With their infamous Morbid Tales debut setting high metal standards all the way back in 1984, Celtic Frost is certainly one of the most prolific groups within the genre’s history. With highly varying outputs such as the nearly-comical juxtaposition between albums like To Mega Thereon and Cold Lake, understanding and consuming the band’s discography can be comparable to walking through a minefield. That’s why I did it for you.
A common citation uttered by old-school metalheads revolves around the lack of subgenre categories back in metal’s formative years. I’ve heard a lot of people say the same thing: that subgenres weren’t as prevalent back then, and different bands like Metallica and Death all lumped into the same soundscape, at least to ears of an ‘80s teenager.
This collective statement arises from the common inquiry of modern teens, who idealize the “golden age” of metal when our oh-so beloved bands were in their prime, taking over the world one album at a time, attempting to out-do one another. While many might argue that the current meta offers the ideal landscape for metal fans, travelling back to the world of tape decks and watching Headbanger’s Ball on weekends is undoubtedly alluring to some people. I think this phenomenon stems from the fanbase’s idealization of metal history, and the desire to rediscover beautiful music within a time that was even more mysterious as a result of the lack of internet. For me, Celtic Frost embodies this odd sonic limbo, where relevant and innovative extreme music was being released all around the world, but only few were lucky to access it. This band (and its predecessor) arrived early on within the metal landscape, and grew proportionately alongside the scene’s formation all the way until they called it quits. This is why they’re worth your salt.
Celtic Frost was founded within the ashes of Hellhammer, a precursor to the band in question. Hellhammer was formed in 1982 by vocalist/guitarist Thomas Gabriel Fischer (often referred to as Tom G. Warrior), who is credited as the main creative influence for both bands. While he wasn’t the original bassist, Martin Erich Stricker joined the group in 1983, whom of which would become Tom’s main creative counterpart. The two were the biggest contributor’s to Hellhammer and Celtic Frost’s material, and thus were both two of the earliest proprietors of the extreme metal scene.
Hellhammer broke up in 1984 for unclear reasons, but left behind a handful of demo tapes and an EP, titled Apocalyptic Raids, which is pretty infamous within the metal sphere. Tom and Martin formed Celtic Frost the day after Hellhammer broke up, and the rest was history.
Morbid Tales/Emperor’s Return EP (1984, 1985)
The Morbid Tales/Emperor’s Return EP (two separate releases but often combined into one package) is arguably Celtic Frost’s most well-known and prolific output, which is in combination due to its early release and stability in comparison to other Celtic Frost works. While the two individual releases are tagged as EPs, they can be viewed more to the likes of a full-length when combining all of their non-album songs (some tracks on Emperor’s Return are featured on the group’s debut, To Mega Thereon), at least in my opinion, due to its complete nature and relatively long runtime. In comparison, Bathory released their debut full-length in the same year (actually a month prior to be exact) which clocks in at 27 minutes, but is classified as an album by the community. I’m not so sure whether in these grey areas the artist or the community determines what’s classified as an EP and what’s classified as a full-length, but for the sake of comparison within the metal landscape at the time, I believe its safe to compare Morbid Tales/Emperor’s Return to other debut albums like Bathory’s self-titled and Venom’s Welcome to Hell (1981).
Morbid Tales/Emperor’s Return incorporates a healthy split between what would become sonic elements associated with black and death metal, which is encompassed within a general rock n’ roll vibe. Listening to the collective release really solidifies Celtic Frost’s seemingly primordial nature within the genre, as you can practically hear the influence they had on groups that were to come. The elements associated with black metal are found within the riffs and song structures of the EP, while the band’s influence on more extreme bands lies within the harshness of the release.
From the breakneck speeds of “Into Crypts of Rays,” to the blackened aesthetic of the mid-paced title track, tying these examples to songs like those of more sonically-cemented bands like Darkthrone and Mayhem is fairly easy. I hate to sound cliché, but the intro setup to “Morbid Tales” sounds a whole-heck-of-a-lot like something Darkthrone would turn into a proper black metal song. Within the rapidly-evolving metal scene at the time, the 1984/1985 release of this pair of EPs is impressive as a fact alone. Morbid Tales/Emperor’s Return is an excellent starting point for someone getting into Celtic Frost, due to its connectable lineage to later metal acts, as well as its steady rock n’ roll pace (its not too abrasive and relatively straightforward).
