They’ve got iceboxes where their hearts used to be
When Tom Gabriel Fischer reunited his massively influential Swiss sludge-metal band Celtic Frost a few years back, he did something unthinkable: he released an album that might be better than anything his band did during its first iteration. The pre-breakup history of Celtic Frost, as detailed in Fischer’s entertainingly ridiculous memoir Are You Morbid?, is one of constant internal turmoil and record-label frustration, and the fact that they got back together in the first place was vaguely miraculous. I heartily recommend Are You Morbid?, which Fischer wrote in English despite not being a native speaker, a brave enterprise that leads to sentences like this: “We can’t even afford a damned four-track recorder. Us, the mighty Celtic Frost, inventors of avante-garde heavy rock!” The short version of the band’s story goes something like this: in the mid-80s, Celtic Frost were one of the weirdest bands in a global thrash-metal scene lorded over by the likes of Metallica and Megadeth. CF could play as fast and as hard as any of those bands, but they cast their net wider, bringing in sounds that nobody else was even considering: Tackhead-esque bass-popping scratch-funk, glacial demiclassical impressionism, grimy proto-pigfuck guitar squall. Fischer somehow had the idea that this everything-at-once approach would help his band reach a wide audience. To Fischer’s eternal frustration, that never happened. But Celtic Frost had a seismic impact on pretty much every strain of underground metal that’d spent the 80s coming into existence. None of that impact was immediately apparent, though, and Fischer fired the rest of his band shortly after the release of the weirdest and best pre-breakup CF album, 1987’s Into the Pandemonium, recruiting a whole new backing band and releasing a sexed-up glam-metal album, Cold Lake, that most of his audience heard as an unforgivable sellout move. After reenlisting original bassist Martin Ain and making a pretty good return-to-form album in 1990, the band broke up. Then, eleven years later, Fischer and Ain re-reunited and spent five years recording Monotheist, an acid-spitting hellbeast of an album. Yesterday, Fischer announced that he was leaving the band again, presumably breaking it up again. This is not good news.
For a feel-good comeback story, Monotheist was an unrelentingly bleak and misanthropic record. While the band’s previous experimental excursions sometimes felt slapdash and half-formed, Monotheist put all those ideas to work to the extent that every icily gorgeous ambient synth-bit would only increase the bludgeoning impact of the next enormous doomy riff. Take, for example, the awesomely named single “A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh”: Ain starts out the song muttering morosely over a quiet but ominous baroque-goth guitar-figure, feedback slowly building in the background until, at the two-minute mark, a crushingly slow riff announces the arrival of Fischer’s overblown demon rasp. Hearing this song while walking alone outside at night is a deeply disquieting experience. Coming home from clubs some nights, I cue it up just so I can hallucinate unspeakable shapes shifting around on the borders of my vision. Off the top of my head, I can’t name another song from the past decade that gives off anything like the visceral sense of evil at work there. (The incomprehensible, disgusting video is also well worth a look.) The rest of Monotheist comes close, though. “Drown in Ashes” has ghostly female opera vocals floating above a plodding guttural stomp, while “Ground” has Fischer growling Biblical lamentations over sputtering Melvins fuzz-roars. There’s also a haunted fifteen-minute song called “Synagoga Satanae.” This thing just rules, and I hate the idea that the band won’t be making another one.
When I interviewed Fischer and Ain two years ago, they told me that hadn’t signed with any label to record Monotheist; they’d had too many label problems in the past to make that mistake again. Instead, they spent years fine-tuning it on their own, only licensing it to labels for distribution when it was good and done. The end result sounds like the album they’d always wanted to make, but apparently that wasn’t the case. On the blog post where he announced his departure from the band, Fischer had this to say: “I have always seen the Monotheist album as a mere beginning, and a tame one at that … I was looking forward immeasurably to working on the next Celtic Frost album. To me, it needed to be darker, heavier, and more experimental than Monotheist.” Fischer hasn’t said exactly why he needed to leave the band; the press release only hints at internal personal problems. Between the band’s first breakup and its reunion, Fischer released some solo industrial-type stuff, and apparently that’s what he’ll go back to doing; he says that he wants to finish and eventually release some of the ideas he’d been developing for the next Celtic Frost album on his own. I hope that happens, even if I’d rather hear Fischer put those ideas to work with the tidal force of his band behind him. But Fischer ends his post thusly: “There is no way back.”
When the Celtic Frost comeback tour came to New York late in 2006, the band only managed to fill BB King’s about halfway. During the show, though, I realized that I was standing close enough to both Brian Posehn and Matthew Barney that I could’ve clonked their heads together Three Stooges-style. As with the band’s first run, the right people heard them.