer) and the famous and discussed leader Øystein Aarseth (the notorious Euronymous, guitarist) are the founders of the group. Eirik Norheim (Messiah) is the singer: these are the names of the musicians who make up the original nucleus of a band that, over the years, changes several times its physiognomy and identity. Everyone uses a pseudonym: Euronymous, initially, is called Destructor. Only later he took on the stage name Euronymous, derived from the Greek name Εὐρύνομος, Eurynomos, a Delphic demon.
The first successes arrive soon: it is the time of the Trash Metal/Splatter of “Deathcrush” (release date: August 16, 1987), first EP (acronym of Extended Play) of the Norwegian band to which work Sven Erik Kristiansen (Maniac, voice), Euronymous, Necrobutcher, Manheim, Messiah. Eight tracks, eight milestones of Black Metal: “Silvester Anfang” (Intro, composed by Conrad Schnitzer), “Deathcrush”, “Chainsaw Gutsfuck”, “Witching Hour” (Venom cover), “Necrolust”, “(Weird) Manheim”, “Pure Fucking Armageddon” and the single “Outro”, the latter included only in the original vinyl.
Already in 1988, the band changed their face: Maniac and Manheim left the group. Kittil Kittilsen and Torben Grue took over, but it was with the arrival of Per “Pelle” Yngve Ohlin (aka Dead) and Jan Axel Blomberg (Hellhammer) that the Mayhem took a new course. A course that will change the history of the Norwegian band forever.
Dead. In this eloquent pseudonym there is all the essence of the character who has forever rewritten the history of Mayhem and Black Metal. The controversial and revolutionary figure of Per “Pelle” Yngve Ohlin, aka Dead, fascinates and captures the interest not only of fans of Black Metal. Born in of Stockholm (Sweden, January 16, 1969), Dead reveals since childhood a very special psychology. He suffers a serious episode of bullying that reduces him almost to the end of his life, he is probably suffering from Cotard’s Syndrome (a rare and serious psychiatric condition). Taciturn, solitary, problematic, depressed, sympathetic of totalitarian regimes, attracted in a morbid and obsessive way – pathological, we could say – by death. He also claims to have lived a sort of pre-death experience, in hospital, while he is the victim of a severe bleeding. He hates Christianity, God, he approaches occultism and Satanism, a cult that arouses in him an enigmatic fascination not yet completely in focus.
First the Morbids, then the decisive turning point with the Mayhem.
Thanks to the complex and influential presence of Dead, the Mayhem change register, image, themes: the corpse paint arrives (an instrument through which Dead aims to resemble a corpse), the atmosphere becomes even darker, bloody, gruesome and violent. Satanism, death and nihilism are increasingly becoming the main and central themes around which the texts of the Mayhem revolve. Pig and sheep heads arrive, impaled at the concerts and then thrown into the audience, the self-inflicted wounds on stage: Dead, as he will say, scars his arms with a broken bottle of Coca-Cola and a knife during a concert . He is bleeding profusely until he collapses. On the occasion of New Year’s Eve 1989, Metalion (Jon Kristiansen, founder of Slayer Magazine) organizes a party at his home. Among the various exponents of the Metal panorama, he also invites Euronymous and Dead, with whom he shares a great friendship. Dead and Tomas “Tompa” Lindberg – Swedish musician of Grotesque, At The Gates, Skitsystem, The Great Deceiver, Lock Up, The Crown and Disfear, Nightrage – begin to cut each other. A perverse game. Blood, beer and vomit mix until they generate a vortex of psychophysical degradation.
The desire for wickedness and to scare the audience will grow to reach a spiral as perverse as it is unprecedented. The Mayhem become definitely and fully synonymous with Black Metal, thanks to and especially to the imprint of Dead.
I scarred my arms with a knife and a broken bottle of Coke. Most of the people there were good-for-nothing and I didn’t want them to watch our concert! Before we started playing there was a crowd of about three hundred people, but during the second song “Necrolust”, we started throwing pig heads. Only fifty stayed, I liked it! I get nervous with those people who have their heads in the clouds, so I covered my arms again with blood, we want to scare those who should not be at our concerts.
Dead’s words leave little room for imagination.
Euronymous will say of him, “I honestly think Dead is insane.” It is in this period – the beginning of the 90’s – that the birth of the alleged Black Metal Inner Circle would take place (also known by the names of Black Mafia, Inner Circle, Black Circle and Svarte Sirkel), a group of people linked to the most extreme, satanist and bloody soul of Black Metal, dedicated to criminal acts against churches, cemeteries and other Metal groups considered “sellout”, bland, now commercial, inconsistent, slaves of fashion. Even some murders can be traced back to the activities and characters that make up this imaginary criminal organization, including the murder – dated August 10, 1993 – of Euronymous himself by Kristian Vikernes, better known as Varg Vikernes or under the pseudonym of Count Grishnackh, then a member of the Mayhem. The existence of the Black Inner Circle has never been demonstrated and incontrovertibly revealed, on the contrary, it has been repeatedly denied; however, the criminal acts committed by exponents of Scandinavian Black Metal constitute, to date, an indelible stain for the whole movement.
