Introduction by Guido Segers. Reviews by Matt Stevens, Will Pinfold, Dave Cooper, Si Forster, and Stuart Benjamin.
The reissue of the classic Celtic Frost albums on CD and vinyl by Pledge Music is a great thing or a terrible thing, depending on whatever side you are on. The reason for that is a long and difficult one, which would take a lot of space to get into. We at Echoes and Dust see the reissue of these masterpieces as a great opportunity to look at these releases once more in the year 2017.
Many people who got into Celtic Frost at a later point in time, never managed to get their hands on the original records and had to make do with downloads, streaming services and other marred ways of listening to the great work of Tom G. Warrior, Martin Ain and their various contributors/band members. But obviously, we feel the friction as well that is brought about by this project that has gone awry in a later phase. So what did happen?
News of the reissues started circulating somewhere in 2016 and Tom Gabriel Fischer (Tom G. Warrior) was involved and excited by it, saying he had been trying to get the work re-released for years as the rights to their music had ended up at BMG in the United Kingdom after some messy years at the start of the new millennium. Tom was heavily involved in the production and claimed in an interview with Decibel that these versions would be superior to the 1999 reissues (the only reissue Fisher endorses, due to him being involved). And there things went wrong…
Tom Fischer has always put his heart and soul into his music and art, there’s an uncompromising side to him, which is also the reason why Cold Lake will probably never see the light of day again (he calls it an abomination). The expectation around these records is high and so are the demands on the piece of work that is to be released by Tom Fischer. So, when BMG wanted to edit the liner notes Fisher submitted, because of the way former label Noise Records was described in them, things went wrong. By the time (May 2017) the releases were announced, things had been going wrong for a long, long time already and a quick response of Fischer showed that the collaboration was over. BMG was releasing this body of work, including a new compilation titled Innocence and Wrath, without the bands approval and blessing.
It seems as if a lot of trust and bad experiences are involved with this. The turn of the millennium saw Celtic Frost reforming after turbulent periods with their former label Noise Records. The band eventually moved on to sign with Century Media to release their Monotheist album. The rights to the Celtic Frost and Noise Records catalogue ended up with Sanctuary, which was in turn absorbed by Universal. After that the rights were sold to BMG, which now also resurrected the Noise imprint. Through all that, a lot has happened with the body of work of Celtic Frost with little influence from the band. Old scars still hurt for Tom Fischer in this case.
So here we are with that long awaited reissue, with this utterly brilliant music in a better shape than it was for a long time. Should we delve into it? Should we choose sides? In the press releases Celtic Frost is described as something that is so much more than just an extreme metal band. They are pioneers, visionaries and absolute pillars of what has become a vast landscape of the extreme metal scene. We think this is a great opportunity for our team of writers to shine a light on these artefacts, though never forgetting the story behind them. This is music people should hear, music that should inspire a new generation. All this, while we wait for something that is truly the way Tom G. Warrior intends it to be.
Morbid Tales – Si Forster
It’s a rare treat to be looking back at this. It was probably around 1987 when I first heard Morbid Tales, and it’s probably been at least 20 years since I last listened to it. Even before I soaked this in for the first time though, I was well aware of the band as even prior to the game-changing Into the Pandemonium, Celtic Frost had a reputation like no other band at the time. Depending on what you read and where (and also when), they were either at the cutting edge of a reinvented metal scene or something pretty awful indeed. What they did have though was an undeniably different approach to everything they were doing in comparison to their peers; musically, artistically and stylistically they were out there on their own.
Determined to unsettle as well as entertain, Morbid Tales kicks off with ‘Human’, a looped set of screams that gives way to the classic ‘Into the Crypts of Rays’, which pretty much lays down the blueprint for everything that Celtic Frost are about and everything that they would always be at their heart. The singular guitar fuzz and distorted solos married with Tom Warrior’s barked delivery define this as nobody other than Celtic Frost, even if the riffs and drum patterns do come across as being a bit Venom-ous every now and then. Nobody got anywhere without influences though, just ask anyone who has been picking bits off this band for so many different-sounding offspring over the past 30 years.
