Deathcrush(Deathlike Silence Productions - 1987)
Re-released in 1993, this demo from the most hyped up, underground, elite, historically colorful cult band from Norway is the only studio release with the original lineup of Euronymous (guitar), Maniac (vocals, but Messiah does vocals for two of the tracks), Manheim (drums) and Necrobutcher (bass). The music is basically a very primitive form of early death/black metal with obvious Venom influences. While the sound is arguably more death than black, there are still slight differences in emphasis over atmosphere rather than brutality and the vocals are obviously of a different school. Also, let us not forget that death and black metal were still close siblings at the time and haven't moved out yet to delineate their individual territories and forms of expression. Maniac's vocals are trailblazing, insane screeches that do more for the effect of the album than anything else and Manheim pounds at his drums in a competent and impressive but not always precise fury. Compositionally weak or dull, the songs suffer also from bad production as expected, but they have a large degree of that harsh underground magic, varying tempos and moods and they are historically interesting. There is a primal and dark effect that can be felt with this album but while I was fascinated by all this, there isn't anything of real worth that will have me coming back to it. Musically boring.
Live In Leipzig(Avantgarde Music - 1992)
Exit Maniac and Manheim; enter the famed vocalist going under the bizarrely fateful name of Dead and the furiously talented Hellhammer on drums. This poor quality soundboard recording of a live concert from 1990 is the only official release with this 'classic' lineup. The only good reason for buying this album can come from Dead's own vocal interpretation of four Deathcrush tracks and four new tracks to be released in the upcoming debut. I personally can't say I enjoyed the vocals much though: a particularly harsh roaring belch or croak that didn't excite me for whatever reason. One other track (Carnage) has only been released on a compilation. Although a lot of the vibe and live aggression is there, too much detail and power is lost due to the low quality of the sound. It may be essential to Mayhem fans due to the lineup, but seeing that I don't even like half the tracks and I didn't find Dead to be special in any way, I had no problem discarding this album.
De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas(Deathlike Silence Productions - 1994)
After about 9 years of existence, this was the first full length, official release from Mayhem. Dead had already been dead by his own hand for a couple of years and Euronymous was killed by Varg Vikernes (the Count of Burzum fame, drafted as the bass player for this release) shortly after this album was recorded. Stories like Hellhammer's necklace made of Dead's skull fragments and Euronymous eating Dead's brain abound and rumors say that they replaced Varg's bass lines from this album before it was released, but this was denied by another source as well. However I am not here to discuss the goings on around this band nor am I going to talk about the philosophies involved - I am here for the music. As a replacement for Dead's vocals, they got Attila Csihar, who lends one of the most bizarre vocal interpretations in this genre to the album. It's quite difficult to describe but he roams between a vile croak to a Therion-like growlish roar to some strangely distant clean vocals and eerie mumblings and all with an indulgent, manic and contemplative delivery. But it's not only the vocal styles that makes it bizarre, it's the fact that he often uses the furious music as a backdrop for his own eerily expressive and calm spewings of spite and hatred instead of screaming with the music. His delivery is particularly weak and annoying on the first track, sounding like Dave Mustaine on a bad day, but he picks up the pace soon after. As for the music itself, the approach is more organic here and aims towards a deeply immersive effect of fury and dark atmosphere. As such, it is one of the first modern-style black metal albums with its full and dark wall-of-sound effect and snippets of melody, yet it manages this without keyboards. Superb riffs and furious drumming fill the music (Hellhammer lives up to his name), as well as varying tempos, changes and involving moods, and Attila's vocals should ultimately grow on you and give the album an emotive uniqueness. Maybe I am somewhat biased considering the background of this album, but I do believe it projects an especially dark mood that overshadows any technicalities. With some dark affinities, open mindedness and empathy, this album should prove to be an underground classic to proudly add to one's collection.
Dawn of the Black Hearts(Warmaster - 1995)
Supposedly a bootleg but a famous one known for its picture of the dead Dead on the cover. The first eight tracks are from the same period and with the same lineup as on Live in Leipzig so there is nothing new there and the sound quality is unbearably muddy. The last four tracks are Venom and Celtic Frost covers recorded in 1986 (with the original demo lineup of course) that are practically unlistenable due to the quality of the recording. Taking into account these two huge disadvantages, I think it's safe to say that this album is only for die-hard Mayhem completists.
Wolf's Lair Abyss MCD(Misanthropy - 1997)
Due to the many problems and losses since the recording of De Mysteriis, Mayhem was feared to be dead and buried. But lo and behold, original members came back to the fold to join Hellhammer, and they found Blasphemer to replace Euronymous's guitar playing. With Maniac back at the vocal helm and Necrobutcher on bass, this is as classic and faithful as the lineup can get and they proceeded to record a new album. The result is quite disappointing and dull however. The music goes back to their raw and very brutal roots yet retains some of the atmospheric flow of their better material. Two factors that shine are Hellhammer's incredibly precise and ferocious pounding and Maniac's vocal delivery, now alternating between a demonic Donald Duck rasp, powerful insane screeching and somber chanting. However these good points and the fuller production can't save the album. Suffering from lack of development and musical constructs, overuse of boring blast beats and very forgettable songs and riffs, this release gets a very vigorous thumbs down.
Mediolanum Capta Est(Avantgarde - 1999)
With a repertoire finally wide enough to justify a live album and boasting a well-balanced production this time, Mayhem release this monstrously energetic and dark slab of music. Although I was disappointed to find only two tracks from the De Mysteriis album, the energy, full production, Hellhammer's astoundingly powerful and precise performance on drums and Maniac's engulfing and utterly convincing evil vocals overshadow some of the compositional difficulties of the songs. This sweeping and teeth grinding vocal delivery takes the vanguard together with Hellhammer, somehow grabbing the brunt of the music away from the guitars most of the time. Blasphemer does his best to keep up though and often lends a strangely thick and black atmosphere to the music. Not being a big fan of live albums and seeing that this one entertains ten tracks that I didn't even like, you must start to realize the scary proportions and levels of energy that permeate this album when I say that I couln't help but be swept away with this release. My hat goes off to Maniac also for using clean vocals for the song introductions and blasphemous crowd-rousers as opposed to most death/black vocalists that lamely growl or screech when talking to the crowd. The definite stand out on this album is 'From the Dark Past' that features dual vocal lines by Maniac and none other than Attila. This came out as a superb and wicked interplay of screechings and Attila's low muttering growls and screams. Seeing that this album practically contains the full Wolf's Lair Abyss and Deathcrush albums and with infinitely better deliveries and interpretations, I would recommend to people to stay away from those albums and get this one instead. Truely this is a vibrant band that was made for the stage and not clinical studio atmospheres.