The Great Beast Resurrected
The long, strange trip of seminal metal band Celtic Frost is unexpectedly outfitted with a new plot twist: a new record that redefines a career over 20 years after it began.
Ever since Arthur Brown brashly declared, "I am the god of hellfire", ever since Ozzy Osbourne sang of "Satan sitting... smiling", ever since Alice Cooper howled and raged so convincingly in "The Ballad of Dwight Fry", rock 'n' roll (heavy metal in particular) and horror have been inextricably linked. As metal music grew more and more extreme during the '80s and '90s, so did its horror-influenced subject matter. Cooper and Kiss brought a new sense of theatricality to rock; W.A.S.P. combined campy songs about torture with blood-drenched stage shows (and even made an appearance in the obscure B-movie Dungeonmaster); Twisted Sister referenced The Exorcist on its massively successful Stay Hungry album; the Mentors and Stormtroopers of Death used graphic imagery laced with outrageous, politically incorrect humor; GWAR blended crude hilarity with Raimi-esque buckets of blood; and countless bands continued to reference the likes of Aleister Crowley, H.P. Lovecraft, and of course, good ol' reliable Satan.
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One of the most eccentric bands in metal history, Celtic Frost's career trajectory has been just as convoluted and unpredictable as its music. The brainchild of one Thomas Gabriel Fischer operating under the moniker Tom G. Warrior, Celtic Frost strove to continue where Fischer's previous band Hellhammer left off after it split in 1984. With fellow Hellhammer bandmate, bassist Martin Eric Ain, Fischer took the extremely raw (some might say sloppy and amateurish) sound of Hellhammer's Apocalyptic Raids EP, a more extreme take on the dense thrash of Venom, tightened the screws, and honed his songwriting skill at an alarmingly rapid pace. It made for some of the most adventurous metal music of its time, and some of the most influential heavy music over the last quarter century. Unfortunately, bad deals with record labels, internal strife, and quite possibly the most disastrous career decision in metal history would contribute to an astonishingly rapid decline and a protracted, 15-year absence.
Isolation can be discouraging for any young person who lives a long distance from any burgeoning urban sprawl, but it has also been known to yield some tremendously exciting music. Much like its contemporary Voivod, who was cultivating its inimitable musical style in Northern Quebec, Celtic Frost underwent its formative years far removed from any up-and-coming metal scene. The Swiss band created something that was completely different than anything else that was coming out at the time. Because the music was so unique and subject matter so dark (channeling the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and Aleister Crowley), its influence was far-reaching in the genre, having a profound effect on the development of death metal, doom, and most of all, black metal. Celtic Frost would, along with Bathory and Mayhem, help pave the way for such bands as Emperor, Immortal, and Darkthrone.
Recorded on an extremely low budget, 1984's Morbid Tales deftly switched from pure speed ("Into the Crypt of Rays") to tremendous, walloping grooves such as the roaring "Dethroned Emperor" and the lurching "Procreation (Of the Wicked)". Fischer's riffs were simple and ragged, his often indecipherable, proto-death vocals accentuated by weird, almost surreal pronunciations ("Death-roned em-PEAR-or!"), and punctuated by sudden exclamations of "OOH!", which would quickly become his trademark. Out of all eight tracks, "Return to the Eve" would be the one that would hint at future greatness, a four-minute mini-epic that boasts tight time-signature changes and a female vocalist reciting lyrics. The juxtaposition of an angelic female singing voice amidst the chaos of Fischer's riffs and ungodly roar would become another Celtic Frost calling card, a gimmick that would be adopted with gusto by black metal bands a decade later, and one which is still going strong today.