For a debut, the desire to experiment rather than establish is pretty remarkable – which is the main reason for both its main plaudits and criticisms at the time. It’s a fearless record that rarely sticks to one idea or tempo over the duration of one song, let alone a set. This isn’t the sound of a band feeling its way around trying to find out what it wants to be, it’s the sound of confidence that they know where they are and where they’re heading. There’s parts scattered right across Morbid Tales that pop up right across their career, even in places that you wouldn’t expect to have found them.
I guess it’s the line “Agony and nightmares” in the album’s title track that sum most of the album up – the usual heavy metal tropes are given a new, dreamlike slant in Warrior’s hands married to sounds which ultimately led to his creation described as avant metal (although it took another three years and a fair amount of hindsight for anyone else to truly get to grips with this). Bringing in additional vocalist Hertha Ohlig to add a section of apocalyptic poetry during ‘Return to the Eve’ further sets Celtic Frost apart, as well as granting further grist to the mill to their detractors who don’t like the rules (and the rules of Metal at the time were plentiful and rigid) being so wilfully broken.
Any remaining sense that this is a normal thrash album is well and truly destroyed towards the end with the now-legendary ‘Danse Macabre’. To try to adequately describe what’s going on here is folly but as I probably have to have a go anyway, I’d have to describe it as horror without visuals: the whispering creep behind Goblin’s theme to Suspiria let loose in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop after some really bad acid, or maybe the intro to Pink Floyd’s ‘Time’ reimagined in Bedlam. As I mentioned right at the start of this, I’d not heard this for a very long time but as soon as I heard those chimes start up again, the uncomfortable freaked-out feelings from way back when came flooding back.
After that, it’s a blessed relief when we get back to a strange sense of normal with closer ‘Nocturnal Fear’ (complete with an almost knowing laugh buried in the short intro), finally toeing the Metal Rules of Code & Conduct by doing the fastest song last, albeit with a bit of a breather for a couple of Tom’s patented death grunts and a genuinely weird bridge. After having perceptions, norms and expectations variously bent, snapped and melted during the previous eight tracks, it’s fitting that they bow out here with a song that incorporates parts of everything they’ve just done, and by this point it feels completely normal.
Its timeless nature is undeniable: people who loved it then will still love this, and people who hated it then will probably still hate it. It’s a fixed point and its impact remains the same however you first held it. For me, Celtic Frost was a door opening to a whole other world of music and influence that I didn’t even know existed, and my mind was a better place for it. Strangely, that open door led away from a lot of the bands who took such obvious influence from Morbid Tales and the works that followed, but when it was done so well the first time, I suppose I didn’t really need to hear the same thing over again. And to think, all this from a band I spent a couple of decades mispronouncing.
To Mega Therion – Stuart Benjamin
This was probably the first Celtic Frost album to which I was exposed. It would have been around 1988, and it was in the student refectory of Swansea College where I listened to it on a borrowed walkman. Tapes were very much the media de jour, for those of us who couldn’t afford CDs, so sound quality could vary, especially on cheap headphones, in a canteen full of students – the only course of action open to me was to turn the volume right up, to possibly ear damaging levels. I liked Slayer, I liked Sepultura’s Morbid Visions. They told me I’d like this.
So, when the brass section of the band struck up the first ominous notes of ‘Innocence and Wrath’, it felt like nothing less being struck around the head by Donner’s hammer in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Wagnerian, is probably the right descriptive word for To Mega Therion, for within it, we scale the epic fortresses of gods and demons, see the piteous folly of humanity, and end with an inevitable crawl to the last gasp of the apocalypse. Taking my headphones off, I was suddenly back in a world of teenagers struggling to open tetra-packs or throwing chips, or worse still, talking earnestly about U2. It didn’t take much convincing for me to dive back into the world of Celtic Frost.
