Founding fathers of the Norwegian black metal scene, Mayhem emerged in the mid-'80s and went on to influence countless bands with their uncompromisingly abrasive music and sordid history. The group courted controversy from their inception with their blood-soaked live performances, occult imagery, and ghoulish corpse paint. Their legend grew in the '90s with their connections to a spate of Norwegian church burnings, the suicide of vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin ("Dead"), and the murder of guitarist Øystein Aarseth ("Euronymous") by ex-member Varg Vikernes ("Count Grishnackh"). Though the band continued to perform and record well into the next century — they issued their sixth LP, Daemon, in 2019 — they remain infamous for their non-musical history and their 1994 debut, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, which is considered a classic of the genre.
Inspired by bands like Bathory, Motörhead, Black Sabbath, Slayer, Celtic Frost, and Venom — they took their name from the latter group's song "Mayhem and Mercy" — Mayhem came together in 1984 around bassist Necrobutcher (Jørn Stubberud), guitarist Euronymous (Oystein Aarseth), and drummer Kjetil Manheim. After releasing the demo Pure Fucking Armageddon, the trio recruited vocalist Maniac (Sven Erik Kristiansen), who made his studio debut on the band's 1987 debut EP Deathcrush. Manheim and Maniac left the fold the following year and were replaced by drummer Hellhammer (Jan Axel Blomberg) and vocalist Dead (Per Yngve Ohlin), the latter of whom became notorious for his commitment to his chosen moniker: depressed and introverted, Dead was known to hoard deceased animals, bury his clothes in the ground the night before a show, and cut himself extensively on-stage. Congruent with their lead singer's death obsession, Mayhem's live shows became a lurid spectacle, a swirling mosh pit/meat grinder awash in human blood and dead animal parts. The band moved to a house in Oslo in 1990 to begin working on material for their first full-length effort. During this time, Euronymous opened his own record store, Helvete, which served as a hub for the burgeoning Norwegian black metal scene. On April 8, 1991, Dead slit both of his wrists and then finished the job with a shotgun. Euronymous, upon finding his bandmate's body, discovered a suicide note that commenced with "Excuse the blood," and included lyrics for the song "Life Eternal," which, many years later, would appear on the group's debut album. He then left the scene to buy a disposable camera, and after returning, rearranged some items and took photographs of the corpse, one of which was used as the front cover of the 1995 bootleg live LP The Dawn of the Black Hearts. Shaken by the death of his friend and bandmate, bassist and co-founder Necrobutcher left the group, leaving just Hellhammer and Euronymous, the latter of whom had taken to wearing a necklace he had made with pieces of Dead's skull.
In 1992, the duo recruited a trio of session musicians (Burzum's Varg Vikernes on bass, Thorn's Snorre Ruch on guitar, and Tormentor's Attila Csihar on vocals) and began laying down tracks for their debut full-length effort. The following year, Euronymous was forced to close Helvete due to an increasing media and police presence brought about by Dead's suicide, a string of high-profile church burnings, and other associated acts of violence: Euronymous and Vikernes had been conspiring to blow up Nidaros Cathedral ahead of the release of the album. The plan never came to fruition, however, as Vikernes murdered Euronymous on August 10, 1993, stabbing him 23 times outside of Euronymous' Oslo apartment. Vikernes was arrested and later convicted of both murder and arson and went on to spend 15 years in prison. Ruch (aka Blackthorn), who had made the 518-kilometer drive from Bergen with Vikernes to confront Euronymous but waited downstairs, received an eight-year sentence for complicity in murder, leaving Csihar and Hellhammer as the sole remaining members of the group.
Seven years in the making, the punishing De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, featuring Euronymous on guitar and lyrics penned by Dead, was issued in 1994 and became one of the most influential black metal albums of all time; the concert LP Live in Leipzig, recorded in 1990, arrived the year prior. The initial release of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas was delayed due to complications arising from complaints made by Euronymous' parents regarding Vikernes bass parts, which they wanted to be re-recorded by someone else. Hellhammer elected to keep the bass tracks unchanged. Later that year, Necrobutcher and Maniac rejoined Mayhem, as did new guitarist Blasphemer (Rune Eriksen), and the newly minted four-piece unveiled the Wolf's Lair Abyss EP in 1997. In 2000, Mayhem released their sophomore full-length effort, the conceptual Grand Declaration of War, which saw them take a more progressive/avant-garde metal approach, with Maniac trading his signature rasp for something more akin to spoken word. 2004's Chimera marked a return to the icy black metal of their debut, albeit with a slightly more polished and progressive bent. It would also serve as the last outing for Maniac, who left the group amidst a flurry of inner-band turmoil.
Attila Csihar was reinstated on vocals for 2007's acclaimed Ordo as Chao, which received the Spellemannprisen (the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy Award) for Best Heavy Metal Album in 2008. Blasphemer was the next to depart, with a rotating cadre of guitarists assuming his role on-stage. Teloch (Morten Iverson), of fellow black metallers Nidingr, and Ghul (Charles Hedger) were eventually added to the lineup and made their studio debuts on 2014's Esoteric Warfare, the band's first outing for Season of Mist. 2018 saw the release of the Jonas Åkerlund (Bathory)-directed feature film Lords of Chaos, which was based on the popular 1998 book of the same name and chronicled the birth of the Norwegian black metal scene, with special attention given to the bloody history of Mayhem. Daemon, the group's raw and unfettered sixth studio long-player, followed in 2019 and was released through Century Media. ~ James Christopher Monger