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Reissue Of The Week

Reissue Of The Week: Celtic Frost's Dance Macabre
John Doran , October 28th, 2022 08:57

John Doran surveys a luxurious new boxset of Celtic Frost's mid-80s peak, and finds one of the most extraordinarily prolific and innovative bands of that decade

One ingrained narrative of the modernist 1980s is that music slumped midway through the decade, with all of the creative verve that powered post punk sedated until acid house culture livened things up once again. Even if you were one of the more open-minded writers for NME during this period, those would have been fairly exciting and challenging horizons to consider. (A friend gave me a massive stack of NMEs from the mid-80s recently and Fine Young Cannibals seem to appear on the cover more than The Fall, Everything But The Girl or The Smiths, let alone Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine or Coil.) Of course, if you look at the decade dispassionately now with the benefit of hindsight, you can see clearly that the true epitome of modernism in new music was happening in heavy metal, hidden in plain sight.

However, the impulse to gatekeep has remained consistently strong, and the idea of heavy metal becoming accepted as a groundbreaking artform of great cultural worth is still a problematic idea to most who consider these things. After Sunn O))) appeared on the cover of The Wire in April 2009 to promote their game changing Monoliths & Dimensions album, a subscriber wrote in angrily to brand them “long-haired morons”, decrying the august publication for not featuring the more sensibly tonsured My Cat Is An Alien on the cover instead. That gag reflex was even stronger in the 1980s, when the spandex was tighter, the upside down crosses more pendulous and the nail enlivened armbands more of a pressing health and safety issue.

Venom, Slayer, Metallica, Death, Possessed, Bathory, Stormtroopers Of Death, Napalm Death, Voivod, Terrorizer... There’s seemingly no end to the number of mould-shattering bands that came up in this period who were either misunderstood, mocked or straight up ignored. And we can’t really blame the NME too much here, given that much emergent death metal, black metal, grindcore and so on was initially all but ignored by the Phil Collins and Bon Jovi-supporting Kerrang! and Sounds (whose metal coverage after sterling work kick-starting NWOBHM tended to be slightly more mainstream). Champions with any kind of clout, such as John Peel, were few and far between.

Using the term modernism to refer to music that is modern in character, quality of thought, expression or technique might at first seem like an odd thing to tag onto a musical movement which is often characterised in the popular consciousness by songs about dragons and men who look, and sound, like the Romantic ideal of Vikings. The real important factor here, however, is not what metal looked like or even what its subject matter was, but that it was engaged in a process of breaking away from mainstream rock all the way through the 1970s and gearing up for a decade in which it consistently created sounds that had never been heard before.

Celtic Frost in 1987, photo by Fred Baumgart

A potted history of metal as a vibrant modernist artform goes something like this. In 1970, the heavy blues rock group Black Sabbath, on the title track of their eponymous debut album, create the template for what will eventually be recognised as a doom metal song; on subsequent albums they craft other important templates while remaining, for the time being, essentially a heavy rock band in debt to the blues. In 1976 around the release of their Sad Wings Of Destiny album, Judas Priest radically overhaul both their sound and their image to become the first band to willingly adopt the heavy metal genre title bestowed upon them. In 1979, Sounds editor Alan Lewis appends a standfirst to a live review of Iron Maiden, Samson and Angel Witch by writer Geoff Barton, with the spurious but ingenious, New Wave Of British Heavy Metal tag, finally cementing the idea that heavy metal is not just yet another mutation of rock music, but is in fact its own thing. NWOBHM, as is pointed out in Michael Hann’s excellent book Denim And Leather, may well have been a movement rather than a specific sound, but it was something that happened all over the UK at grassroots level. This decade-long process was, among many other things, one of deracination – almost certainly an unconscious move on the part of its main players, as by the early 80s, most young white metal musicians, when they rejected the blues as an influence, were rejecting music made by white musicians, who had in turn been influenced by white musicians, who had originally been influenced by Black musicians. It took ten years but a clear break with the past was enacted. By comparison, other forms of rock in the mid-80s, such as indie and jangle pop, stood meekly on a continuum with rock’s past, no matter how much its main players decried the dinosaurs of yore.