The buzz-saw guitars suddenly kicked in, ‘The Usurper’ started up, and the very first thing we hear from Tom G. Warrior is one of those famous death-grunts: “OOH!” Nobody, but nobody, does the grunt like Warrior does the grunt and many further examples follow over the record’s running time, along with his strained falsetto, and his unique, staccato, vocal delivery – rather like a death metal Mark E. Smith – barking out gleeful tales of disharmony and destruction. Yes – Slayer might have had the speed, and Sepultura the ghoulish shocks, but Celtic Frost – this band pouring its bludgeoning doom into my ears had something else.
It took me a while to work out what this something else was. On paper, the band seemed to fulfil all the usual tropes of thrash metal – dark lyricism, an obsession with death and horror, but there was also an abstraction here, and a sense to my young fresh ears that this album wasn’t simply an exercise in run of the mill thrashing. Take that brass section for instance (beautifully arranged and on the re-master, sounding as bright as can be) and the rolling beat of those thunderous kettle drums. This wasn’t ‘Reign in Blood’s speed fest, this was positively operatic in scale and vision – a mantle that the death metal scene would fully embrace hereafter. The discordant violins here would re-appear on later Celtic Frost records, along with forays into industrial/electronic dance sampling. Indeed, it’s really interesting to hear To Mega Therion alongside Into The Pandemonium, the two records whilst sharing the same DNA, go off in such different experimental directions that it’s no wonder that critics coined the phrase avant-garde metal to describe the band, and why no band – possibly aside from Voivod – has worn the title so well since.
Throughout Warrior’s lyrics create half-forgotten myths of flawed heroes and titans, all seemingly at the mercy of capricious and vengeful gods or fate. Rather like a Wagnerian/Nietzschean Super-being (touched with a dash of Robert E. Howard sword swinging) the protagonists wield mystic blades, fight battles, search for thrones of power. Warrior’s particular skill, however is always to find some way of undercutting the bombast. For example The Usurper’s “Blood and sand / Mark their way / The Usurper’s tears / Guide my sword…” gives way to Circle Of The Tyrants’ “After the battle is over / And the sands drunken the blood / All what there remains / Is the bitterness of delusion”; lines delivered with such devastating cynicism and provoking a thought that one man’s heroic battle is often another tragedy for Humanity. And throughout the album there is this sense of nihilistic inevitability that humanity is on a slippery slope; “Forgotten rests the wisdom that brought them once so far / Vanished until rebirth”. We slide, it seems, messily to our own destruction through our own ignorance and folly until it is too late, until we reach those devastating last lines that close the record on ‘Necromantical Screams’:
“Respect and thoughts, buried long ago<
Pleading for the end, blind and dumb
We won’t feel, there could be more
I will remain alone in the dark
… only you are deaf.”
It struck me at the time that here was a band that had a lot to say about the condition of the world, and revisiting these albums made me find resonances which seem relevant to 2017 as much as they did to me in 1988, when this album was three years old.
Let’s not forget though, the musicianship on this record, which is superb throughout and sounds not at all for a minute, like a bunch of hairy AD&D obsessives knocking out a bunch of tunes in their dad’s garage. There’s a seemingly meticulous approach to the sound of To Mega Therion, this is a band who care a great deal about what you hear, and how you hear it. This extended into the approach to artwork – from fellow Swiss – the legendary HR Geiger producing arguably his most memorable LP cover art since Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery. Called Satan I, we see a dark horned figure – possibly the Great Beast of the titular Mega Therion himself – aiming directly at you with a Christ-like catapult, perfectly matching the epic grandeur of the recordings themselves.
Following on, as it does, from Morbid Tales, To Mega Therion was very much a successful step up, capturing the complete vision of the band which Tom G. Warrior and Martin Ain set out on that earlier release, however, the latter’s personal issues seeing him take a backseat for the majority of the album saw Warrior finishing To Mega Therion alone in the studio and with a determination to bring this vision to life. More than anything else To Mega Therion proved to be the template from which sprang the even more legendary Into The Pandemonium – but you wouldn’t have had that album, without the painful birth of this one first.
