Black metal is not the sort of genre that lends itself to bright, sunshiny days, but such was the weather when I found myself trekking to the Gramercy Theatre. It was an uncharacteristically warm and beautiful February day as I stood on line surrounded by hundreds of black-clad metalheads – leather jackets and band patches as far as the eye could see. Once inside, though, I found that the venue itself was freezing – much more appropriate for the night’s entertainment. 23 years after the release of the landmark album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, Mayhem was set to perform the album in its entirety in front of a sell-out crowd. The night was not a disappointment.
Before the main act, however, there were two opening groups. New York based Black Anvil was first, who provided a fun and fiery, though short set. It was my first time hearing Black Anvil but I was impressed by the band’s amalgam of styles: vocally the singers veered between black metal’s usual pterodactyl shrieks and melodic clean singing, and musically the band blended traditional black metal with thrash metal and hardcore punk. After a half hour set, closing song “Ultra” faded out amidst a looped Latin chant praising the name of Satan, setting an appropriately occult tone for the rest of the evening.
Colombian-American group Inquisition was out next. Much more intense than Black Anvil, Inquisition was another first for me, and once more I was impressed. It was the first two-man group I’d ever seen, consisting only of guitars, vocals, and drums. The lack of bass did not diminish the overall sound, as I could feel Incubus’ jackhammer rhythms deep in my gut. Vocalist and guitarist Dagon paced between two microphones, unleashing a varied riff assault and reptilian vocals that, even in a live setting, proved to be very creepy. Inquisition’s set was again about half an hour, but the group packed a ton of grim fury into those 30 minutes.
Then, after about half an hour, we received a pre-recorded message from Mayhem, advising audience members to either put away their camera phones (or at least turn the flash off if they were set on taking pictures) so as to not to ruin the atmosphere the band intended to create. Most obliged with this request. The lights dimmed, the fog settled in, a ghostly intro of rain and rattling chains came over the PA system, and soon the four robe-clad Mayhem members launched into “Funeral Fog.”
From there it was a straight run through the remainder of De Mysteriis…, though each track did get an ambient intro similar to the one mentioned above. The band said nothing through the whole set, though vocalist Attila Csihar was clearly getting into the music, dancing and grooving when not rasping like a demon. Of particular note were black metal classic “Freezing Moon,” which got a massive reaction from the audience, and the twisting intensity of the closing title track, after which guitarists Ghul and Teloch, and bassist Necrobutcher left the stage without a word. Drummer Hellhammer threw a couple drumsticks out to the audience, Attila waved a couple goodbyes, and the show was over after exactly three hours, a remarkably efficient running time for a metal concert.
On the whole, the set served mainly as a demonstration why De Mysteriis… is considered a standard of the genre. The countless quality riffs, the inhuman vocal performance, and the relentless cold atmosphere were all recreated deftly. Attila’s vocals have improved with age, Hellhammer drummed with precision and ferocity, and though Ghul and Teloch did not appear on the original album, they played the guitar parts expertly. Necrobutcher’s bass was largely relegated to providing a heavy bottom-end without much in the way of distinct riffs, though this is still a step above most black metal, where oftentimes the bass is basically nonexistent.
Despite all the blasphemous theatricality, the Gramercy Theatre show was ultimately a fun, intense time. Shirtless guys in corpse paint battered each other in the mosh pit, while those in the seats raised the horns and raised a beer to a soundtrack of cosmic annihilation. Such is the duality of seeing black metal performed live: artists perform intense paeans to pagan rites and gods of primal darkness, audiences go see them live, and both sides seem to say to one another “man, how cool is this?” Mayhem at the Gramercy embodied this duality perfectly.