The success and popularity of the Mayhem, in the Black Metal environment, are inexorable. Dead and Euronymous embody the leading figures of the band. Dead, in particular, lives in a very personal and intimate way his deep existential discomfort. An irreversible discomfort, probably amplified by Cotard’s Syndrome, a pathology that leads him to consider himself already dead. Dead, it is said, used to bury his clothes before wearing them at exhibitions, so as to make his appearance “cadaveric”. He even asks to be buried himself, because he wants to resemble a real corpse. He seems to have a dead crow in an envelope so he can smell the smell of death before he goes on stage. But it’s not the only rotting bird he keeps: he keeps the others under his bed. He wears t-shirts with funeral announcements, he rarely eats. Dead is death-dependent: death as the main drug for one’s psyche. The evil, nihilistic and self-destructive thoughts as well as the existential discomfort of Dead will have profound reverberations on the texts and the image of the Mayhem, until then oscillating from the Splatter to a confused and distorted Theist Satanism (embraced by Euronymous) more or less genuine and scenic. In any case, politics (Euronymous, for example, is communist) is kept out of the texts and the scenic image of the group.
In the meantime, the band begins to write the album “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas“, undoubtedly the musical manifesto par excellence of Mayhem, indeed considered by many insiders a manifesto of the Black Metal movement in its entirety. Album with a long and troubled gestation, undertaken already in 1987. The album, recorded in the studio between 1992 and 1993, will be published only on May 24, 1994, after the deaths of Dead and Euronymous. All lyrics are written by Dead, sung by Attila Csihar. “Funeral Fog”, “Freezing Moon”, “Cursed in Eternity”, “Pagan Fears”, “Life Eternal”, “From the Dark Past”, “Buried by Time and Dust”, “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” the titles of the songs of the now famous and iconic album.
The death of Dead, between legend and reality
The death of Dead is, still today, shrouded in a blanket of mystery, hidden truths and, probably, of silence. But let us proceed with order.
Dead and Euronymous live together in a small house near Oslo, in Kråkstad. A house that Mayhem members also use as a rehearsal room. The quality of life is very low: they are almost isolated from the outside world. Hellhammer’s memories and testimonies give us a deeply depressed and lonely dead. Necrobutcher, on the other hand, reports repeated quarrels (very heated and arising from banality) between Euronymous and Dead.
Dead also plans to leave the Mayhem to embrace the never forgotten Morbid.
It is said that one night, annoyed by the electronic music played by Euronymous, Dead left home to sleep in the surrounding forest and that Euronymous, therefore, went into the woods firing shots into the air. Varg Vikernes, founder of the Burzum music project, claims that Dead once stabbed Euronymous. Vikernes himself also claims to have given Dead bullets for the rifle. However, these bullets will not be used by the Mayhem singer to write the last act of his life.
It was 8 April 1991. Dead is home alone. He grabs a knife: he cuts his wrists and throat. He takes the rifle, pulls the trigger. A blow to the forehead. Devastating. Suicide as the only way of salvation. Before killing himself, Dead writes a bizarre message, directed at his roommates, whose incipit reads “Excuse the blood”. On other sheets, Dead imprints what will become the verses of “Life Eternal”, a song included in the album “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas”.
The discovery of the body: “Dawn of the Black Hearts” is born
Dead’s lifeless body is found by Euronymous, who must use a window to enter the house: the door is locked. And Dead has the key. It is from this moment that the myth around the cover of the album “Dawn of the Black Hearts” is born and develops.
Certainly, Euronymous photographs the corpse of Dead: the skull mortally torn by the shotgun, the brain, the blood, the knife. It is likely that Euronymous has “retouched” the suicide scene, arranging the objects around Dead’s body in a more artistic and “captivating” way. Speculation, however, cannot be proven. But that’s not all. As in the most incredible Nordic mythological tales, Dead’s suicide is steeped in legend, it exudes legend. Macabre legend.
It is said that Euronymous ate some parts of Dead’s brain and distributed, in the form of necklaces, fragments of the skull to famous characters of the Black Metal scene, considered worthy of that important present; among them, it seems that there are Bård G. Eithun (known by the name of Bård Faust, drummer especially known for his militancy in the Emperor) and Morgan Steinmeyer Håkansson, Swedish guitarist of Abruptum and Marduk.