Into The Pandemonium – Matt Stevens
I first discovered Into The Pandemonium as a metal obsessed teenager. It blew my mind by bringing in classical, electronic, pop, psychedelic, gothic and avant grade elements into the thrash sound I was listening to, alongside some French poetry. Together with Noise Records other key act (Voivod) they smashed open the world of eighties thrash and created a movement of more progressive, experimental metal. It’s closer in scope to Sgt Peppers and Bowie’s 70’s material than their 80’s thrash contempories.
Into The Pandemonium opens with a cover of Wall Of Voodoo’s ‘Mexican Radio’, a blatant new wave pop song. It’s almost as if they were trying to wind up those in the metal scene, especially after their first two albums defined the extreme metal style of the period, alongside Venom and others. It’s such a brave way to open the record. If you thought Celtic Frost were one thing this proves that they can transcend that. The next track, ‘Mesmerised’ is like the Cure go metal. I should mention at this point how great the guitar sounds are and that Reed St Mark has an unusual drumming style, almost indie rock. It’s all very odd in context.
‘Inner Sanctum’ is more thrash with some of my favourite riffs. If you’re going to do thrash this is the standard to hit. Then the classical setting and vocals of Manü Moan come in with ‘Tristesses de la Lune’, it’s all French poetry and string arrangements with a very faint distorted guitar. Bands didn’t do this in 1987, certainly not metal bands. After a brief return to goth metal for a couple of tracks we’re into avant industrial territory with the drum machine and samples driven, track ‘One In Their Pride’. No guitars (aside from some feedback) here.
Then it’s soulful backing vocals for Tom G. Warrior’s own pop song ‘I Won’t Dance’, cracking chorus. You can only imagine what the people expecting a re-run of ‘Into The Crypt Of Rays’ thought of this. Then we’re back into avant-garde/thrash cross over again for the last two tracks that resemble Venom suddenly getting into monster movie soundtracks. It’s utterly unique.
I think I’ve listened to this album more than any other. Much of its genius is the juxtaposition of styles. The new master sounds great. The bonus track are excellent, ‘Sorrows Of The Moon’ in particular is fantastic, however I think Into The Pandemonium is all about the original tracks, as I listened to them over and over on vinyl. The running order is key to its effect. It’s all one incredible composition.
Apparently after finishing this Tom G. Warrior had to get a day job as labourer due to lack of royalties (according to his autobiography), which tells you everything you need to know about the music business. He went off to make the underrated Cold Lake (1/2 the album is fine as long as you don’t look at the cover) and some brilliant records with Frost and the mighty Triptycon. I still think Tom G. Warrior is the metal Bowie and he’ll most likely make music to an exceptional standard for the rest of his career. What an inspiring fella.
Vanity/Nemesis – Dave Cooper
Celtic Frost’s 1990 album Vanity/Nemesis is the fourth of the band’s albums to receive a new definitive remastered edition. The elephant in the room is that it’s the band’s fifth album, and the band’s fourth album proper, Cold Lake, is conspicuous by its absence in this reissue programme.
It’s not a surprise to see Cold Lake omitted from the reissue programme: after all, Celtic Frost’s founder Thomas Fischer describes it variously as “possibly the worst album ever created in heavy music” and “a piece of shit”. Whilst Fischer as Celtic Frost’s guiding light is certainly more entitled than anyone to hold it in contempt, the album – whilst an outlier in the band’s back catalogue – is certainly not quite that bad. An experiment in fusing the band’s previous approach with a more traditional and – whisper it – commercial glam metal feel, Cold Lake was always destined to be approached with distrust and a raised eyebrow from the band’s existing audience – an audience who most likely gravitated towards the band in the first place for not sounding like they ended up sounding on Cold Lake. Recorded by a new albeit short-loved line-up, Cold Lake received a hostile reception upon its 1988 release from fans and critics alike, and newly recruited Oliver Amberg – who wrote a great deal of the material for the record – was swiftly ousted from the band shortly afterwards. The band retired to lick its wounds and rediscover the spirit that had resulted in To Mega Therion and Into The Pandemonium.
