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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Celtic Frost: Morbid Tales


1) Human / Into The Crypts Of Rays; 2) Visions Of Mortality; 3) Dethroned Emperor; 4) Morbid Tales; 5) Procrea­tion (Of The Wicked); 6) Return To The Eve; 7) Danse Macabre; 8) Nocturnal Fear; 9*) Circle Of The Tyrants; 10*) Visual Aggression; 11*) Suicidal Winds.

Celtic Frost used to be Hellhammer, a notoriously extreme metal band from Zürich, of all places: I know of no precedents before them for Swiss metal, and, in fact, I deeply suspect that many people might have confused them with Swedish metal bands in the early years. But then if they were Swedish, they'd have probably called themselves Nordic Frost (sidenote: apparently, there is a band now called Nordic Frost, and they are Swedish, so go figure). As it is, «Celtic» was pro­bably chosen because of Switzerland's Celtic past, and «Frost» because of their proximity to the Alps. Or because «frost» brings on associations with death — purely verbally, considering that the music of Celtic Frost is anything but frosty in nature.

For their first EP, Morbid Tales, the band lineup consisted of Thomas Gabriel Fischer, a.k.a. Tom Warrior, on guitars and vocals, and Martin Stricker, a.k.a. Martin Eric Ain, on bass — these two, with the exception of a short one-time break for Martin, would forever remain the core of the band. The drum work was handled by session musician Stephen Priestley, since by late 1984 the core duo had not yet settled upon a permanent percussionist. The original release was short, con­sisting of only six tracks; two more, including the title track, only appeared later on the expanded US version. Finally, the current CD edition usually throws on three additional bonus tracks, taken from the band's subsequent EP, Emperor's Return, which is a good thing, because that EP is usually rated very highly by the band's fans, yet hardly deserves a review of its own.

Assessing the originality and the impact of Celtic Frost's debut is a little hard these days, now that «black metal» is just a cliché and most of these bands are pathologically indistinguishable one from another. Apparently, though, the band was at the forefront of this subgenre, together with Bathory (who also released their first album in 1984) — the idea being that of combining the insane tempos and complex musicianship of thrash metal with the occultist / apocalyptic spirit of everybody from Black Sabbath to Venom. (Actually, Venom are usually credited with the inven­tion of «black metal» as such — if anything, that was the title of their second album — but they were certainly less extreme in their approach than Celtic Frost). In other words, Celtic Frost are a cross between Slayer and Venom, with a bit of Black Sabbath-y sludginess and a pinch of Mötor­head's blunt jackhammering thrown in for good measure.

That said, to me there are primarily two respectable subgenres of metal — «terrifying metal» and «comedic metal» — and early Celtic Frost are undeniably closer to the second one. One reason behind this are the vocals: Mr. Warrior, perpetuating the black metal stereotype, always sings as if he is either possessed by Satan's proxy, or suffering from a really bad case of constipation — which, come to think of it, may be one and the same from a certain philosophical point of view. (Check out the introduction to ʽDance Macabreʼ, where such a unity of process and purpose actually makes perfect sense). The second reason, of course, are the insane tempos, a problem most common to all forms of thrash or thrash-influenced metal; however, Celtic Frost are more reasonable here than Slayer, understanding the value of slowing down and even that of an occa­sional psychedelic interlude, to act as a bookmark between all the same-sounding gymnastics of heaviness. Still, nothing here is even remotely «morbid» or properly terrifying; in the end, it all depends on just how cartoonishly evil they can make their riffs and atmospheres, in order for us, future listeners, to get our healthy kicks.

And I will be the first to admit that Morbid Tales has its share of solid metal riffs. I do not care that much for stuff like ʽInto The Crypts Of Raysʼ: it owes its whole schtick to Mötorhead without sharing Mötorhead's level of catchiness (as a singer, Lemmy is downright Pavarotti next to Tom Warrior), and simply gallops along without offering anything fresh. Conversely, ʽVisions Of Morta­lityʼ is just too slow, and sounds like a slightly more high-pitched and boring rehash of some of classic Sabbath's ideas. But things begin picking up by the time ʽDethroned Emperorʼ comes along — also owing its existence to ʽSymptom Of The Universeʼ, it finally manages to offer us a useful variation on that eternal chugging theme (largely thanks to an awesome snake-like arpeggio flourish in between the main iterations of the riff). And finally, the first truly awe­some song arrives in the guise of ʽProcreation (Of The Wicked)ʼ, where Tom teaches his guitar to alternate between painful howling and fierce growling (I suppose that this is meant to represent the birth pangs of the alleged "wicked", but could be more of that constipation thing — who really cares?).

Too bad that, from there to the end, only three tracks remain, one of which (ʽDance Macabreʼ) is, as I already mentioned, more of an avantgarde noise collage, something like a tentative musical representation of a Bosch painting of hell — and it's pretty cool that way. But, as a bonus, you do get the other tracks from Emperor's Return; recorded approximately one year later, they feature slightly improved production values and at least one solid riff-rocker (ʽSuicidal Windsʼ) that tries to eschew the boredom of generic thrash by slightly slowing down the tempo and trying to intro­duce some moderately discernible chords into the structure...

...ah well, who am I kidding? Most of these songs are ultimately one, and modern young metal audiences will probably not be impressed with it, considering how far beyond it the technical boundaries of speed / thrash / black metal have been pushed since. In reality, the album is more interesting from a purely historical perspective: it made a truly deep impression back in the day, and marked merely the first chapter in the surprisingly versatile, almost chameleonic career of these rugged Swiss warriors. But ʽProcreationʼ is a genuinely cool song, regardless of historic context, and in limited doses, their overall sound might even be more fun than Slayer's — pre­cisely because they are somewhat less technical and somewhat more punkish in their musical retelling of the world's innumerous evils. That said, far be it from me to recommend this stuff to anybody who is not already deeply immersed in the tempting intricacies of heavy metal.


  1. the 'Frost' actually came from them sitting around thinking of a band name, already having 'Celtic' in mind, and Tom picking up his copy of Cirith Ungol's 'Frost and Fire.'

  2. Well, Zorak beat me to the tidbit about the name, (who was expecting a CF album to pop up?!) what else is there to say other than reiterate, these guys were taking extreme metal to new places. Love'em but it was Venom that came off like a 'Young Ones' sketch. I'm still not 100% certain Cronos' real name isn't Ade.

  3. The Swiss band Krokus was founded in 1975 and released its debut album a year later.