The Return of Celtic Frost
Warmup jackets have never been this evil
Celtic Frost + 1349 BB King Blues Club September 14, 2006
Once upon a time, Celtic Frost was the weirdest metal band in the world. They were contemporaries of 80s thrash and speed-metal bands like Metallica and Anthrax, and they crunched and growled just as hard as anyone else. But they also reached outside metal and pulled in all whatever they could repurpose into demonic sludge: operatic interludes, dubby funk-bass excursions, ancestral samples, new-wave covers. Somehow, frontman Tom Gabriel Fischer had gotten it into his head that this omnivorous approach would open the band up to a bigger audience, something that never happened for any number of reasons. But the band did something better: they figured out how to make metal ambitious and arty without ever compromising its megaton lurch. Metal has changed a lot since then, and these days most metal bands are either ignoring Celtic Frost's open-endedness or they're blowing it out to ridiculously pretentious extremes. So it didn't necessarily seem like anything good could come of a Celtic Frost reunion fifteen years after the band broke up acrimoniously. But Monotheist, the band's first album in forever, is a total left-field triumph. They've managed to internalize all those outside influences into their sweeping roar to the point where it doesn't even sound like they're trying. It's huge and eerie and brutal and weirdly pretty, and it sounds like it's always existed.
So it wasn't fun walking into BB King's last night to see that the club was less than half-full. It was the band's first New York show in seventeen years, and you'd think it would be a bigger deal. The crowd looked pretty much like a standard metal crowd except older, and everyone seemed amped to be there, but it's disappointing that the band still hasn't manage to break through to a bigger audience after all these years, at least not here (they're supposedly headlining huge festivals in Europe). And it was weird to see how much the band itself has changed. The original core of Tom Gabriel Fischer and Martin Ain is still there, but they look totally different. They aren't rocking blown-out hair and bullet-belts anymore. Fischer wore a stocking cap all night, possibly to hide a receding hairline, and Ain has gained like fifty pounds and taken to wearing about a gallon of corpsepaint. Also in corpsepaint: the otherwise nondescript second guitarist, who looked something like what might've happened if the band snatched a Guitar Center employee off the street and gave him a black-metal makeover, which totally could've been what happened. I interviewed Ain and Fischer a few months ago, and it was a bit disorienting to see them mutate from completely pleasant and affable guys into these overblown demons of the night. But they certainly know their way around big, theatrical metal gestures. They came out to and evil distorted vocoder-demon voice screeching "Celtic Frost, raaaah!" They kept a fog machine blasting the entire time they were onstage, and Ain threw devil horns whenever he wasn't playing bass. Ain's introduction to "Mesmerize" went something like this: "This song is about love the Celtic Frost way, as love inflames the night!" It was pretty awesome.
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Onstage, they ditched the avant-garde tendencies that had set them apart from every other extreme metal band of the 80s, sticking with the most orthodox-metal parts of their catalog instead; their set was almost disappointingly unpretentious. It wasn't a problem, though; it's been a long time since I've seen any band do orthodox-metal this well. Celtic Frost comes from a time before metal split off into an infinite number of subgenres, and so there's no extreme-speed brinksmanship going on. When the band plays fast, they play thrash-fast, not death-fast. And when they slow everything down to a titanic chug, they sound huge enough to suck all the oxygen out of the room. The speakers at BB King's aren't particularly loud, but the band's surging crunch was still more flattening and overwhelming than it ever had ever been on record. Fischer's gurgley grunt always sounded vaguely ridiculous, but it has a certain weight and authority when he's onstage in front of you. And Ain doesn't sing as much, but I wish he did; some of the show's best moments came from his majestic wail. These guys know exactly what they're doing.
1349, the Norwegian black metal band that opened the show, was pretty much just the opposite. The band puts a whole lot of effort into looking scary to the point where it's vaguely hilarious. Everyone in the band wears corpsepaint and spiky gauntlets, and they stick their tongues out and roll their eyes and whip their hair in circles like they've been practicing in front of mirrors for years, but they sound like a complete fucking mess. Their drums are hummingbird-fast, and you can barely even hear them. And without any sort of rhythm ever registering, the guitar pyrotechnics are complete gibbering nonsense. When Celtic Frost was onstage, the dudes in 1349 walked around the club in full corpsepaint waiting for people to notice them, and they wore shirts advertising their own band, so that was pretty funny at least.
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