Whilst Fischer has been understandably scathing of Cold Lake, he has also been somewhat dismissive of Vanity/Nemesis, which he describes as “basically an ordinary metal album”. It’s difficult to disagree too much with his assessment in retrospect: for a band with as strong a progressive and experimental pedigree as Celtic Frost, Vanity/Nemesis certainly comes across as Celtic Frost lite, for lack of a better descriptor. With the exception of pseudo title track ‘Nemesis’, no track on the album extends beyond the five minute mark, and their construction is for the most part very familiar. Opening track ‘The Heart Beneath’ is reminiscent of Megadeth’s classic early 80s output, a similarity reinforced elsewhere on the album – ‘The Name Of My Bride’ veers uncomfortably close in sound and construction to Megadeth’s ‘In My Darkest Hour’, for instance.
For all its occasional lapses into unoriginality, however, there’s a lot to recommend Vanity/Nemesis. Whilst it’s certainly a flawed album, there are flourishes that serve to remind listeners of just how potent Celtic Frost had proven to be. The band’s penchant for using female vocals perhaps reached its apotheosis here, with most of the tracks retaining this element, notably the gothic-flavoured ‘Wings Of Solitude’, where Sulfur vocalist Michele Amar actually sings much of the lead vocal, resulting in something more accurately described as a duet. ‘Vanity’ and ‘Nemesis’ employ acoustic guitar passages to hugely satisfying effect, and Fischer’s vocals have rarely been better captured on record. The riffing is as fearsomely powerful as in the past, too; the unfocused glam metal elements employed on Cold Lake cheerfully abandoned for the kind of buzzsaw economy that lent the earlier records their icy power. In short, sonically Celtic Frost felt more like their old selves.
The band, however, were not the same band that recorded Into The Pandemonium: either in terms of personnel, or in terms of their individual and collective mindsets at the time. After being content to delegate more responsibility in terms of the writing and general direction during the making of Cold Lake, Fischer in particular was perhaps still reeling from the resultant disappointments of that period and not in the headspace to break new ground. The general impression given by Vanity/Nemesis is one of a band trying, perhaps a little too hard, to reconcile the experimentalism of their earlier output with the commercial aspects of Cold Lake. Whilst it might have helped to remove the bad taste of Cold Lake from everyone’s mouths, it didn’t perhaps go far enough: whilst a perfectly enjoyable album, ultimately it feels derivative of both Celtic Frost’s previous work and the work of the band’s contemporaries; a record in thrall to a scene and a sound that Celtic Frost had helped to shape. Ultimately, where Celtic Frost had been trailblazers and innovators, they now sounded altogether too comfortable, a band content to follow rather than lead. It may be that at least some of this is down to the band focusing too much on evading the pitfalls that Cold Lake fell into; Fischer has indicated that the band just weren’t in the right mindset to create something that he felt would live up to the band’s earlier work.
This new remastered edition of the album certainly presents the record in its best light. Previous CD editions have sounded tinny and lifeless; here, for the first time, the album sounds as powerful as it should have done all along. Whilst the production tends towards the familiar very clean early 90s sound, the guitars no longer sound like they are being played on a radio on a table across the room. Fischer’s vocals are also more distinct. The re-issue also retains the extra material that has appeared on previous editions of the album: a surprisingly effective and very different reading of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ that only appeared on the CD format of the album, and ‘A Descent To Babylon (Babylon Asleep)’, added to the previous remastered edition of the album in 1999, which briefly but powerfully resurrects the vibe and intent of Into The Pandemonium, making it an impressive way to end the record.
Vanity/Nemesis would not prove to be a killer blow for Celtic Frost, but in 1993 the band did essentially cease to exist. Fischer went so far as to sell all his gear and to walk away from making music altogether, only to co-found the more industrial-sounding Apollyon Sun in 1995, a project that folded in 2001 when Fischer and Apollyon Sun’s co-founder Erol Unala rebooted Celtic Frost with Martin Eric Ain, a process that would ultimately lead to the release of the band’s seventh (and ultimately final) album, the magnificent, brooding Monotheist, an album which Fischer seemed to feel genuinely reflected his vision for the band’s music. The difficult genesis of Monotheist and the problems caused by the subsequent lengthy touring in support of the album, however, are another tale in and of themselves.