Out of all of the bands who rose to prominence during the NWOBHM years, the most important from our point of view are Venom. Even though their radicalism – a desire to be nastier, more fucked up, faster, louder, more explosive and more repulsive than any other band – was won via naivety. They, more than any other band, can lay claim to inventing extreme metal. But as we saw with Black Sabbath, new doors can be kicked open with very little in the way of planning, with revolutionary results; perhaps what is more interesting is looking at which artists stride purposefully through these doors that have arguably only been booted open accidentally.

One of the first bands to follow in the rupturing aftermath of Venom’s first single and two albums, was Swiss metal group Celtic Frost. One of the reasons Celtic Frost came out of the traps so hard in 1984 was that Thomas Fischer and Martin Ain had already been part of a band where intent and passion far outstripped ability in the form of Hellhammer, a group hated so much by the international metal press that the aspirations of its main members were nearly crushed into inertia. Whether this was the fuel that propelled Celtic Frost or not (other potential power sources include an obvious emerging zeitgeist, geographical isolation from nearly all other metal groups and Fischer’s weird and unpleasant childhood), in three short years they would come to represent the best of the spirit of innovation in heavy metal during the mid-80s. Or they did to anyone paying attention at least.

BMG’s lovingly curated and luxurious new box set is rammed to its massive metal gills – seven gorgeous sounding remastered LPs/EPs on fancy schmancy vinyl, one 7”, one cassette [Grave Hill Bunker Rehearsals], a 40 page hardback 12”x12” book with lots of cool photos and a short oral history of Celtic Frost Mark I, a “Necromaniac Union” enamel badge, a large two-sided poster, a snazzy Heptagram figurine USB stick with everything on MP3 plus extra tracks and a patch for your battle jacket – gives you pretty much everything the band produced during their mercurial 1984 to 1987 age of innovation.

Looking back, it’s tempting to see the Hellhammer of Spring 1984 as dogs who have just had their first beating. The sobering process of recording Apocalyptic Raids for Noise Records in 1984 and realising that their intense love for extremity and teenage/young 20-something tunnel vision wasn’t going to be something they could transfer to record without a fundamental overhaul of values led them to a move that very few young bands have the nous for. Their label were disappointed by both the quality of Apocalyptic Raids and the stinking reviews it received and warned the band that they had one chance to redeem themselves. Ain and Fischer called time on Hellhammer and spent an entire night in the latter’s bedroom at his mum’s house, plotting out the near future for Celtic Frost. The plans – amazing in their thoroughness, charting a series of singles, EPs and albums including sleeve art, a touring schedule and even plans for photo shoots – were convincing enough to persuade Noise to transfer the deal to the new project, which was fine apart from the fact that the label wanted to test the water by releasing a mini-album first, something that wasn’t part of the new Celtic Frost gameplan.

Let us just pause and consider the time frame here. February 1984, Hellhammer recorded Apocalyptic Raids to be released in March, only to realise the game was up in May, they had an entire new band and gameplan by Summer, and were back in Caet Studios in Berlin by October and the result, Morbid Tales was released in November of that year. If the band’s manifesto was to embark upon an experimental charge into unoccupied space, then having to act quickly, probably upset that impulse somewhat while giving them a ragged edge and Morbid Tales is probably best seen as a rollicking great proto-death thrasher with some tastes of what’s yet to come. ‘Human (Intro)’ features a roughly looped, section of vocals, multi-tracked and pitched down, creating a demonic herald to the still fantastic ‘Into The Crypt Of Rays’ an enduring Celtic Frost anthem, about French maniac of yore, Gilles de Rais. In terms of their musical ambition however it can be felt more keenly on the closing three songs. ‘Return To The Eve’ features a short, but, for the genre, important, inclusion of female vocals as something more than a colouring agent. ‘Danse Macabre’ opens with glockenspiel, saw-tooth panting, possessed chanting, a psychedelic soup of violin played by the fantastically named Wolf Bender and dizzying use of sound effects by Horst Muller. ‘Nocturnal Fear’, a galloping rager about the Yazidi book of the dead, features more Wolf Bender violin, this time in atonal, echo-dubbed freak out mode. Despite Apocalyptic Raids being warmly thought of now by fans of extreme metal, it’s kind of stunning to see how quickly and effectively Celtic Frost managed to alter their entire future course in just a few months.