To Mega Thereon (1985)
To Mega Thereon is the band’s debut full-length, although as I mentioned above, the Morbid Tales/Emperor’s Return EPs are sufficient enough outputs to serve as the proverbial debut. To Mega Thereon is technically their first major endeavour, however.
The album is often seen as the band’s best output due to its sonic positioning between their relatively primitive early works and their more unconventional material that would come to see release. While songs like “Circle of the Tyrants” and “Jewel Throne” are easily tied to the material on Morbid Tales due to their similar song structures and riff styles, other tracks like “Tears in a Prophet’s Dream” and “Necromantical Screams” allure to Celtic Frost’s more creative side, of which would become more prevalent within later works Into the Pandemonium and Monotheist.
The album is simply unavoidably likeable if you’re into heavy music in general. To Mega Thereon has also stood the test of time due to its flairs of unorthodox incorporations such as the odd instrumental track interludes and female vocals (albeit only on the album-closer). To Mega Thereon is the definitive career moment where Celtic Frost leaped into further bounds in comparison to whatever other metal acts were doing at the time. Thrash was evolving and older heavy metal giants like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden were perfecting their craft, but there was never really anything like Celtic Frost, and this album is the one that set them on that unique path. This is one of the greatest albums of all time and still sets the stage for modern bands today.
Into the Pandemonium (1987)
I praised To Mega Thereon for straddling the line between their more primitive earlier output and their more unorthodox material; Into the Pandemonium is the latter.
Chronologically, this album is the first of the band’s outputs to split their fanbase. When eager metalheads are looking to expand their playlist, Celtic Frost is of course one of the bands recommended, and Morbid Tales/Emperor’s Return and To Mega Thereon are usually handpicked because they are safe bets. I for one had been one of these guys prior to researching for this article, and had not endeavoured past the group’s unanimously praised works. I’ll go through my experience with this album as a newcomer, but also a prior fan of the Frost.
The album is really weird, or “unconventional” (because we are sophisticated around here), and thus pushes a lot of people away. The opening track, “Mexican Radio,” is a cover of a pop/folk-influenced track released two years prior. It’s such an odd choice, especially for an opening song. I mean, the band kills it on this one, and I’d now argue that its probably one of the highlights of the album from a listener’s enjoyment perspective, but within the band’s discography its just so out of place. Celtic Frost is this primordial band from the early eighties who sang about dethroned emperors and general occultism, and now I’m hearing Tom’s voice raving about how he’s on the Mexican Radio. The track is especially odd when juxtaposed with the album cover (which I absolutely adore, by the way) and most of the album’s other tracks.
Following this lighthearted jam, the band delves into the “meat” of the album, which revitalizes Celtic Frost’s established style, albeit with a few stylistic caveats. Instrumentally, the next three or four tracks return to the band’s odd time signatures and song styles, but “Mesmerized” incorporates Tom’s softer singing style as well as some female backing vocals. Its off-putting on your first listen, but I’ve come to appreciate the number. “Inner Sanctum” and “Babylon Fell (Jade Serpent I)” are more traditional songs, which could have fit on both of their past outputs.
Remember how I said that the weird instrumental track on To Mega Thereon allured to the band’s future stylistic choices? Well, there are two of those on Into the Pandemonium, and they both halt the flow of the album, in my opinion. “Tristesse de la Lune” features a French lady’s serenades, and “One in their Pride” sounds like something a teenager would make on GarageBand in his spare time. The former is alright, but the other one just feels like filler. They fit within the unorthodox style of the album, but in regard to a collective listening experience, they don’t offer much. I feel like a lot of the time spent listening to the release is dedicated to instrumental interludes and whatnot, which takes away from the music.
I wrote so much about this album because its just so odd. The beauty of the release is that it was written by Celtic Frost, so the songs are constructed in a proper manner and they stand on their own for the most part, but the ideas that were inputted could use some work. A quick read through the YouTube comments on the album stream offers a number of people praising this work for its uniqueness and as it serves as some sort of precursor to avant-garde metal due to its incorporation of female vocals and whatnot, but its ultimately a hit-or-miss record. I like it, but that’s because I’m a fan of the Frost.
