There are a lot of good reasons to attend the Blackenedfest tour. Openers Withered take black metal and thrash into some dark new places, while Cattle Decapitation and Cephalic Carnage turn grindcore and death metal into politically engaged, jazzy, even psychedelic art. And if Marduk ever manages to enter the country (they've missed a bunch of tour dates due to visa problems), ticket buyers will get a heavy dose of old-fashioned Swedish black-metal nihilism. But for now, the biggest attraction is the headlining band, Mayhem, touring the U.S. for the first time in 10 years.
One of the earliest Norwegian black-metal bands (and the first to release a record — 1987's Deathcrush EP), Mayhem formed in 1984, following on the heels of pioneers like Venom and Bathory. But they didn't get famous until almost a decade later — for all the wrong reasons. During the recording of their first album, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, guitarist Euronymous was murdered by bassist Varg Vikernes, who was subsequently sent to prison (he was released earlier this year). The album became a sensation, its buzzsaw guitar riffs and blasting drums inspiring literally hundreds of bands to this day. The vocalist on De Mysteriis, replacing Per Yngve "Dead" Ohlin (who'd lived up to his nickname by committing suicide in the band's communal house), was a Hungarian named Attila Csihar.
Csihar, who left Mayhem after the De Mysteriis sessions and rejoined in 2006, doesn't sound like any other singer on the extreme-metal scene. His range is almost operatic, extending from a high-pitched screech reminiscent of Einstürzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld to a guttural growl. He also divides his time between the high-speed blasts of Mayhem and the ultra-slow, ultra-low doom drones of Sunn O))). His voice can be heard on three of the four tracks on the brand new Sunn O))) disc, Monoliths & Dimensions. On opening cut "Aghartha," he intones lyrics about the hidden world that, legend has it, exists within the hollow Earth. His roar and thick Eastern European accent bring to mind Milan Fras, the frontman for Slovenian industrial-rock art troupe Laibach.
"I was inspired by Laibach while I did those vocal lines," he says. "I didn't know that it was that obvious, but that's great. I was always amazed by Milan's voice, how he could go that deep down, and it took me many years of practicing to be able to do that. Laibach was one of my biggest inspirations back in the '80s, besides Current 93, Skinny Puppy, Front Line Assembly, etc. And of course, some extreme underground metal bands like Celtic Frost."
Skinny Puppy doesn't seem to have been just a sonic influence on Csihar, but a visual one as well. They famously dressed in elaborate costumes and used props in a highly theatrical manner onstage, something Csihar does with both Mayhem and Sunn O))). At a 2007 Sunn O))) show, while other group members wore the hooded monk's robes they're famous for, Csihar was dressed as some kind of tree/zombie, with branches jabbing in all directions from his head and arms. At the New York opening gig of the Blackenedfest tour, he was flanked onstage by two severed heads on spikes and masked like a demon, with a hood, armored bracelets from wrist to elbow and an upside-down cross holding a four-armed Christ on his chest. He brings a theatricality to black metal that's sorely lacking in most music these days.
Between tours, Csihar travels the world, gaining inspiration for lyrics from the sights and sounds. "I wrote the lyrics of [the 2007 Sunn O))) EP] Oracle in Tokyo, just under the gates of the Emperor's castle," he recalls. "I like to involve real atmosphere into Sunn O)))'s music and lyrics, and I really felt the presence of some strange energies in that historical place."
The title of the latest Sunn O))) disc was inspired by a monument known as the Trilithon, a Stonehenge-like set of three stones found underneath a Roman temple in Baalbek, Lebanon. "I traveled there with my friend, straight to the land controlled by Hezbollah," he says. "I've always been interested by ancient civilizations. That's my hobby to travel to these places. I've been to Egypt a couple of times, also the ancient structures of Mexico, or the mystical perfect rock-spheres in Costa Rica. But the monoliths of Baalbeck are the supreme ones, and still on the top of my list."
What do his Mayhem bandmates think of Csihar's artier work with Sunn O)))? "Well, it's not really their kind of music, but of course, they respect it," he says. "Especially Rune Erickson, a.k.a. Blasphemer, Mayhem's ex-guitarist."
The last Mayhem studio recording, 2007's Ordo Ad Chao, is deliberately primitive-sounding but surprisingly fierce. It's a heavy album that marked Csihar's return to the group by honoring the spirit of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. What does the future hold? "I really hope that one day there will be a new Mayhem album, but it will take some time," says Csihar. "In our case, it's normal, since Mayhem celebrates 25 years of existence this year and has only released four full-lengths in that quarter of a century."