The facts are anything but clear. Euronymous takes the famous photographs, many of which seem to have been confiscated by the police who rushed to Euronymous’ home after Dead’s suicide: Euronymous promises to destroy the photos, but apparently instead of destroying them he keeps them in his record store, called “Helvete”, Inferno. Rumours – not verified – show that there are at least five photos still in circulation. One of these photos becomes the image on the cover of “Dawn of the Black Hearts“, a bootleg published on February 17, 1995 and containing the recording of a concert held by the Mayhem in Sarpsborg (Norway), February 28, 1990. Eight tracks in which we can listen to Dead’s voice: “Deathcrush”, “Necrolust”, “Funeral Fog”, “Freezing Moon”, “Carnage”, “Buried by Time and Dust”, “Chainsaw Gutsfuck”, “Pure Fucking Armageddon”.
There are further independent versions of this singular album, which contain tracks recorded at a concert in Ski, Norway, dated 20 April 1986. In this live performance, the singer is not Dead but Messiah.
The 300 copies of the original vinyl, however, are published by Warmaster Records of the Colombian Mauricio “Bull Metal” Montoya, owner, in fact, of Warmaster Records Colombia, a friend of correspondence of Euronymous. It is, therefore, an unofficial album. Did Euronymous send Mauricio Montoya a photo of Dead’s body? Probably, yes.
From that April 8, 1991, Mayhem will change formation several times, passing through a dissolution in the mid ’90s. Dead’s suicide, moreover, will be a source of disagreements and misunderstandings among the different members or former members: very disputed by Necrobutcher and Manheim, is the reaction to what happened by Euronymous, which tries to exploit in a blatant and shameless way the mourning in order to strengthen the image and the dominant position of the Mayhem within the polychrome but also quarrelsome Black Metal enviornment. Euronymous is considered to be the real perpetrator of Dead’s suicide, more than the already fragile psychology of the Swedish singer: a suicide induced, instigated, will come to suspect. Some people suspect that Euronymous was the one who fired the shot: a murder and no longer a suicide. Euronymous itself basks in these voices and in the climate of violence and demonic mystery that surrounds its group.
The fracture is as incurable as it is inevitable: Necrobutcher abandons the band and then embraces it again in 1995, after Euronymous’s death.
“Live in Leipzig” is probably one of the most important testimonies of Dead’s presence within the Mayhem. Released only in July 1993, this work contains the recording of a concert given by the Mayhem, on 26 November 1990, at the Eiskeller Club in Leipzig, Germany. We now know the titles of the songs: “Deathcrush”, “Necrolust”, “Funeral Fog”, “Freezing Moon”, “Carnage”, “Buried by Time and Dust”, “Pagan Fears”, “Chainsaw Gutsfuck”, “Pure Fucking Armageddon”.
Even rarer are the video testimonies in which we can appreciate Dead in Action: few and of poor quality. Photos and fragments of amateur videos, finally, show us Dead in everyday life.
Excuse the blood, but I have slit my wrists and neck. It was the intention that I would die in the woods so that it would take a few days before I was possibly found. I belong in the woods and have always done so. No one will understand the reason for this anyway. To give some semblance of an explanation I’m not a human, this is just a dream and soon I will awake. It was too cold and the blood kept clotting, plus my new knife is too dull. If I don’t succeed dying to the knife I will blow all the shit out of my skull. Yet I do not know. I left all my lyrics by “Let the good times roll” — plus the rest of the money. Whoever finds it gets the fucking thing. As a last salutation may I present “Life Eternal”. Do whatever you want with the fucking thing. / Pelle
These are the last words of Dead written just before his death. Even on these few but significant lines the conspiracy conjectures hover like ghosts. Was he really the one who wrote them? Or did someone else write them for him? Or, finally, were they written later by someone else?
A dream of another existance
You wish to die
A dream of another world
You pray for death
To release the soul one must die
To find peace inside you must get eternal
I am a mortal, but am I human?
How beautiful life is now when my time has come
A human destiny, but nothing human inside
What will be left of me when I’m dead?
There was nothing when I lived
What you found was eternal death
No one will ever miss you
The deep and ruthless words of “Eternal Life”, on the other hand, leave no room for doubt. The essence of Dead, the poetry of Dead, the human and artistic heritage of Dead in verse. You don’t understand Dead if you don’t understand “Eternal Life”. You do not understand “Eternal Life” if you do not understand Dead.
The cover of “Dawn of the Black Hearts“, in the background, is nothing more than a gimmick to shock. Macabre and, in many ways, disrespectful “game” record. However, even this infamous photo of Dead has become, in its own way, a symbol of the Mayhem, of Black Metal, a controversial tribute to a character difficult to decipher which was actually Dead. A real dawn of black hearts.