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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Celtic Frost: Monotheist


1) Progeny; 2) Ground; 3) A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh; 4) Drown In Ashes; 5) Os Abysmi Vel Daath; 6) Temple Of Depression; 7) Obscured; 8) Domain Of Decay; 9) Ain Alohim; 10) Triptych: Totengott; 11) Triptych: Synagoga Satanae; 12) Triptych: Winter (Requiem, Chapter Three: Finale).

That Celtic Frost, upon dissolving in the early Nineties, would eventually come back again, even if it took them about a decade to do so, is hardly a surprise for the world of well-established musi­cal brands. That their next album would be significantly different from everything they did before was not a surprise, either: self-reinvention was as much a given for Celtic Frost from the start as makeup was for KISS, so it was hardly realistic to expect them to return to the «black thrash» style of Mega Therion or, God have mercy, to the «ugly glam» style of Cold Lake. But it would be disappointing, wouldn't it, for the band to leave us completely without surprises? Celtic Frost live and breathe surprise. And so they went ahead and did it, surprising us by putting out their best album — not as in «best in several years / a decade / since their last good one», but as in «best ever, period». For all the innovation and experimentation they showed in the reputation-establishing Eighties, Monotheist is something completely else.

The reason why I feel this way is simple: to me, Monotheist is the only Celtic Frost album that demands to be taken seriously — on a gut level, that is. All of their previous stuff could be inno­vative, or kick-ass, or fun, or dull, or embarrassing, but (like most of heavy metal, to be sure) it never really went beyond the state of hyperbolized rock theater. This record, though it can also be reasonably characterized as theatrical, is where Tom Warrior seems to have sat down and come up with a plan — this would be music that would genuinely, rather than symbolically, scare the shit out of the listener. No mean feat, considering that genuine fear in rock music is usually sought in regions far subtler than heavy metal (from Pink Floyd to Peter Gabriel), yet abandoning the heavy metal sound is the last thought on Tom's mind here.

The two key components of this «authentically scary» brand of metal that he has decided upon are (a) guitar tone and (b) vocals. Neither of these actually comes out of nowhere: before the Celtic Frost reunion, Tom Warrior spent some time playing and recording with his new band, Apollyon Sun, together with a second guitarist, Erol Uenala, whom he would also recruit into the reunited Celtic Frost; and they played a brutal type of metal that was very heavily influenced by the industrial sound. This is precisely what you get here as well: slow, pounding, monotonous grooves with «industrialized» distortion, arguably the heaviest possible sound of 'em all, and even if it was not invented by Celtic Frost, Tom has figured out how to use it better than most — in the context of simple, repetitive, doom-laden riffs that remind one of the primal purity of Sabbath rather than the confusing complexity of Opeth-like or Tool-like ensembles. It does not take more than the opening twenty seconds of ʽProgenyʼ to understand that there is something going on here that tries to tap inside your darkest fears and complexes.

But maybe even more impressive than the industrialized guitar riffs are the vocals. Although they, too, are sometimes industrialized through production effects that professionally turn human voices into demonic ones (see ʽTotengottʼ, the first part of the ʽTriptychʼ — which is actually delivered by Martin Eric Ain rather than Tom), more often it is simply all about a strategic positioning at the mike, with Tom singing in a gurgly, guttural, but not demo­nically grow­ling voice that, at its roughest and toughest, is honestly more reminiscent of an enraged Adolf Hitler than a cartoonishly constipated Lucifer. This, too, is a direct carryover from the industrial scene (think Ministry at their finest), but it is impressive how he gets these chilling results without having to resort to a lot of post-production sonic makeup — that Tom Warrior can sound brutal and evil when he wants to is no revelation, but that he can do this without sounding like a brutal and evil and thoroughly inebriated stinky hobo certainly is. Even when this style is seemingly wasted on such trite refrains as "oh God, why have you forsaken me?", the wall-rattling power is so strong that he still manages to imbue some new life (or, perhaps, un-life) into these age-old questions. (Let us just hope the Catholic church never turns its vigilant eye in the direction of ʽGroundʼ, because Jesus Christ Superstar this sure ain't: the same guy who addresses this ques­tion to God begins with such cheerful statements as "I am hatred, seeping blood... I am rage becoming flesh...").

As deliciously and creepily brutal as the first few tracks are, enduring a 70-minute long album that consists of nothing but the likes of ʽProgenyʼ and ʽGroundʼ would be a tough affair; so, pretty soon some atmospheric elements begin to creep in — ʽA Dying God...ʼ begins with a quiet Gothic intro, a two-minute cemetery-bound dirge with an ominous soft bass punch to warn you that sooner or later, the ground will open and festering zombies will begin to crawl out (which they do exactly as the song hits the two-minute mark). Then the Gothic atmosphere is spread all over ʽDrown In Ashesʼ, with haunting female backup vocals and psychedelic guitar overdubs in the background — ultimately, this is more Bauhaus than anything heavy metal-related. From then on, depressing romantic atmosphere and crushing industrial metal riffs largely go hand in hand, with only a few songs (ʽDomain Of Decayʼ, ʽAin Alohimʼ) offering no salvation from the demon Panzer onslaught.

The most ambitious affair is saved for last: ʽTriptychʼ is a 23-minute long suite that pulls all the stops — the first part is an ambient-industrial monster in the old spirit of Coil and Current '93, with perhaps not the most original, nut one of the most blood-curdling vocal performances  you are liable to hear from the metal community; the second part is what you get when the slowness and fatality of doom metal are crossed with the evil cackle and hateful aggression of black metal; and once the damage is done, nothing is left but to sadly survey the carnage with the ʽRequiemʼ part, which is not a great neo-classical composition by any means, but does a good job of calming down your nerves after all the earthquakes and artillery barrages. It may be wise, though, to listen to the whole thing on its own, separately from the rest of the album, because after the first 45 minutes of brutality, its impact may be numbed; on its own, it is a perfect synthesis of industrial nightmare, metal warfare, and ambient nerve-care.

With a record like this, it is almost impossible to tell what exactly constitutes high class and what is filler, even if you do feel that 70+ minutes is a bit harsh for the system. But, of course, Mono­theist has to be taken as a single, multi-movement opus, most of which consists of bodies ripped to pieces by heavy metal bombshells and pecked by vultures in the short interims — and such things might take a long time, before the attacking side runs out of ammo. Most importantly, it is vividly efficient in its imagery, and that is all it takes to get a thumbs up; but boy, am I glad they decided not to follow it up with anything else — because (a) it would have been twice as exhaus­ting and (b) they wouldn't be able to top it anyway. The difference between Morbid Tales and Monotheist is that the former mischievous imps have matured into demons of death and destruc­tion, and the most frightening part of death and destruction is when you do not repeat it on an everyday basis, but simply leave the ruins behind as a reminder of what might yet happen again. (For that matter, Tom Warrior's latest extreme metal band, Triptykon, makes music that is some­what similar to Monotheist but sounds far more conventional).

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