Artist Spotlight: Hellhammer/Celtic Frost/Triptykon

This spotlight is less about the 3 bands named and more about the driving force behind them, a Swiss musician named Thomas Fischer; calling him a “genius” would be overselling it, but in the world of extreme metal, he certainly qualifies as a visionary.

Fischer first burbled up into the underground as a member of the self-decreed “Heaviest Band in the World,” Hellhammer, who appeared to have no goals other than to be as extreme as those early 80s favorites Venom – and had to be a trio, “because only trios can be heavy.” Whether or not they succeeded is certainly debatable, but with a healthy amount of corpse paint, the requisite eeeeevviiiillll!!! lyrics (I am assuming, as I can’t make heads or tails of what they’re grunting on about), and stage names such as “Satanic Slaughter” and “Slayed Necros” one certainly can’t fault them for lack of effort. More likely, one can fault them for an excess of effort. Still, it’s tremendously stupid fun, if you’re into that sort of thing (obviously, I am). Mileage, as always, varies, and critic Bernard Doe deemed it “the most terrible, abhorrent, and atrocious thing” ever recorded.

Behind those glorious stage names lurked Mr Fischer (at the time, Tom G Warrior) and originally, Steve Warrior (not his real name) and Bruce Day (amazingly, this IS his real name), who were soon replaced by Martin Ain (nee Stricker) and Stephen Priestly from the delightfully-named Schizo. There are LOTS of lineup changes here, but these two are biggies, and both musicians were to play major roles in Fischer’s career. Fischer and Ain quickly bonded, and with their collaboration writing “Visions of Mortality,” they both realized that it was time to move forward from Hellhammer.

According to Allmusic’s Eduardo Ruadavia, Celtic Frost has “an influence in Europe comparable to Metallica’s standing in America” and that their “impact on the development of European metal cannot be overstated” which itself is an overstatement, but since extreme metal is all about going balls out, I’ll allow out.

Led by Fischer as primary songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist, Celtic Frost was indeed a European mirror to Metallica’s rise in America, in influence if not in sales. I tend to think of them as a band whose reach often exceeded their grasp – while not being particularly good musicians, especially early on, they raised the bar with regard to musicality, and as opposed to the standard, at the time, lyrical focus on chicks, The Devil, or wizards, brought a more scholarly and esoteric lyrical approach to the table. And perhaps most importantly, they were always willing to head off in whatever crazy direction interested them; many of the metal subgenres today can be traced back to a Frost record.

One can certainly listen to “To Mega Therion” and think “aw, people have been doing that metal/classical thing for decades…”; and that’s true. Frost did it in 1985. That did not prevent them from thrashing with the best of them.

(oh yeah, they did the operatic vocals over metal well ahead of the curve, too)

After two albums (Morbid Tales and To Mega Therion, two EpsEmperor’s Returnand Tragic Serenades), Ain’s departure/return, and the addition of drummer Reed St Mark (definitely upping the level of musicianship in the band), they recorded what may be the most ambitious metal album in history, Into the Pandemonium ”; This is the album that earned Celtic Frost the genre designation of “avant-garde metal.” Critic John Strednansky said “[calling] it adventurous would be an understatement.”

There was plenty here for the existing fanbase….

….hey, is that a song with an actual hook?…

….is that a sample-heavy song about NASA over a drum machine? I thought this was a METAL album dammit….

….is that classical? What I don’t even….

I’m not even linking the cover of “Mexican Radio.”

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a band attempt to be this diverse on a single album; few have tried to be this diverse over an entire career. And I feel the need to re-iterate that this was in 1987. Whether or not one feels the album succeeds at what it’s attempting to do, the sheer ambition of an underground band on an independent label attempting this is amazing.

Unfortunately for everyone, Frost’s record label did not agree, and a battle ensued as Frost attempted to parlay their tremendous success in the metal underground into something less subterranean. They succeeded in achieving greater artistic freedom and started actually earning some money, but the damage had been done – Ain and St Mark had left the band, so Fischer reconstituted Frost with two new members – Oliver Amberg and Curt Victor Bryant – and a familiar face, Stephen Priestly. The resulting album, Cold Lakewas released on major label CBS/Epic and was….divisive to say the least. Fischer himself deems the album “utter crap” and when given the opportunity to re-release the Frost catalog in 1999, he decided that Cold Lake was “ineligible.” Why? One look at the promo photos is probably all you need to know….…

After being a somewhat unwilling bandleader up to this point, Fischer relaxed and let his more commercial-minded bandmates and producer lead the way. It was an egregious misstep, which Fischer realized too late in the production to change direction. It’s not as bad as all that, but it doesn’t really bear listening unless you’re a completist.

After the ignonimous departure of Amberg, Frost recovered some dignity with the excellent Vanity/Nemesis, which was a nice distillation of everything that had come previously (even Cold Lake) – heavy, with some of the ambitious touches of Into the Pandemonium yet not opposed to some of the commercialism of Cold Lake

Further record company shenanigans deep-sixed the band at this point. Frost’s members, particularly Fischer, had been through too many battles with the record label and called it quits after releasing the oddities collection Parched with Thirst Am I and Dying. Fischer moved on to the not-bad-but-not-great industrial metal act Apollyon Sun, which might seem like bandwagoning if Frost hadn’t been dabbling in that sort of stuff in the mid-80s. But in 2001, he reconnected with Martin Ain, and in 2006 they released one hell of a comeback album in Monotheist, which garnered nearer-unanimous critical acclaim

However, as seems to be the case with Frost, everything good comes with a plate of shit – by 2008 Fischer and Ain had fallen out again, and Fischer basically formed Triptykon to continue in the Celtic Frost vein, but without Ain. Celtic Frost technically could have continued without Fischer, but that would be like Megadeth without Mustaine – not much point.

Triptykon is a fitting heir to the Frost legacy – throwing in a bit of this and a bit of that over blisteringly heavy metal. I definitely love the fact that Thomas Fischer, after 30 yrs, is still out there making metal weird.