Norwegian black metal has produced some vile artwork over the years, but hands down the most gruesome, say-a-prayer-and-puke-in-your-mouth album cover is Mayhem’s Dawn of the Black Hearts.
The photograph features the fashionable lead singer wearing a vintage “I ♥ Transylvania” tshirt under a black denim jacket—with his brains oozing out of his blasted skull like a shriveling slug crawling over a pile of salt. He was 22 at the time. The boy’s family knew him as little Per Yngve Ohlin, but to the global black metal community he is “Dead.”
Norway is one of the darkest human habitats on earth. Circadian rhythms are stretched between polar night and the midnight sun. Earmuffs are a must. Despite the high standard of living, socialized medicine, state-sponsored churches, A-ha’s “Take on Me,” and a thriving whaling industry, antsy Norwegian gnomes produced the most Satanic music scene since the Thuggee drum circles. Kali maaah!
Dead said in his heavy accent: “I have always hated the Christianity and all faiths who had anything to do with God, but especially the Christianity.” He was not alone.
It was the late 80s, and Scandinavia’s blood-thirsty teenagers were sick of gentle Jesus and his band of merry miracle-workers. These kids wanted something mean. Black magic. Black leather. The blackened husks of burnt churches. They gathered in abandoned urban ruins to shred guitar strings and invoke the dark gods. Lucifer. Odin. Pan. Angra Mainyu. The Boogie Man. They were all slotted to appear, but the headliner was Mayhem.
Led by guitarist Euronymous, Mayhem sought to be the evilest, scariest, blackest black metal band on the block—so black, they could tear rainbows out of the sky. Euronymous was an avid Communist who dreamed of a Satanic Proletariat rising up to cut the throats of capitalist swine—but black metal embraced diversity. The scene attracted anarchists, fascists, Satanists, neo-pagans, and naughty boys of every creed.
Dead joined Mayhem as a teenager in 1988, replacing a string of less committed vocalists. He and Euronymous set themselves to the fashion-conscious task of saving metal from Metallica fans.
“Scandinavia hasn’t got any scene,” Dead complained early on. “Only wimps and trendies are here.”
Dead was reputed to bury his clothes to capture the feel of the grave. He huffed the putrid fumes of a raven carcass before every gig to get into the doom groove. Imagine an undead beach-bunny with corpsepaint framed by golden locks, and vocals like a gruff ice-giant berating his server for an overcooked whale steak. The front of Mayhem’s stage was lined with impaled pig heads, and Dead would gash himself with hunting knives or broken glass, smearing anyone who got too close.
“We wanna scare those shouldn’t be at our concerts,” said Dead, “and they will have to escape through the emergency exit with parts of their body missing, so we can have something to throw around.”
Competition was tough in those days. With every metalhead going out of his way to out-evil the next guy, it would take something special to stand out. Mayhem refused to be entertainers for tourists and “non-evil wimps.”
“If someone doesn’t like blood and rotten flesh thrown in their face they can FUCK OFF, and that’s exactly what they do. We are trying to turn the scene back to what it once was, when no Death Metallers were wearing Adidas shit and looked totally normal[...]
“I wanna have stage equipment at our shows of Transylvanian landscape, instruments of torture that are from the 1st century, real trees from a dead forest[...] different animal heads and human craniums hanging in meat hooks by chains from the dead trees and the heads have huge screws in their eyes… that’s what I think would make the perfect mood.”
Oh, the fanciful ambitions of youth. The dawn of the 90s found Dead working hard to compose the lyrics for Mayhem’s upcoming album. Songs like “Life Eternal” reveal an individual of singular focus:
To release the soul one must die
To find peace inside you must get eternal
I am a mortal, but am I human?
How beautiful life is now when my time has come
A human destiny, but nothing human inside
What will be left of me when I’m dead?
There was nothing when I lived
“The wimps will not ever understand it,” he predicted.
The album would be called De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. “That title comes from a story of a book with that name,” Dead explained, “which is Latin for ‘Lord Satan’s secret files,’ and it’s thought to exist in only one copy, and I won’t give up searching for it.”
“I must find it before some wimpy mainstream jerk will do that. I think I’ll have an expedition on my own around the world to find it. It’s so dark, darker than death.”
Perhaps history would be dramatically different if Dead had found this mythical tome, but he just ended up crashing at Euronymous’ dirty little cabin on the outskirts of Oslo instead. They often had no money or food, so Dead passed the time by watching classic horror movies, supposed snuff films, “sadistic porno, kinky shit, and lesbian stuff.”
Friends said that he became increasingly depressed, and that Euronymous’ constant bullying was driving him crazy. No one ever mentioned a girlfriend. Or groupies. Or any female companions whatsoever.
Then on April 8, 1991, Euronymous called up Necrobutcher to announce the good news. “Dead has done something really cool!” he told the bass-player. “He killed himself.”
As the story goes, Euronymous returned to the cabin to find the doors locked. He climbed in through the bedroom window and found Dead living up to his namesake, having blown his forehead off with Euronymous’ own shotgun. He’d tried to cut his wrists, but the knife was too dull. His suicide note read: “Excuse all the blood.”
Not one to miss a photo op, Euronymous hopped into his car to buy a camera. He sped back home, snapped a few pictures—“Okay, now give me spooky… that’s it… hold that pose…”—and then called the police. But not before securing some chunks of Dead’s shredded brain—which he later ate with a few minions—and some skull fragments that he would turn into amulets.
Dead’s suicide became the stuff of black metal legend. Euronymous rode the shockwave to infernal glory, making Dead a fashion martyr in the war against “the trend people”:
“Dead killed himself because he lived only for the true old black metal scene and lifestyle. It means black clothes, spikes, crosses, and so on…”
Euronymous soon began selling such artifacts at the most notorious record shop in black metal history—Helvete. It was there that he and bassist Varg Vilkernes would organize people against goodness and normalcy. The group set dozens of ancient churches ablaze. There were demonic conjurings, assaults on homosexuals, and even a murder or two. One of them was Euronymous. Having tired of the guitarists’ Commie bullshit, the fascist-leaning Vilkernes stabbed Euronymous to death in his tighty whities on August 10, 1993.
Two years later, the famous bootleg Dawn of the Black Hearts was released in South America. The recording features Dead’s vocals and the cover shows his face looking like an inside-out tomato. The story metastasized and spread across the globe, touching metal fans from Argentina to Japan.
Years later, Necrobutcher discussed the impact of Per Yngve Ohlin’s icon:
“Some people became more aware of the scene after Dead had shot himself. After that, churches started to burn and it just went crazy here. I think it was Dead’s suicide that really changed the whole scene[...] A lot of young musicians got into this scene because it was the most aggressive and violent scene out there at the time.”
Dead might not perform the songs on De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, but his words would echo from the beyond:
Darkness is growing
The eternity opens
The cemetery lights up again
As in ancient times
Fallen souls die behind my steps
By following the freezing moon
And to think, Christians still burn heavy metal albums. Good thing there’s the Internet, huh?
© 2011 Joseph Allen
Mayhem — “Freezing Moon”