Mayhem thrive on upheaval. The harrowing events that gave unholy birth to their legendary 1994 debut masterwork De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas are notorious and legion; their intense reawakening on 1997’s savage, punishing Wolf’s Lair Abyss was enabled by the fresh injection of guitarist Blasphemer, while 2007’s claustrophobic Ordo Ad Chao was aided to antisocial greatness by the return of debut vocalist Attila. A year later, Blasphemer was gone. His replacement is Teloch, mastermind of deep-underground Norwegian BM brutalists Nidingr, and again the band have benefited from the stimulus of a new key member.
Although much remains of Ordo Ad Chao’s nervy disorientation – momentum surging and stalling, alien sounds layered at the edge of the listener’s hearing – Esoteric Warfare is a more complete, cohesive and dynamic whole, the sound far more cutting and vibrant, even radiant, and while many of Blasphemer’s sluggish drones and dissonant treble chords remain, these structures and tempos are more vigorous and fevered.
A concept album about secret Cold War military experiments, Esoteric Warfare’s subject matter dovetails neatly with the excellent sleeve art (a pencil blueprint for some cryptic war machine) and, frequently, the music itself; witness the faded-volume Hellhammer drum barrage bleeding into the sounds of distant gunfire towards the end of Trinity, or Pandaemon’s imperial blackened fury suddenly becoming an eerie mechanised blur.
Esoteric Warfare is designed for total immersion, ideally with a lyric sheet and a 12-inch square of the artwork to focus and engage the imagination. Necrobutcher and Hellhammer are a rhythm section with 26 years of experience, so no wonder their chemistry sounds so fertile and bonded, the drummer in particular outdoing himself with exhausting, inventive and flamboyant patterns of battery, while Attila’s versatile range of unearthly voices spawn flashbacks to Freezing Moon while propelling Mayhem into even more terrifying futures.
Teloch appears to have inspired these bandmates to new heights, for although Esoteric Warfare is only Mayhem’s fifth studio album in the 30 years since Euronymous and Necrobutcher first started jamming in an Oslo basement, it could well be their best since that unsurpassable debut.