To Mega Therion, released a year later (complete with cover art by painter HR Giger, a fan of the band), marked a massive leap for Celtic Frost, not so much stylistically as sonically. The production was much more rich and theatrical (yet still retaining the band's primitive quality), with orchestral accompaniment and mezzo sopranos spewing demonic arias, and the musicianship considerably more accomplished, bolstered tremendously by American-born drummer Reed St. Mark, who immediately proved his worth on the bludgeoning "The Usurper". Songs like "Dawn of Megiddo" and "Necromantical Screams" lumber along like brontosaurs in tar pits, driven purely by brute force (accentuated by Wagnerian horn fanfares and thunderous tympanis), but it's the timeless "Circle of the Tyrants" that is not only the standout on the album, but is widely regarded as the band's single greatest moment on record. It's a thrilling blend of prog elements, taut thrash metal, neoclassical influences, and atonal guitar solos that packs more into four-and-a-half minutes that most other bands were capable of at the time. It careens, seemingly arbitrarily, shifting from mid-tempo to agonizingly slow to ridiculously fast, but somehow, miraculously finds its way back to the central riff. Like Slayer's "Chemical Warfare", "Circle of the Tyrants" was a seminal moment in the development of underground metal: oft imitated, never equaled.
Completing one of the finest metal trifectas of the '80s, 1987's Into the Pandemonium drew in a much wider audience, not to mention widespread critical acclaim, thanks primarily to the sheer unpredictability of the music. And how much more unpredictable could one get than with the jaw-dropping cover of Wall of Voodoo's "Mexican Radio", which opens the album? Strange to the point of being surreal, it was either loved or reviled, and whether you're able to buy into it or not (personally, the song has always stuck in my craw, distracting from the brilliance of the rest of the record), it's impossible to deny the demented genius in which Fischer takes the new-wave hit and completely makes it his own. Despite some very strong songs that remain faithful to the To Mega Therion sound ("Babylon Fell"), it's the more experimental aspects of the album that make it so fascinating: the goth-tinged "Mesmerized" (in which Fischer abandons his guttural grunts in favor of a forlorn whine), the dub-inspired instrumental "One in Their Pride", the gorgeous female-sung interlude "Tristesses de la Lune", the downright shocking R&B vocals on "I Won't Dance".
As full of surprises as Pandemonium was, nothing could prepare listeners for 1988's disastrous Cold Lake. With Ain and St. Mark out of the picture, and new guitarists Oliver Amberg and Curt Bryant contributing songs, the album completely abandoned the classic Celtic Frost sound in favor of a more straightforward, streamlined sound (in retrospect, not unlike what Megadeth would do to great acclaim in 1992). Fans cried sellout, more in outrage over the band's comical hair-band makeover than anything else; not only was it a very clumsy attempt to broaden its audience, it ironically had no commercial appeal whatsoever. Instead, it inhabited a bizarre grey area, impossible to market to mainstream audiences and the object of vehement derision from fans of the band. A horribly misguided piece of work, it's plagued by lazy songwriting ("Little Velvet" and "Dance Sleazy" are embarrassments) that overshadows the sole guilty pleasure, "Cherry Orchards", a slick blend of sharp riffs and more of those sultry female vocals that Fischer loves.
So negative was the reaction to the record that Amberg was quickly sacked and Ain returned. Despite the band's best efforts on the admirable, highly underrated Vanity/Nemesis (1989), the damage had been done; fans still felt betrayed, and the harsh words from critics didn't let up. Never mind the fact that the classy "Wings of Solitude" was the most exciting Celtic Frost song since Pandemonium, and that the cover of Roxy Music's "This Island Earth" deserved the attention that "Mexican Radio" received; the once mighty Celtic Frost were considered pariahs, and disbanded not long after.
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A decade later, after working on the reissues of the old albums, Fischer felt the desire to create music surface again. In 2002, he contacted Ain about getting Celtic Frost back together, but after Ain agreed, the songwriting process became long and arduous. Despite the fact that everyone from Kurt Cobain to Opeth considered Celtic Frost a major influence, an attempted return to credibility was both a daunting challenge and a huge financial gamble. Then again, after Cold Lake and Vanity/Nemesis, Fischer and Ain had nothing to lose: a new generation of metal fans was waiting to be introduced to their music and longtime fans were willing to forgive and forget. So finally, 15 years after its last album and four long years in the making, we have Monotheist, an epic tour de force that, miraculously, defies all expectations.
