Wolf’s Lair Abyss was the first new proposition by the remaining Mayhem line up after De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, and all the personal drama and loss that it signified. Needless to say, the pressure upon the band on the musical level- especially of music as a dark art, as Euronymous would have it- was quite high. Expectations after an Immortal album of far and wide reach were not at all encouraging. The remainder of the band had to find a way in which they could work from the solid basis of the past towards a unique development that did not come off as an insult or a betrayal to all that had been accomplished. The solution found by the band here was almost perfect, but it ultimately was only a transition whose eventual development would show if the full potential for growth would be adeptly exploited. Still, there is much to be said about the unique identity of this brief but memorable foray into chaos.
We can easily compare this release to the sound that a budding Antaeus would display not long after. In concert with the past, we see a similitude in terms of melodic notions, brevity of phrase and rhythmic pulsations. In contrast to the past, Mayhem now becomes completely relentless, driving forth rather than conceding breathing spaces to what amounted to be the catchier and more distinctive moments in their 1994 masterpiece. Not to say it is without triplet feels and midpaced interludes, but they are shorter and used as bridges between slaughter drama. The bass is more audible than in the past, while the sound of the guitar is made thin, to an interesting, piercing effect.
As the music becomes more obscured by streamlined expertise, it becomes harder to grasp at the allusions that could be had from this, a thinner-sounding, faster exposition of the Mayhemic personality. One cannot help but wonder if with the death of Euronymous, a sense of balance and heavier personality was lost, even if that was originally produced by more overtly populoid pseudo-symphonic moments. The atmosphere here is colder than before, death is ever-present, and cruelty is imminent rather than premonitioned, as it was in De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. Ghosts, empty shells haunt it, and occasionally rupture through the veil by way of the vocalist, who wisely limits his intrusions. Undetectable by the untrained ear, there are also touches of progressive metal woven deeply into these compositions in the form of odd time signatures and very technical guitar and drum fills. These tenancies would ultimately reveal themselves in this album’s successor; the motif of which is this work’s closing riff.
Here, Mayhem showcases a perfect form of aggressive black metal, while hiding excessive displays of ego. For the study of black metal as a concise but effective form, this is a most formidable album. While somewhat lacking in personality, Wolf’s Lair Abyss provides fans of the black metal genre an opportunity to relish in a great example of musicianship and concentrated black metal writing. The experience provided by this album is somewhat limited but it is also penetrating and powerful enough to take the imaginative listener far away, propelled by notions both musical and lyrical.
Clocking in around thirty minutes, the greatest sin committed here is that the format of the music calls for more content, in order to balance out the length of individual ideas, and the center around which these are developed: allusional riffs and rhythmic pulsation, rather than strong themes. We are left with the unanswerable doubt of what could the remaining Mayhem personnel have accomplished had they stayed their course rather than dissolving into the banal whirlwind of un-musical illusions that ended up swallowing them?