Wolf's Lair Abyss was the first 'major' piece of new studio material to be released by Mayhem after the murder of Euronymous by fellow artisan of extremity Varg Vikernes, and thus it's no surprise that it is welcome with only a bittersweet reception. There exists a faction of the black metal underground which likely rues the continued output of this franchise, just as there would be with any act whose celebrity core had its candle snuffed out. Imagine INXS without Michael Hutchence. Or The Doors without Jim Morrison. Oh, wait, they both actually did that. So is it really a surprise that Mayhem would plow forward, and was it the right decision? The only one, in my estimation, who could answer that, would be Euronymous himself.
But regardless of where emotions run on this matter, Wolf's Lair Abyss exists. The band has never ceased the churning of its creative gears, as few and far between as their studio outings might have seemed for a while. This EP happened, and so did the three ensuing full-lengths that have arrived between the late 90s and today. So it's got to be judged on its merits alone, rather than on some subversive vengeance for the fallen who may or may not be aggrieved as to its actual contents and presentation. Some of the other core personalities remain in the rhythm section. Bassist Necrobutcher returned for this, and Hellhammer stayed in his drum seat. Mayhem introduced the young Rune Eriksen to the fold, who would remain through the release of Ordo Ad Chao in 2007. From a technical view, I'd say he does a decent job here, perhaps a more intensified version of the very style Euronymous was producing. His acquisition feels seamless.
Perhaps the bigger surprise here was that the band reconnected with Maniac, who had provided some sick ass vocals on the band's legendary Deathcrush EP. He sounds as wretched as ever, even though I did not necessarily find the harried, blasting pace of these tracks as good a match to his suffocating rasp as the slower, earlier material. On some tunes, though, like the "Fall of Seraphs", both his gnarled and cleaner tones prevail. And did I mention the blasting? Because one of the most prominent characteristics of Wolf's Lair Abyss is just how much Hellhammer beats the everliving fuck out of his drum set. Seriously, his snare, bass and cymbals all tried to appeal to the local Union for their mistreatment, but there was sadly no clause for inanimate objects. That they're dialed up in the mix is one thing, but the sheer punishment this guy is meting out on "I Am Thy Labyrinth" and "Fall of Seraphs" is admittedly intimidating.
Unfortunately, as fresh and violent as this music is, which feels like a steady flow of bitter effluvia after a stubborn stretch of creative constipation, it's not all that memorable. The bass is loud and atrocious, the vocals injected with the heroin heights of Maniac's personality, and it's appreciably 'extreme' enough to outpace even it's full-length predecessor. But aside from its belligerent, beatdown sheen, I did not exact much from its content. The noise/ambient intro "The Vortex Void of Inhumanity" with its horns and vocal samples was an interesting experiment, but not really conducive to the ensuing eruption of "I Am Thy Labyrinth". Almost all the riffs here seem rather predictable and uninspired, merely projected along the same course as the drumming.
There are some thrashing breaks in the material ("Fall of Seraphs"), and a few psychedelic, haunting streams of notation ("Symbols of Bloodswords"), but all in all, I've always felt like I was listening to an eerie vocal trip, a drumming tour de force, and not much else aside from guitars which feel functional at best. So, as explosive a proclamation as Wolf's Lair Abyss might seem upon initial contact, it's simply not enduring as their earlier works, nor as experimentally curious as their later full-length efforts like Grand Declaration of War. A rush of night, surely, but not one I could ever remember after the inevitable morning crash.
Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (the order of the cosmic immoral)