Music

The Great Beast Resurrected

Adrien Begrand
Celtic Frost, Photo by Jozo Palkovits

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.

Now Slaying


Beyond Fear, Beyond Fear (Steamhammer/SPV)
With Iced Earth on temporary hiatus, Tim "Ripper" Owens brings in a bunch of fellow Ohio buds for some old-school power-metal fun, and their debut CD delivers. Nothing new here at all, as the band dutifully channels classic British '80s metal, but man, that Ripper can still belt it out. Screeeeeam! Machiiiine!


Dreams of Damnation, Epic Tales of Vengeance (Say It in Blood)
Led by former Dark Angel guitarist Jim Durkin, this L.A. band wastes no time in delivering some relentless, aggressive, old-school thrash metal. Durkin's riffs and solos are as nimble as ever ("Patricide", especially), and vocalist Loana dP Valencia unleashes ungodly screams that give Angela Gossow a run for her money. Definitely worth seeking out.


Ihsahn, The Adversary (Candlelight)
Equal parts black metal, '70s progressive rock, and neoclassical, the solo debut by the former Emperor singer/guitarist tosses in enough ideas to make the music as gloriously scattershot as Mercyful Fate, circa 1984. Sterile production, but "Homecoming" is lovely, and the ten-minute "The Pain Is Still Mine" goes all-out with its King Diamond-esque bombast.


Phoenix Mourning, When Excuses Become Antiques (Metal Blade)
It's tempting to lump these Floridians in with labelmates Unearth and As I Lay Dying and just forget about them altogether, but while their debut album struggles to pull itself out of the metalcore quagmire, the slight progressive bent and half-decent clean singing (and handclaps!) add some texture to the kiddie-pleasing formula. Not bad.


Yyrkoon, Unhealthy Opera (Osmose/The End)
The French band's fascination with Lovecraft's Cthulu Mythos continues on its latest disc, as does its superb blend of smothering death and melodic thrash metal flourishes, which resembles Polish greats Behemoth. The furious "...Of Madness" is a prime example, but we can't help but wish there were more songs like the terrific bonus track "Signs".

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.

* * *

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.

6

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image