Early years (1984–1988)
The initial 1,000 copy release of Deathcrush quickly sold out. It was later reissued in 1993 by the newly renamed Deathlike Silence Productions as a joint venture with Euronymous’ Oslo specialist record shop Helvete (Norwegian for “Hell”). Manheim and Maniac left the band in 1988.
With Dead (1988–1991)
After two brief replacements, Manheim and Maniac’s positions were filled by Swedish vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin (“Dead”) and local drummer Jan Axel Blomberg (“Hellhammer”). With Dead, the band’s concerts became notorious. For concerts, Dead went to great lengths to achieve the image and atmosphere he wished. From the beginning of his career, he was known to wear “corpse paint”, which involved covering his face with black and white makeup. According to Necrobutcher, “[i]t wasn’t anything to do with the way Kiss and Alice Cooper used makeup. Dead actually wanted to look like a corpse. He didn’t do it to look cool”. Hellhammer claimed that Dead “was the first black metal musician to use corpse paint”. To complete his corpse-like image, Dead would bury his stage clothes and dig them up again to wear on the night of a concert.
While performing Dead would often cut himself with hunting knives and broken glass. Additionally, the band often had pig or sheep heads impaled on stakes and planted at the front of their stage.
Stian Johannsen (“Occultus”), who briefly took position as vocalist after Dead’s suicide, made this statement about him:
He [Dead] didn’t see himself as human; he saw himself as a creature from another world. He said he had many visions that his blood has frozen in his veins, that he was dead. That is the reason he took that name. He knew he would die.
In 1990, the members of Mayhem moved to “an old house in the forest” near Oslo, which was used as a place for the band to rehearse. They began writing songs for their next album, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. Mayhem bassist Necrobutcher said that, after living together for a while, Dead and Euronymous “got on each other’s nerves a lot” and “weren’t really friends at the end”.Hellhammer recalls that Dead once went outside to sleep in the woods because Euronymous was playing synth music that Dead hated. Euronymous then went outside and began shooting into the air with a shotgun. Varg Vikernes claims that Dead once stabbed Euronymous with a knife.
On 8 April 1991, Dead committed suicide in the house owned by the band. He was found by Euronymous with slit wrists and a shotgun wound to the head. Dead’s suicide note notably read “Excuse all the blood, cheers.” and included an apology for firing the weapon indoors. Instead of calling the police, Euronymous went to a nearby store and bought a disposable camera to photograph the corpse, after re-arranging some items. One of these photographs was later stolen and used as the cover of a bootleg live album Dawn of the Black Hearts.
Necrobutcher recalls how Euronymous told him of the suicide:
Øystein called me up the next day … and says, “Dead has done something really cool! He killed himself”. I thought, have you lost it? What do you mean cool? He says, “Relax, I have photos of everything”. I was in shock and grief. He was just thinking how to exploit it. So I told him, “OK. Don’t even fucking call me before you destroy those pictures”.
Euronymous used Dead’s suicide to foster Mayhem’s ‘evil’ image and claimed Dead had killed himself because death metal had become ‘trendy’ and commercialized. In time, rumors spread that Euronymous had made a stew with bits of Dead’s brain and had made necklaces with bits of his skull. The band later denied the former rumor, but confirmed that the latter was true. Moreover, Euronymous claimed to have given these necklaces to musicians he deemed worthy, which was confirmed by several other members of the scene, like Bård ‘Faust’ Eithun and Metalion.
De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas; breakup (1991–1994)
Dead’s suicide affected Necrobutcher so much that he left Mayhem, thinning the band’s ranks down to two. The group performed for a short time thereafter with Occultus, joining the band to begin recording vocal and bass tracks in Mayhem’s debut album, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. However, this was short-lived; he left the band after receiving a death threat from Euronymous. In July 1993, Live in Leipzig was released as the band’s tribute to Dead.
Later that year, the recording of Mayhem’s upcoming album resumed; thus Aarseth engaged three more session members, Burzum’s Varg Vikernes (with the stage name “Count Grishnackh”), Thorns’ Snorre W. Ruch (under the name “Blackthorn”), who handled bass guitar and rhythm guitar respectively, and the new singer Attila Csihar, of Hungarian black metal band Tormentor, replacing the defunct Ohlin. Due to adverse media and police attention, Euronymous was forced around this time to close his scene focal point record shop Helvete. Much of the album was recorded during the first half of 1993 at the Grieg Hall in Bergen. To coincide with the release of the album, Euronymous and Vikernes had conspired to blow up Nidaros Cathedral, which appears on the album cover. Euronymous’s murder in August 1993 put an end to this plan and delayed the album’s release.
On 10 August 1993, Vikernes murdered Euronymous. On that night, Vikernes and Ruch travelled from Bergen 518 km to Euronymous’ apartment in Oslo. Upon their arrival, a confrontation began, which ended when Vikernes fatally stabbed Euronymous. His body was found outside the apartment with twenty-three cut wounds — two to the head, five to the neck and sixteen to the back. Vikernes claims that Euronymous had plotted to torture him to death and videotape the event, using a meeting about an unsigned contract as a pretext. On the night of the murder, Vikernes claims he intended to hand Euronymous the signed contract and “tell him to fuck off”, but that Euronymous attacked him first. Additionally, Vikernes defends that most of Euronymous’ cut wounds were caused by broken glass he had fallen on during the struggle. Vikernes was arrested within days, and a few months later he was sentenced to 21 years in prison for both the murder and church arsons (Vikernes was released from prison in 2009.); whereas Blackthorn, although he had waited for Vikernes downstairs to smoke, taking no part in Aarseth’s murder, was charged with complicity in murder and sentenced to serve 8 years in prison. With only Hellhammer remaining, Mayhem effectively ceased to exist.
