The Guide to Getting into Celtic Frost
In honor of dearly departed founding member Martin Eric Ain, dive on into the iconic Swiss extreme metal band's colorful discography.
Cover image by Lia Kantrowitz
Swiss heavy metal behemoths Celtic Frost and their primordial predecessor, Hellhammer, have long been an immutable part of early extreme metal's most unholy triumvirate (alongside Bathory and Venom). From the earliest, messiest days of Hellhammer up to and including the band's weighty final statement, Monotheist, Celtic Frost consistently and fearlessly seared their black mark upon rock 'n' roll history. Whether they were busily introducing the avant-garde to metal or simply hammering out one of those goddamn riffs, it may sound hyperbolic to say, but there's no denying it: Celtic Frost changed the world.
Formed as Hellhammer in 1982 and solidified as Celtic Frost in 1984, the band was on the vanguard of heavy metal's newly evolving extreme side. The primal aggression reverberating from their early recordings may seem par for the course to anyone familiar with metal's current outliers, but back in the early 80s, what they were doing felt downright revolutionary. The band's uniquely harsh vocals, lurching, industrial-influenced tempos, air of gothic excess, and overall destructive, Satanic atmosphere set them apart from their scant contemporaries like Venom, Bathory, and Sodom, as did their immediate willingness to experiment, to twist and tease out the potential in what "heavy metal" could ultimately be. Sometimes this musical curiosity backfired (as in 1988's notorious Cold Lake fiasco); sometimes, it bore the sweetest, most fiendishly addictive fruit (see: basically everything else they've ever recorded).
To add to the drama manifest in their music itself, the band's core members—Ain and Warrior—were often at odds; the band broke up, reformed, broke up again, and reformed again; when Warrior announced his departure from the band in 2008, citing irreconcilable differences, it effectively hammered the final nail into the project's battered coffin. He went on to launch Triptykon, while Ain and then-drummer Franco Sesa pledged to form their own new project, which had yet to surface as of press time.
By now, Celtic Frost has been dead for nearly a decade, its members scattered, its legacy secure. This past weekend, though, when news hit that founding member and longtime bassist Martin Eric Ain had died at age 50, the fan reaction was swift, and intense. Ain's musical (and aesthetic) contributions to the heavy metal canon are impossible to quantify, so deep an impact has his work in Celtic Frost left upon the genre's history. His lifelong friend, bandmate, and occasional nemesis, Tom G. Warrior, paid heartbreaking tribute to his fallen friend, writing, "I am deeply affected by Martin Eric Ain's passing. Our relationship was very complex and definitely not free of conflicts, but Martin's life and mine were very closely intertwined, since we first met in 1982. My life will be painfully incomplete without his existence."
As soon as I heard of Ain's passing, I immediately threw on my copy of Morbid Tales and spent some time reminding myself of just how important this band has been to my musical development (as it has been for so very many others). That's what made me want to do one of these guides—to provide some comfort to those of you who were devastated by the news, and encourage newer listeners to dig deeper into this iconic band's remarkable catalogue. The Encyclopedia Metallum provides a full list of the band's myriad albums, compilations, demos, and splits, but for convenience's sake, this guide is going to focus on major releases (though I definitely think that their 1988 split with German booze thrashers Tankard is quite interesting, especially given that it came out just before Cold Lake—the juxtaposition between the split's two tracks is pretty hilarious).
Even though Ain the man is gone, his music will live on in aeternum, and the best way we as fans can honor his memory is to ensure it remains resplendent upon its rightful jeweled throne.
So you want to get into: Pre-Celtic Frost Celtic Frost?
Before there was Celtic Frost, there was Hellhammer. One thing that's important for newjack listeners to bear in mind as they press play on "Ready for Slaughter" is that, when this proto-Frost first made landfall, people fucking hated it. Even after the band morphed into the (slightly) more refined Celtic Frost, Warrior and Ain both regarded the Hellhammer days as a stain upon their combined musical reputation. As Warrior said in the CD booklet for a 1990 Hellhammer reissue, "HH's left-overs kept being mighty rocks in our way… The lack of musical quality in HH made it almost impossible for us to get an unbiased reaction for Frost. To make a long story short, it almost killed all our work and dreams."
This seems a bit harsh now, given how beloved Hellhammer's own slim catalogue has become amidst the metal legions, but the dismissal, incredulity, and downright hostility that met the band's first forays into recording clearly left a few bruises on their young psyches. Thankfully, they persevered, but imagine how bloodless and boring modern metal would be without Hellhammer (and Venom, and Bathory, who were greeted with similar derision) to light the way? It's a scary thought, but thankfully one we won't need to entertain for long, because we've got a pile of their demos, EPs, and compilations to dig into (and not much else—despite being one of the most influential proto-black metal bands going, they never managed to record a full-length during their whopping two years of existence).
I'd consider Satanic Rites and Triumph of Death demos to be the most essential stops to make on your journey into the heart of Hellhammer; most of the best-known songs can be found therein, or on one of the multiple compilations that have been released over the years in an effort to milk the band's Lilliputian discography. The most recent one, Century Media's 2008 Demon Entrails compilation, conveniently gathers up all of the (re-recorded) bangers and some deeper cuts besides. As long as whatever version you've got features "Triumph of Death," "Messiah," "Revelations of Doom" and "Crucifixion," you'll get the idea. Of the Hellhammer songs available, "Buried and Forgotten" lays out the biggest hints towards what was to come; its quavering, spooky vocal and grim plod could hunker down quite comfortably in one of Into the Pandemonium's weirder corners, but we'll get into that later.