Monotheist doesn't just hearken back to the glory days of 20 years ago; it comes frighteningly close to topping the old stuff. Such a prospect is unsettling for metal fans. We love the old stuff we cling to it like a child clings to a security blanket. Those old albums by our favorite bands are relics from an era that will never be duplicated, reminders that no matter what new metal music we hear today or in the future, the early albums by our heroes are untouchable. Or so we like to convince ourselves. Personally, I'm as guilty as the next '80s headbanger, but there comes a time when you just have to suck it up and admit what many longtime fans will refuse to believe. So forgive me, Celtic Frost fans, for I am about to blaspheme: Monotheist is a masterpiece.
Monotheist isn't huge, it's massive. It's not heavy, it's brutally heavy. It's not just dark, it's completely devoid of light; it swallows you whole. Produced by the great Peter Tagtgren, member of Hypocrisy and acclaimed producer of the likes of Dimmu Borgir and Immortal, it's a spectacular return to form and sounds like the album he was born to produce. The band's previous albums, for all the praise they receive, have always lacked in the production department, but Tagtgren gets it just right. By amalgamating elements from Morbid Tales and Into the Pandemonium, and adding a grandiose blend of modern black metal, doom, and even goth, Monotheist remains true to the distinct Celtic Frost sound, yet at the same time feels boldly modern. In an interesting move, the guitars don't so much chug as they sustain, long, drawn-out chords droning away with painfully slow, Cathedral-like tempos, presented in a stunning mix that puts that minimalist Celtic Frost power to good use.
Fischer has never sounded better. As is always the case with veteran growlers, Fischer's voice has gotten more haggard, more evil with age, and Tagtgren's mix puts Fischer's vocals right up front where they belong. When he snarls, "Feel...my...holy...wrath!" midway through the beastly "Ain Elohim", you feel it big time, while the churning stoner/doom of "Ground" is dominated by his ferocious growls of, "Oh God, why have you forsaken me?" Those famous death grunts have been toned down somewhat, but it's somehow comforting that the first thing you hear from Fischer ten and 18 seconds into the album is that famous, "OOH!"
After the pummeling "Progeny" (which showcases the percussion talents of drummer Franco Sesa) and the aforementioned "Ground", Monotheist takes the first of several unexpected departures. "A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh" is kicked off by a somber intro with Fischer singing softly before shifting into a wracked black metal screech during the ominous second half. The meaning of "Os Abysmi Vel Daath" might be lost on us laypersons who aren't into Crowley, but so contagious is this six-and-a-half-minute slice of string-bending, gothy doom, we can't help but chant along with Tom: "Os...abysmi os!"
Of course, what would a Celtic Frost album be without some lovely female vocals contrasting with all the blackness, and we get several on Monotheist. "Drown in Ashes" and the stately "Obscured" are straight-up goth, an angelic singer trading lines with Fischer, who takes on an enthralling vocal style that sounds directly influenced by Peter Murphy of Bauhaus. Today this "beauty and the beast" gimmick has been done to death by countless bands, but both songs have the band proving again that they are masters of the craft.
Monotheist closes with a 23-minute suite entitled "Tryptych", the most ambitious piece on the album. After the overture "Tottengott", which has Fischer screeching over layers of synths, percussion, and backwards guitar playback, it gives way to the 14-minute centerpiece "Synagoga Satanae", which delivers the most intense strains of doom on the album and features Fischer's most authoritative vocals ("In darkness thou shall worship me!"), highlighted by an astoundingly vicious bridge six minutes in. The orchestral piece "Winter (Requiem, Chapter Three: Finale)" concludes the album on a solemn, funereal note, like a melancholy score during the closing credits of the scariest movie ever made.
The new album is nowhere near as groundbreaking as To Mega Therion, nor as bold as Into the Pandemonium, but it is an extremely well-made opus that encapsulates everything that has always been great about Celtic Frost. Powerful, frightening, primitive yet cutting edge, Monotheist is the album longtime fans have dreamed of hearing for far too long, returning this venerable Swiss band to the top of the metal heap. And something tells me this time around, they're going to be staying there for a while.