Justify Your Shitty Taste: Mayhem's "Grand Declaration of War"

Almost every band has that album: you know, the critically and/or commercially reviled dud in an otherwise passable-to-radical back catalog. Well, every Wednesday morning, a Decibel staffer or special guest will take to the Deciblog to bitch and moan at length as to why everybody’s full of shit and said dud is, in fact, The Shit. Today, our resident prog guru Jeff Wagner goes back to black for Mayhem's Grand Declaration of War. Had Grand Declaration of War been released under another moniker—say, Mezzerschmitt—people would have been falling all over themselves to proclaim its innovative ingenuity. Apparently true Mayhem fans want branded merchandise and do not like this dirty business of artistic risk-taking. Fair enough.

Had such a radical step been taken by a band like Bolt Thrower or Amon Amarth, yeah, you could totally understand how shocking it might have seemed. But this is Mayhem. A Euronymous-less Mayhem, at that. It was bound to be different. But oh, how the truest of the true hate this album.

Glad I’m not true.

grand cover

I’m just a metal fan that tries to listen on a level playing field. Forget the daunting shadow of legend or occult-metal cred or any extra-musical jibber jabber that negatively prejudices how we hear certain albums. I’m here for metal. I want it to sound unreal, I want it to offer illumination, and sometimes (more often than not, actually), I want to witness the rule book spat upon, torn up and burned. Grand Declaration of War does that. But, man, did it receive incredible backlash when it was released in June of 2000. Many people did not get it, but I suspect these many had no right to criticize the album so harshly.

See, you have to actually listen to the album. At least a few times. In full. Remember when the neocons got all up in arms about Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911? When drilled, many admitted not having watched the whole thing. Grand Declaration of War is like that—hordes of conservative metal fans eager to put it down when only a fraction of them actually listened to the album in full. And no, YouTube clips aren’t gonna cut it. This is an album clearly intended for digestion as an ALBUM. To take it in cute little bits and pieces is like opening a book to a few random pages and passing judgment without reading the whole thing in sequence.

So, what’s wrong with it? Why is this album perceived as a betrayal, something failed, something undesirable? Is it really that radical? Yes, it is. But bad? Metal is, or can be, a radical answer to more traditional musical forms. So, it’s interesting when an album this radical arrives, only to be dismissed out of hand as, well, radical. I understand this album was a shock when it came out. I understand how deeply that shock KO’d Mayhem fans who wanted more of what Mayhem was known for delivering…

…wait …what is it exactly that Mayhem were known for delivering?

Take a look at the band’s output pre-Declaration:

-          a 1986 demo of black/thrash noise so sloppy it makes early Sarcofago sound like Dream Theater

-          1987’s Deathcrush EP, total obeisance to Venom and Sodom, nothing more, nothing less

-          two songs recorded with Dead on vocals, which appeared on 1991 compilation Projections of a Stained Mind. “Carnage” was total Deathcrush action, while “Freezing Moon” was a haunting Mercyful Fate-meets-Bathory epic that set the stage for…

-          1994’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. This album shares almost nothing in common with Deathcrush. Euronymous’ playing was far more complex; the vocals were more Popeye than Angelripper; the subject matter was more arcane/occult in nature

-          1997’s Wolf’s Lair Abyss, their first Euronymous-less release. It was still harsh, but also piercing, slicker, more futuristic. Still black metal of a kind, but its techy edge cleaved in a way totally removed from De Mysteriis.

So, any lump of blood and sinew can deduce that Mayhem never really stuck with one sound for long. They were constantly in flux, constantly seeking. As far as I’m concerned, they found what they’d been looking for with Grand Declaration of War. Then they left it behind to make other albums that didn’t have a ton in common with GDOW and earlier albums. Such is Mayhem’s way—always turning corners. Grand Declaration was another corner turned, if a very sharp turn.

Though the album met with incredible criticism as a whole, even its individual performers caused controversy:

The drumming on Grand Declaration is unbelievable, but most people were too busy bitching about how weirdly sterile the drum sound was without listening to what Hellhammer was actually doing. Triggers? Yeah, whatever. The aim was something cold and futuristic, and the drums achieve that. Not to mention moments of pure “is he human?” sort of stuff.

