Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Mayhem in Omaha

A Halloween story about salvia, black squirrels, and black metal's most notorious band.

Note: Happy Halloween — the perfect time to write about the best Black Metal performance I’ve ever seen and the trip that made it happen. It’s a decent read, but if you’re short on time feel free to scroll down to the links for some holiday music.

I released a lungful of smoke and within seconds everything began to shrink before my eyes. My world was slipping away. Everything I’ve ever known, loved, hated, or accepted as real was reduced to a pinpoint surrounded by blackness. I closed my eyes to keep it from disappearing completely and laid back on the bed. “It’s not permanent. It’s just the Salvia,” I tried to remind myself.

But this reality. THIS one was real. The colorful lines that appeared were more of a flavor than a vision, and they wormed their way into my consciousness and let me know this unformed and unknowable landscape, terrifying in its familiarity, was home. Forever.

And then it was gone. My world had returned and everything seemed back in place, though just slightly off, as if returned hastily and without care or concern for exactness. Like my world had been lifted off the mantle and placed back down in a way that that left the dust-free area exposed on one edge. That clean area inspired me to wipe the dust from the entire surface and give it a fresh sheen. As always though, once exposed to the elements it would all soon be covered in dust and grime once again. Only the area left hidden beneath, unreachable while everything remained solidly in place, would remain clean and pure, waiting to be exposed again.

But I was back from the brink.  Back with Troy and Dave (not his real name) in our basement room in the Omaha Super 8, surrounded by empty beer bottles, unpacked luggage and a soon to be empty fifth of Malört. 

What started out as a quick drink before we settled on plans for the day turned into an entire afternoon fueled by weed, liquor, and psychedelics. Though unplanned, this side trip into a dark and foreboding reality was the perfect warmup for the night’s plan. We had traveled to Omaha to see Black Metal legends Mayhem perform their hugely influential debut album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas — itself a journey into the harsh, cold, blackness that awaits us all.

A brief, historical interlude

This space seems as good as any to provide a brief history of the band and the album. If you’re already familiar with Mayhem’s history, feel free to skip ahead. If not, hold the fuck on. 

Formed around 1985 by bass player Necrobutcher and guitarist Euronymous (born Oystein Aarseth), Mayhem quickly became notorious when Dead committed suicide in 1991, first slicing his wrists and then shooting himself in the head. He left a note for the rest of the band apologizing for firing a gun indoors and adding, “Excuse all the blood. Cheers.” Upon finding Dead’s body, Euronymous immediately took photos of the scene, one of which later became the cover of the bootleg album, Dawn of The Black Hearts. (Warning, extremely graphic). Hellhammer made a necklace of some of Dead’s skull fragments for himself and others in the black metal community, and Euronymous reportedly cooked and ate pieces of Dead’s brain (though he later claimed this was not true).

Despite his chosen name, Necrobutcher was upset by his friend’s suicide and not agreeing with these actions, chose to leave the band. He was replaced by Count Grishnackh (Christian Vikernes), who recorded the bass parts for De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. In 1993, Grishnackh murdered Euronymous by stabbing him 23 times in the head, neck, and back. This of course delayed the album’s release and also ended plans that Euronymous and Vikernes had previously made to blow up Nidaros Cathedral (the church on the album cover) to coincide with the release of the album. 

The band disbanded after the murder, but Hellhammer continued production work on the album. He made a promise to Euronymous’ family that he would re-record the bass parts, but stated later: "I thought it was appropriate that the murderer and victim were on the same record. I put word out that I was re-recording the bass parts, but I never did."

De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas was finally released in May of 1994, around the time that Vikernes was sentenced to 21 years (the maximum allowed in Norway) for the murder and his involvement in a series of church burnings in Norway.

The album features the last lyrics written by Dead before his suicide, and the last songs recorded by Euronymous before his murder. 

Despite, or maybe because of, the murder, death, and well, mayhem, which surrounded the band and the album, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is an excellent, brutal, moody black metal classic. It’s dark and foreboding in the best possible ways, embracing those parts of humanity that most of us prefer to ignore and keep pushed down inside, and evoking cold and ice and the blackness of death and worms eating dead flesh.

Back to the story…

At some point during our pre-show drinking, we looked out the hotel window and saw a large, black squirrel staring in at us, twitching its tail in annoyance. This is a pretty rare phenomenon caused by a genetic mutation that occurs in about 1 in 10,000 squirrels. We took it as a good sign for the show to come. And when an even larger black cat showed up outside the same window later in the day, an epic show seemed inevitable. 

The lineup for this tour featured Necrobutcher, who didn’t play on the album but was involved in the writing and creation up until Dead’s suicide, Hellhammer, and Attila Cshiar, who replaced Dead and performed on the album, and a couple hired guns on guitar. This was easily as close to the original classic lineup as was possible, but I still wasn’t sure the album could be faithfully recreated in a live setting.

We arrived at The Waiting Room in Omaha early enough to grab more drinks and catch the opening acts — Black Anvil and Immolation. Both were excellent if not entirely memorable to someone in my state of inebriation. As often happens, Troy just f…… disappeared as soon as we got inside. Halfway through the Immolation set I worked my way to the stage and found him there raging away as usual.

The smoke machines were working hard before Mayhem took the stage, creating the perfect environment of gloom as they kicked into “Funeral Fog” with unrelenting blast beats from Hellhammer and thick, merciless guitar riffs from the hired guns. Necrobutcher picked furiously at his bass and when Attila joined in with spot-on vocals, it was apparent that the good show omens were correct. 

There was no between-song banter. No “Thank you Omaha” moments. No singalongs. Just pure, brutal, black metal in all its glory. The few theatrical moments with Attila doing some s… with skulls and fake candles were admittedly cheesy, but didn’t detract from the performance. 

Except for the occasional glimpse of an arm reaching toward a cymbal, Hellhammer was never visible from behind his drum set. But that f….. was hard at work driving everything forward in lockstep with Necrobutcher, whose occasional smiles at the crowd indicated he was right where he wanted to be.  

Every single track on De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is incredible, and the track list is such that each song builds on the emotion, despair, and rage of those that come before them. “Pagan Fears” has always been a favorite, filling its spot in the cleanup position (No. 4) by solidifying what came before and setting the tone for the climax that follows and builds over the next four songs. Then, when Attila switches to more melodic vocals during the Latin parts of the final, title track, it wraps everything up in a pretty little black metal bow.

Pulling this off live could not have been easy. But they nailed it, and left me with an even greater appreciation for the album.

As the final cacophony wound down, Necrobutcher reached out and put his pick in my hand just before walking off stage without a word. It was a souvenir I would cherish and show off for the next two days before I lost it forever.

Happy Halloween. Enjoy all the mayhem the season has to offer.

Check out the album in Full at