Cold Lake (1988)
The Cold Lake and Vanity/Nemesis chapters mark the dark point of Celtic Frost’s eclectic career. So far, we’ve gone over the group’s primordial nature within the extreme metal scene, their sophomore triumph, and Into the Pandemonium, a melting pot of ideas that was otherwise a strong album, despite being a polarizing release.
1988’s Cold Lake is a hair metal album. The glam, glitter, and latex culture of the American music scene in the late ‘80s managed to ingest our beloved heroes, spitting them out its back end, covered in sweat and shame. We may be battling within the world of hyperbole here, but come on, hair metal?
Let’s take a blast to the past to observe the music climate at the time. Glam metal bands like Mötley Crüe, Twisted Sister, and Whitesnake ruled the radio, even-so within modern times as Dads around the world still rock out to “Girls, Girls, Girls” on their morning commute.
This bustling music scene driven by fame and greed eventually collapsed to the far superior but in some cases equally questionable grunge/groove scenes alongside the turn of the ‘90s. Celtic Frost decided that they had to write their names into the glam metal saga with a chisel called Cold Lake. That’s not even a catchy album name!
Fun fact: Celtic Frost are included under the list of bands under “hair metal” on Wikipedia.
I won’t dwell on this release, especially since I bogged this article down with a short history lesson. In addition, the band openly denounces the album, as it is excluded from their Spotify roster. I’ll leave you with a shortened version of my usual commentary.
The musicality on Cold Lake is strong, as the release as a whole still operates with a Frostian vibe. The riffs, song structures (at least to an extent), and various influences harken back to the ghost of the band’s former self. You can tell that it’s a Celtic Frost work, its just that they worked on making a hair metal album. The vocals consist of wails and high-pitched utterances and a band that once sang about tyranny and mystical realms now sings on songs like “Seduce Me Tonight.”
I don’t quite know why they endeavoured on this stylistic change. I know the band dealt with some internal conflict at the time, as well as some record deal issues, but I find it hard to see why a group so stylistically primordial would come out with such an album. As devil’s advocate, I’d raise the element of foreign impressionism into the mix, as the group in question is originally Swedish, and they may have idolized the American hair metal scene simply because it originated overseas.
Another element we could be overlooking is the tendency to idolize our favourite musical figures. We tend to forget that people are just people, and that Celtic Frost was only four years old at the release of Cold Lake. Us historians look back on a thirty year legacy and wonder why these people, who we claim to be so stylistically primordial, would make such a questionable brand decision. They were young and impressionable at the time and were just musicians. We can look back on them today and observe a concrete legacy, but that title didn’t exist back then, they just made music.
Vanity/Nemesis marks the second release in the band’s so-called stylistic slump. Luckily, for us, this offending piece is miles better than Cold Lake.
In a similarly impressionable fashion, Vanity/Nemesis incorporates a lot of sonic themes from the ‘90s groove metal scene. Bands like Pantera, Crowbar, and Fear Factory all sound a whole lot like the material on this album, except Celtic Frost’s groove metal inclusion came out a year prior to those groups’ formations. I’m not exactly the scene expert here, I’m far from it actually, but I was surprised to see that Vanity/Nemesis preceded the debuts of these popular groove metal groups. I know that Pantera’s Cowboys From Hell and Exhorder’s Slaughter in the Vatican unofficially compete for the title of first groove metal album (they both came out in 1990), but I didn’t know that Vanity/Nemesis released so close to these titans.
Once again, Celtic Frost takes an odd amount of inspiration from an emerging scene with this release. Big guitar chugs and barking vocals dominate the album, hence the subgenre application. The songs are actually of quality in this instance, which would not be expected based on the album’s reception. However, unlike Cold Lake, the band seems to openly accept the album within their discography.
Frost fans aren’t afraid of expressing their enjoyment for this album, even with the hard stylistic shift. It is still undeniably an odd move for the Celtic Frost brand, but I’d rather this than a hair metal album. In similar circumstance to Cold Lake, the groove metal movement was of American nature, and most likely influenced the band in question due to its rapidly growing success and foreign allure. The discussion above pertaining to Cold Lake can be equally applied to Vanity/Nemesis, so I’ll save you the reiteration. The album is of good quality though, despite its satellite nature.