Innocence and Wrath – Will Pinfold
Innocence And Wrath is a 27-track compilation that could be not inaccurately labelled ‘the best of Celtic Frost’. But before going on to the album itself there are four caveats, none of which in any way affects the experience of listening to the album, but all of which are worth a mention.
Firstly, as has been mentioned, this is part of the Celtic Frost reissue series partly overseen by Tom Gabriel Fischer/Tom G. Warrior, but which he ultimately has not endorsed due to various issues with the record label. This is no reflection at all on the quality of the album – and in fact the remastered sound quality is far superior to the original Celtic Frost releases and his track selection too, is head and shoulders above the other Celtic Frost compilations available. The inclusion too, of ‘Visual Aggression’ and ‘Journey Into Fear’ from the recording sessions for the classic 1985 EP The Emperor’s Return is more than welcome and the songs integrate brilliantly with the better-known material. It is a shame though, that the release will not be accompanied by Fischer’s sleevenotes and photos, which would have put it all into proper context. For those who want that kind of thing, his superb book Only Death Is Real (Bazillion Points, 2009) is essential reading.
Secondly, but not at all unexpectedly, nothing from the band’s much maligned 1988 opus Cold Lake appears on the album. Despite its surprisingly high profile at the time, Cold Lake has never been reissued and Tom Fischer’s hatred for the album notwithstanding, it is a part of the Celtic Frost story and while even its most ardent fans would probably agree that it’s not the band’s finest hour, it’s a unique album in its own right. The uneasy mix of the band’s usual morbid grimness with elements of glam metal is notorious, but lead single ‘Cherry Orchards’ had far wider exposure at the time than any of Celtic Frost’s earlier singles had had, and in its own way the album was influential on the evolution of a more metallic goth rock sound towards the end of the 80s. Plus, it’s not actually a bad album; but to find that out for yourself you’ll have to track down a used copy for now, possibly forever.
More importantly perhaps, nothing from the pre-Celtic Frost band, Hellhammer is included. That’s fair enough on the grounds that this is a Celtic Frost and not a Hellhammer compilation; and the two bands are indeed very different. But to understand where the Celtic Frost sound and worldview came from – and more, to understand just how much Tom Warrior and Martin Ain went on to be so influential on the development of extreme metal, Hellhammer’s demos and their 1984 EP Apocalyptic Raids, are crucial.
The fact is, it would be possible to listen to Innocence and Wrath and conclude that Celtic Frost were an innovative extreme thrash/death/black metal band that developed in parallel to peers like Slayer and Possessed in the US and Kreator and Sodom in Europe, in a kind of competition to produce the darkest and most brutal heavy metal of the 80s. And in a way, that is a fair assessment. But also, it very much isn’t. As a listen to any version of Hellhammer’s ‘Triumph of Death’ (best is the nine minute version on Apocalyptic Raids but perhaps the most elemental is the version that gave its name to the band’s 1983 demo) reveals, Hellhammer were not competing with anybody. In fact, they were only nominally a metal band because Tom Warrior loved the imagery and heaviness of metal. In reality, they were – partly, but only partly due to their lack of technical skill – closer to an abstract noise project, or perhaps a primal scream therapy session. Celtic Frost were a metal band with a lot of soul; Hellhammer were all soul. Celtic Frost played, among other things, death metal. But there was no death metal to speak of in 1982-3 and what seems to emanate from Hellhammer’s most characteristic recordings, is not attitude, but pain and death itself. It’s not so much aggressive and threatening as it is deeply unhappy; their mangled, necrophilic, wounded sound wasn’t and isn’t ‘cool’, people don’t (in my experience at least) headbang or raise the horns to Hellhammer. Still; Hellhammer is absolutely what Celtic Frost were competing with. The heaviness (musically and atmospherically) of Celtic Frost is utterly different to that of Hellhammer; there are times in Celtic Frost’s music (several of which are included on Innocence and Wrath) where Tom Warrior seems to be having fun; this was in itself progress in almost every way. Listening to Celtic Frost is a unique experience, but listening to Celtic Frost after listening to Hellhammer is exhilarating and strangely moving on top of everything else.