On other Mayhem recordings, Maniac’s screech comes in seething, monotone sheets that get old after the second song. On this album he was all over the place: spoken word, half-sung moments, robot-effect voices… and the patented screech. He even let Spiral Architect’s Øyvind Hægeland sing the better part of “Completion in Science of Agony.” Maniac seemed possessed by a variety of characters from song to song, and even multi-tracked these weird personalities on “In the Lies Where Upon You Lay.”

But it was the guitar work of Blasphemer that had the truest of black metal weenies totally jumping ship. Even before this lineup debuted with Wolf’s Lair Abyss, Euronymous loyalists weren’t having any of it. But Euronymous did not come back from the dead, so in his stead came a guitarist with as much character in his playing as the fallen leader and, in fact, a technical and creative ability that surpasses what Euronymous was able to do. All over this album, Blasphemer whips together long phrases built from wildly diminished, fractured, dissonant Voivod-ish chords. His clean, crystalline tones bothered some traditionalists. It would be useless to point out a ton of Blasphemer highlights, because he rules all over the album, but “A Time to Die” is a terrific example of his work.

Necrobutcher is Necrobutcher. You hardly notice him.

These four parts equaled a sum that took everyone by surprise when Grand Declaration of War was released in 2000. Many people still don’t get it.

Complainant #1: “It’s too cold!”

GDOW Defense Attorney: Black metal is cold. Wear a jacket.

Complainant #2: “It’s too technical!”

GDOW Defense Attorney: The album is deliberately technical, but technicality doesn’t necessarily equal lack of emotion. Here, tech is the emotion. Trigonometry equations can be beautiful.

Complainant #3: “‘A Bloodsword and a Colder Sun’ is gay techno.”

GDOW Defense Attorney: I don’t know the difference between gay techno and heterosexual techno, but I’m pretty sure serious techno aficionados of any persuasion wouldn’t let this song fly under their genre’s banner. It’s definitely different, and for me is even a high point on the album. It deepens the journey. Remember multi-faceted albums?

Complainant #4: “It doesn’t sound like Mayhem!”

GDOW Defense Attorney: Considering three of the four guys are Euronymous-era alum, they have the right to move forward after he was so, er, messily indisposed. Only Mayhem decide what Mayhem sound like. mayhem image There was lots of “Euronymous is turning in his grave” nonsense spoken when this album came out, but Hellhammer himself told me a couple years ago: “I think he would have been very much into it.” I say: how could he not like the architecturally ornate doom of “Crystallized Pain in Deconstruction”? (How could anyone not like it?) And he probably, like Blasphemer, would have sacrificed his guitar track to ensure “A Bloodsword…” delivered the spare electronic creepiness it needs to. The opening title track, a martial declaration of war, draws a line in the sand while hinting that this is indeed, as the logo says, the “true” Mayhem: “We have discovered our way. We know the road. We have found the way out of millennia of labyrinth. Beyond the north, beyond the ice, beyond death.” I can see Euronymous nodding his head in approval.

If you still can’t bring yourself to listen to the wimpy and oh-so-commercial Grand Declaration of War, just listen to any later Deathspell Omega and you’ll hear an equally accessible, melodic, digestible approach to black metal. Right, I’m being sarcastic. Now I’m not: It’s difficult to listen to Grand Declaration of War and not have the feeling that the guys in Deathspell Omega weren’t tremendously impressed with it. Grand Declaration does a very similar upending and expansion of black metal’s musical values the way Deathspell Omega do. Deathspell Omega are relatively hip right now, while this era of Mayhem is perennially unhip. I can’t be bothered to figure that one out.

Grand Declaration of War will be one of those albums, like Voivod’s Angel Rat, where you’ll get some fans saying decades later: “I finally get it.” Some will never get it. But do this: take a deep breath, remind yourself that it’s 2011, Blasphemer’s not even in Mayhem anymore, and time marches ahead without your say in the matter. It’s okay to like this album now. Tracklist: 1. "A Grand Declaration of War" 2. "In the Lies Where Upon You Lay" 3. "A Time to Die" 4. "View from Nihil (Part I of II)" 5. "View from Nihil (Part II of II)" 6. "A Bloodsword and a Colder Sun (Part I of II)" 7. "A Bloodsword and a Colder Sun (Part II of II)" 8. "Crystallized Pain in Deconstruction" 9. "Completion in Science of Agony (Part I of II)" 10. "To Daimonion (Part I of III)" 11. "To Daimonion (Part II of III)" 12. "To Daimonion (Part III of III)" 13. "Completion in Science of Agony (Part II of II)"

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