From the first time I heard “PsyWar” (and you can bet that was the first opportunity that I had to listen to it), I have been looking forward to “Esoteric Warfare”. Mayhem is one of my all-time favorite bands, and one of the really special aspects of Mayhem is the fact that their legendary name allows them to experiment with some really unconventional styles and bring new sounds into a subgenre that is all too often reluctant to try new things.
“Esoteric Warfare” achieves a mixture of old and new. It is by far the most old-school sounding Mayhem album since De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, and that’s saying something. I read a review somewhere in which the author said that Euronymous would hate it, but I strongly disagree. The riffs from about :50-:54 in “PsyWar” gave me actual chills the first time I heard it, as it smacks so strongly of something that Euronymous himself would have written. Mayhem has really dredged up the ghosts of the past in “Esoteric Warfare”. The opening track, “Watchers,” is hands down my favorite song on the album- the chords in the very opening are just that perfect, odd, old-school dissonance.
Perhaps this shift in the guitar sound comes from a stronger presence from guitarist Teloch this time around. No longer sharing the spotlight with Blasphemer, Teloch (most famous for his work with Norwegian black metallers Nidingr, who should be much bigger than they are), really brings some awesome techniques to “Esoteric Warfare”. “Trinity” features some cool tremolo picking, and the dissonant shifts that the guitars take throughout the album are new and exciting.
I did say that “Esoteric Warfare” blends old and new techniques, and the dissonance of the sound is one way in which I feel like the album is bringing in something that feels a bit like third-wave black metal. Parts of the album, mostly rhythmically, remind me of post-Deathspell Omega black metal. While the melodic lines themselves feel very old-school, the structure of the songs is much less linear than Mayhem’s old work.
Hellhammer’s drumming is certainly not slacking at all. Dear God. Once again, Hellhammer proves his prowess and his responsibility in helping to springboard Mayhem to a more professional and tight-sounding outfit. Songs like “Pandaemonium” and “MILAB” in particular showcase his skills in providing shifts between musical sections and creating rhythms that are every bit as interesting as what is going on in the guitars and vocals.
Speaking of vocals, I have always been fond of Attila’s work. His vocals are unconventional, true, but Mayhem has a long-standing tradition of treating vocals as an instrument and as a way to create an atmosphere rather than conforming to tradition (Dead was a pro at this). Attila runs the vocals gauntlet once again on “Esoteric Warfare”, from traditional shrieks (“Watchers,” “PsyWar”) to strange spoken word parts reminiscent of Grand Declaration of War on “Trinity.” Also, the vocalist’s famous dirge-like singing appears throughout the album, adding a density to an already heavy din and providing a sharp contrast with the quick pace of the drums and guitars. That’s not to say that all the tracks on Esoteric Warfare are blistering, though; “MILAB” and “VI Sec” are both slower paced songs, highlighting Attila’s creepy singing and showcasing the band’s ability to do more than blastbeats.
The album’s mix is not nearly as low-fi as the band’s legacy might suggest; however, the production really complements the sound that Mayhem is going for with the combination of old and new kinds of dissonance. Despite the lack of fuzzy production, Teloch’s intentionally dirty guitar riffs, so reminiscent of the band’s most notorious founder, help to muddy the sound quite a bit. The better production also allows the bass to come out of the sound at times, resulting in cool low-end riffs like those at the beginning of “Posthuman.”
I really like the direction the band took with cover artwork as well. “Esoteric Warfare” features album artwork that looks like a drawing on old paper, which I feel like reflects the album’s purpose well. It suggests the old-school nature of the riffs and overall approach to the album while also rejecting the traditional grayscale of black metal album covers for a different feel. The runic lettering brands the artwork with a Scandinavian and mythic texture, while at the same time suggesting modernity in the inclusion of the atom. And of course, the light shadow of the pentagram, always there even when the Satanic imagery is perhaps not as overt as in past albums.
I’m really, really pleased with “Esoteric Warfare”. I was hoping I would be and thought that would probably be the case; admittedly, Mayhem doesn’t disappoint me often (I firmly believe Grand Declaration of War has its good moments). However, Ordo ad Chao is one of my least favorite Mayhem albums, and I was hoping the band would continue with a really strong album. And of course, I’m never disappointed with a return to an older style. This album is exactly that, but with enough incorporation of newer techniques to assure us that Mayhem is still looking forward, refusing to be defined by their past.