Lastly and in some ways most importantly, Innocence and Wrath, presumably because it’s a BMG/Noise records release, does not include anything from Celtic Frost’s intense, claustrophobic and dispiriting 2006 comeback album Monotheist (released through Century Media), instead covering the same period as most Celtic Frost compilations have to date; from the 1984 EP/mini album Morbid Tales, up to 1990’s Vanity/Nemesis (but with the aforementioned omission of Cold Lake). This undoubtedly gives the compilation a sense of cohesion and (paradoxically) completeness, but it also means the whole sweep of the band’s work is not really represented. It underlines the (sonically valid) view of Monotheist as less a Celtic Frost album and more a prologue to Fischer’s current band, Triptykon; but Monotheist is absolutely, 100% a Celtic Frost album; and a great one at that, and it deserves to be represented. Oh well.
These quibbles aside, what Innocence and Wrath does do, it does extremely well. And right from the start, it reinforces just how central Celtic Frost have been to the development of extreme music as it is today. At the time, the band were most often marketed as black, thrash or death metal, but they mostly refused to accept any genre label given to them, and rightly so. The album begins with the industrial-esque sound experiment that is ‘Human (intro)’, a loop of screaming noises which is more Throbbing Gristle than NWOBHM, recorded for Morbid Tales but unreleased until its 2002 reissue. When this leads into the all-time classic ‘Into The Crypts of Rays’ it is straight away evident that this was a band which – as thrash was being shaped in an ever more technical way in the USA – was making music that sounded far more like contemporary hardcore punk bands like Discharge than it did Metallica or Iron Maiden – but which was in theme, atmosphere and imagery, absolutely heavy metal. And it still sounds amazing and galvanising, over 30 years later. Celtic Frost are perhaps most thought of now as precursors of the 90s black metal scene – and it’s true that the musical and aesthetic seeds of bands as diverse as Darkthrone and Emperor can be found on Innocence and Wrath – but their influence is far more pervasive than that. It’s hard to overstate how separate the sub-genres of heavy metal were in the 1980s, when the standard metal attitude to punk was dismissive, to say the least, but on songs like ‘Nocturnal Fear’ from Morbid Tales, the sound that would shortly become the classic crossover genre grindcore on Napalm Death’s seminal Scum is – blastbeats aside – all but complete. Likewise, the negative attitude in the heavier end of the metal spectrum towards synthesizers and indeed anything regarded as ‘soft’ was far more hardline thirty years ago than it is today, but Celtic Frost were never afraid to use whatever enhanced the song best. So, the classic ‘Necromantical Screams’ from To Mega Therion prefigures the symphonic metal of the 90s (and especially black metal bands like Summoning), while the band’s 1987 masterpiece Into The Pandemonium includes everything; punk/new wave elements, orchestral bits, synths, in short, whatever got them where they needed to go. By contrast, the songs from Vanity/Nemesis shows the band in focussed, formidable, but slightly less unorthodox form, although they are powerfully atmospheric.
More typical of 80s metal is the band’s rarely-heralded sense of humour; their 1987 cover of the venerable 1934 song ‘In The Chapel, In The Moonlight’ is great in itself, but it felt less anomalous in the age of Anthrax and Kiske-era Helloween than it does now. It’s an oddity, though not at all an unwelcome one, that when selecting songs for a career-spanning compilation like this, Fischer should include two covers (‘In The Chapel…’ and ‘Mexican Radio’) as well as the band’s own oddly pop/rock-toned ‘I Won’t Dance’, but would consider anything from the sonically-not-all-that-dissimilar Cold Lake as beyond the pale. But ultimately, as with everything about Celtic Frost, it’s a personal matter, and Fischer is the ultimate authority on what is right and wrong for the band. And if his breakdown in relations with the label has left us with a compilation sadly shorn of the insights and perspective he could have given to the material, it remains a formidable collection of some of the finest and most significant heavy metal of its era, as well as a superb introduction to just what Celtic Frost was all about.