Monotheist silenced the group’s 16 year hiatus (barring a few questionable demo releases) from the releasing of Vanity/Nemesis. I’m not quite sure what broke the band up for so long. Their outputs past Into the Pandemonium certainly weren’t received all that favourably, which might have factored into the equation. Now that we’ve gotten this far, you could certainly make a case that Celtic Frost were far too malleable with their middle outputs, as they succumbed to the hair metal fad with 1988’s Cold Lake and joined the groove metal movement in 1990 with Vanity/Nemesis. These moves were so weird, especially considering the group’s creativity and innovation within their earlier works. Although I may be biased as I adore the band, but I’d venture to argue that they simply might not have cared what their output was, and rather just released what they felt like working on, which explains the band’s odd covers. One can only speculate.
While their career path took some questionable turns, Celtic Frost managed to wrap up their legacy with one of the best comeback albums of all time. There’s some juicy numbers on this one that harken back to the rock n’ roll flicks of the past, there’s some longer ballad-like numbers, and just a general delightful oddness present that got the band their initial recognition.
Opening with “Progeny,” the band takes listeners back to the compact, straight-to-the-point version of Celtic Frost. No female vocals and no odd audio samples, this is just a great metal number. After a few songs, “Drown in Ashes” follows, and takes us right into the more experimental side of the band. While the softer track successfully serves as an homage to some of the more innovative qualities established on To Mega Thereon and Into the Pandemonium, the band doesn’t overdo it with this one; they meet a fine line between experimentation and standard songwriting here. The group includes a few progressive numbers like “A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh” and “Os Abysmi Vel Daath” which serve the album’s purpose as a whole piece. Finally, “Totengott” serves as the weird repeating audio sample which has been featured on Frost records since the very beginning, although this time presents itself within the realm of some forsaken demon screaming in the abyss.
When I said that Monotheist is one of the best comeback albums of all time, I meant it. Well, its also popular opinion so the statement is a pretty safe bet, but nonetheless stands. You name a band that went through so many stylistic changes, career breakthroughs, and inter-band struggles, and managed to come together one last time to produce as strong of a piece.
I believe Monotheist succeeds because it is an emblem of maturity. As we saw, Celtic Frost were simply an inspirational early extreme metal band that had humble beginnings within a more primitive form of music (that was very advanced for the time). They went through so much evolution, with both good and bad reception, and somehow ended up culminating with Monotheist. This album is the deduction of tens of years of sonic trial and error, and you can hear that within the music.
In summation, we’ve observed Celtic Frost’s career highs and lows, which end up forming a “U” shape in terms of quality and general audience reception. The twin attack of the Morbid Tales and Emperor’s Return EPs launched the band into the early extreme metal roster, with the pair’s black/death metal attitude serving as predecessor for many influential groups to come. To Mega Thereon followed this, often considered to be the band’s most well-known and balanced output. Into the Pandemonium would arrive next, polarizing listeners with its avant-garde influences and unorthodox sonic inclusions. Cold Lake and Vanity/Nemesis followed to heavily date the group as the hair/groove metal works borrowed a lot of musical influences from what was popular at the time. Finally, Monotheist culminated Celtic Frost’s career in a respectful manner, as the impressive full-length is arguably the group’s best work. Thus, my listening recommendations are as follows.
I believe that a progressive observance of the band’s sonic progression is rewarding from a listener’s perspective. Begin your journey with the Morbid Tales/Emperor’s Return EPs, as they are fairly palatable and are a neat article of comparison aside other extreme metal works of the time. Following this, the To Mega Thereon and Into the Pandemonium full-lengths are respectable listens and compliment the band’s more primitive early works nicely. I’d skip Cold Lake and Vanity/Nemesis as they depart heavily from the group’s established style, although each offering is an interesting listen if you’re familiar with the band. Finally, make sure to properly digest Monotheist, as its meandering pace and unique sonic inclusions make for a rewarding listen.
Enjoy the legacy.