In May 1994, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas was released and dedicated to Euronymous. Its release had been delayed due to complaints filed by Euronymous’ parents, who had objected to the presence of bass guitar parts played by Vikernes. According to Vikernes himself, Hellhammer assured Aarseth’s parents that he would re-record the bass tracks himself; Hellhammer did not do this, so the album features Vikernes’ original bass tracks.
With Maniac and Blasphemer (1995–2004)
By late 1995 Hellhammer had reformed the band with new guitarist Rune Eriksen (“Blasphemer”) and two previous Mayhem members: Maniac and Necrobutcher. Despite arousing some controversy and scepticism for reforming without founding member Euronymous, the group returned to activity, beginning with the 1997 Wolf’s Lair Abyss EP. This was followed by a string of European performances, including one in Milan, Italy, featuring a guest appearance by Csihar, which was recorded for the Mediolanum Capta Est live album of that year.
In this new phase, racist statements made by Hellhammer (who spoke out against race mixing and foreigners in Norway) and the use of Nazi imagery such as swastika flags in the rehearsal room, the Totenkopf emblem and band merchandise featuring the symbol of the military branch of Nasjonal Samling led to controversy and accusations of neo-Nazism.
Additionally, Hellhammer stated that no member of the new line-up was a Satanist, and that the “Satanic stuff […] isn’t what I feel Mayhem is about today. […] Mayhem’s music is still dark, but I wouldn’t say that it’s Satanic.”
The band’s second full-length album, Grand Declaration of War, was released in 2000. Strongly influenced by progressive and avant-garde metal, the album was concept-based, dealing with themes of war and post-apocalyptic destruction. Maniac largely abandoned the traditional black metal rasp for dramatic spoken-word monologue, with most of the songs sequencing seamlessly into one another.
Mayhem made headlines in 2003 when fan Per Kristian Hagen landed in the hospital with a fractured skull after being hit by a severed sheep’s head that had been thrown into the audience from the stage. Assault charges were filed, but the band considered it to have been entirely accidental. The band released Chimera in 2004, showing a return to their initial raw sound, but with higher production value and a progressive edge.
Later that year, Maniac left the band. According to Necrobutcher, this was due to his alcoholism induced by stage fright. Necrobutcher explained that because of this tendency, a violent encounter between the singer and Blasphemer lead to the guitarist kicking Maniac down a flight of stairs, resulting in injury. Csihar was reinstated as his replacement.
Return of Csihar; Ordo Ad Chao (2004–2008)
The band’s fourth full-length album, Ordo ad Chao (Latin for “Order to Chaos”), was released in April 2007. Ordo ad Chao contained a much rawer sound than the rest of the band’s recent work; the drums were not equalized and the mix was notably bass-heavy against black metal convention. The album continued the band’s experiments with unorthodox song structures, with “Illuminate Eliminate,” at 9:40, the band’s second longest track (behind Grand Declaration of War’s “Completion in Science of Agony (Part I)” at 9:44). The album received strong reviews and was the band’s highest-charting album, peaking at No. 12 on the Norwegian charts. In early 2008 Ordo Ad Chao won a Spellemannprisen, an award from the largest and oldest of Norway’s music awards shows, for Best Metal Album of 2007.
In April 2008, Blasphemer announced his plans to leave the band, expressing a lack of desire to continue despite satisfaction with their accomplishments. He played European festival dates over the following months, with his last performance in the group coming in August. He thereafter continued work with the Portuguese band Ava Inferi. This marked the departure of the musician credited with the bulk of the musical composition of the band’s three most recent studio albums.
After Blasphemer’s departure (2008–present)
Statements of imminent touring plans were announced on the band’s web page a few weeks after their final dates with Blasphemer. In October 2008, Krister Dreyer (“Morfeus”) of Dimension F3H and Limbonic Art joined the group as touring guitarist for their upcoming South America Fucking Armageddon tour.
The band toured through late 2008 and 2009 with this lineup, prior to announcing Summer 2009 dates with Silmaeth, a French musician, as a second touring guitar. In November 2009, the band was arrested in Tilburg, Netherlands, after destroying a hotel room while on tour. Norwegian guitarist Teloch replaced Silmaeth in February 2011, and performed with the group before departing the following year.
According to Necrobutcher, a new Mayhem album is in the works. In a message from Hellhammer on Mayhem’s Facebook page (dated August 2, 2013), the band is currently “recording drums for the new Mayhem record; 7 trax down; 6 to go.”
As of November 2013, the new album is being mixed, with an early 2014 release date expected. On February 18, 2014 it was announced that Mayhem will release a new album in May, with a new song “Psywar” made available for streaming.
It was announced on 20 February by the band’s record label, Season of Mist, that the new album will be entitled Esoteric Warfare, and will be released on June 6th.
This marks the first Mayhem studio effort since Blasphemer’s departure and Teloch’s permanent status in the band.