Emperor’s Return (1985) is probably better remembered as the debut of ‘Circle Of The Tyrants’ (crazily, also recorded at Caet in October 1984) than for its woeful sleeve art and slightly hollow production. Celtic Frost’s first statement for the ages came later the same year in the shape of To Mega Therion; its Wagnerian introduction ‘Innocence And Wrath’ and HR Giger art signifying, perhaps for the first time, just how serious Tom Warrior was. (A depressed Martin Ain was on the subs bench for this album. The rapidfire rate of creativity during this period perhaps reflects that Fischer understood that, in creative terms, once a vein of ore is located, it must be mined with speed and precision before a rockfall obscures it forever.) ‘Dawn Of Megiddo’ is a wonderful example of how the band’s meticulous battle campaign was being realised as an integrated whole as opposed to extreme metal with some odd stuff bolted on, with the addition of timpani played by American drummer Reed St. Mark and Wolf Bender on French horn. An entirely new atmosphere for extreme metal had been created. It’s easy to see this as one of the most important ur-documents of black metal after the first two Bathory albums and Venom’s honourable mention for naming the whole shebang, and that’s before we get to its foundational status in the soon to emerge death metal genre. ‘Circle Of The Tyrants’ gets the treatment here it deserves, with Horst Muller pitching down Tom’s backing vocals to absurd and unsettling degrees and the use of opera singer Claudia-Maria Mokri’s cut glass tones working bleak magic. The closing section of ‘Tears In A Prophet’s Dream’, which lands somewhere between early Tangerine Dream and Nurse With Wound, and ‘Necromantical Screams’, with it’s chamber metal take on what was just starting to bubble over Stateside with Metallica and Slayer, finally show Celtic Frost are truly where they wanted to be, at the world vanguard of modern metal.

Celtic Frost in 1985, photo by Sergio Archetti

The Tragic Serenades EP was both a chance to bring Martin Ain back into the fold and to improve on what they felt was a lacklustre production job by re-recording three To Mega Therion tracks. The vocals are more prominent on ‘The Usurper’ and Mokri consequently feels less like an afterthought, and ‘Jewel Throne’ is undeniably punchier, but, before you start conducting your own blindfold test, let me save you some time: these re-recorded tracks are now the ones you hear on both EP and LP.

A cover of Wall Of Voodoo’s ‘Mexican Radio’ is such an odd opening track for their next LP Into The Pandemonium (1987), and is perhaps the first clear signal that there is more than some dissatisfaction with the ‘restrictiveness’ of extreme metal. There are more than a few moments here when it would be easier to look back and compare Celtic Frost to The Cure or Dead Can Dance than to Slayer or Exodus, while pointing the way forwards to the Young Gods and Jane’s Addiction. When listening to ‘Tristesses De La Lune’, a boulevardier delivery of Baudelaire’s poem of the same name with an intensely committed recital by Manü Moan, it’s hard to even conceive of this being the same core musicians who, three years earlier, were responsible for ‘Triumph Of Death’. The album version of ‘One In Their Pride’ is wildly ahead of the game, a blink-inducing industrial track calling to mind pre-fame singles by Ministry and very early Tackhead, as well as underground work by David Byrne and Brian Eno and Holgar Czukay in Germany, while looking forward to the kind of sheet metal puncturing EBM that Front 242 and Revolting Cocks would soon be releasing. It’s not that there aren’t absolutely jaw-breaking riffs on here – there are – it’s just that the most convincing and memorable tracks are the likes of ‘Rex Irae (Requiem: Overture – Fourth Version)’ and ‘Oriental Masquerade’ which only bear a casual similarity to metal of the day, the jumping off point being very adventurous British post punk and the early releases of the 4AD label given a brutal and elegiac makeover.

If there is a problem with Celtic Frost in this period it isn’t our problem but unfortunately theirs. They didn’t just identify one new area to move into but were constantly and simultaneously breaking new ground in many different ways, innovating but very rarely consolidating, minting sounds and styles as they zipped past, like it was no problem to them at all. Into The Pandemonium is one of those rare albums that entirely lives up to its name, a thing of such shifting and seismic beauty, it’s almost still impossible to get a true handle on it, marking Celtic Frost out as not just a band ahead of their time but also one ahead of their space. It also marks them out as a band who were using up all of their own potential roads in every single direction at an insane pace, creating maps for others who would follow, while getting little of the benefit themselves in the short term. All the more reason why we should hail them as brilliant modernists now.

Celtic Frost's Dance Macabre box set is out now in the UK and EU via BMG, with a North American release on 25 November