Playlist: Triumph of Death" / "Messiah" /"Revelations of Doom" "Buried and Forgotten" / "Crucifixion"
So you want to get into: Classic "OUGH!"Celtic Frost
Fast-forward to 1984. Hellhammer is dead, and in its place has arisen Celtic Frost, which saw Warrior and Ain recruit session drummer Stephen Priestly to help bring their morbid visions to life. The trio hastily recorded the Morbid Tales EP, whose (comparatively) elevated production values and (slightly) more sophisticated approach to songwriting won them acclaim from the nascent European extreme metal underground. This is my favorite era of Celtic Frost; Morbid Tales and its successor, the Emperor's Return EP, encapsulate the band at their hungry, wicked, heavy metal best. The industrialized stomp is fully present, but still couched in grimy, wriggly proto-black metal riffs that pummel and churn with abandon. This is also where we're properly introduced to Tom G. Warrior's now-iconic "OUGH!" grunt, which has spawned countless imitators (and its own meme category) but exists here eternally in its purest form. It's here that the immortal question is posed: "Are you morbid?"
The success of Morbid Tales and Emperor's Return set the stage for the band's 1985 triumph of death, To Mega Therion, which remains one of extreme metal's most hallowed documents. Here again, they fly their freak flag from the first note of the imperial march that ushers in the proceedings. The utterly bizarre, half-moaned instrumental nightmare of "Danse Macabre" stands out from its fellows like a clown in church, and sees the band flagrantly whip its experimental weirdness in between two more normal tracks as if they're daring you to say something.
Playlist: "Into the Crypt of Rays" / "Procreation of the Wicked" / "Circle of the Tyrants" / "Dethroned Emperor" / "Morbid Tales" / "Danse Macabre" / "Dawn of Megiddo"
So you want to get into: Weird, Experimental Celtic Frost
Moving right along! As we've learned, Celtic Frost have always been a little freaky, and on 1987's Into the Pandemonium, they really stop caring about who knew it. The hallmarks they'd cemented in their earlier works were still present and accounted for, but the album skews much more classic heavy metal (as on the fairly straight-forward Wall of Voodoo cover, "Mexican Radio," which still felt like a strange song for a band built on Satanic devastation to include). Schizophrenic kitchen-sink songs like "I Won't Dance" challenge the listener on multiple fronts, and their flagrant embrace of classical and gothic influences (as on the weird-as-hell neoclassical French odyssey "Tristesses de la Lune") was a heady harbinger of what was coming. This stands out as one of the final "classic" Celtic Frost albums, because post- Pandemonium, the band's career trajectory skitters into wholly unexpected territory.
To skip forward a bit, by 1990's Vanity/Nemesis, Celtic Frost had partially recovered from their hair metal hangover (see below) and done their best to settle back into their more familiar heavy metal, goth rock, thrash, and industrial hybrid—with a whole lot of added groove (for example, see the eminently headbangable, hilariously-titled "Phallic Tantrum"). The album is still strange, but hews closer to more traditional song structures (and a truly unfortunate drum sound). Despite the band's best efforts to right the ship, critics and fans remained unconvinced, and the band ultimately broke up after the album dropped. Turns out the curse of Cold Lake was a hard one to shake, even for musical giants such as these.
Oh, you don't know about Cold Lake? Well…
Playlist: "Mexican Radio" / "I Won't Dance" / "Inner Sanctum" / "Rex Irae (Requiem)" / "Nemesis" / "The Name of My Bride" / "A Kiss Or A Whisper"/ "Phallic Tantrum"
So you want to get into: 80s Glam Celtic Frost
Even the band themselves have repeatedly, vociferously insisted that this 1988 LP was a swing and a miss. Its overcooked, Frankensteined glam metal was reportedly influenced by record label directive, and this marks the first and only time we're subjected to Tom G. Warrior's cleaned-up croon; the riffs are solid enough, but the uncharacteristic vocals (and the airbrushed-to-high-heaven promo photos) made this one a tough pill for the heavy metal faithful to swallow. As Warrior himself has said, "I am extremely happy about this album in a way that, at least I have done the absolute worst I could possibly ever do in my entire lifetime – I've done that. So no matter how much I'm going to fail in the future, I will never sink that low again."
However, if you're still curious about one of the most maligned metal albums in existence, then be my guest: dive on into Cold Lake.
Playlist: "Cherry Orchards" / "Roses Without Thorns" / "Dance Sleazy" / "Downtown Hanoi"
So you want to get into: Goth Modernist Celtic Frost
Celtic Frost's swansong, Monotheist, came as a surprise. By the time it was released, the band had weathered decades of uncertainty; the album itself came a full seven years after what would be the final Celtic Frost reunion, and it turned out better than it had any right to have been. Critics and fans alike agreed—this was the Celtic Frost we'd been hoping to meet again. The gothic atmosphere had been dialed up, Warrior's authoritarian grunt commanded attention in staccato blasts, mechanized thunder rumbled, the guitar tone screamed for vengeance. From the first moment of album opener "Progeny," it was clear: the darkness and evil had finally returned.
It also laid the groundwork for Tom G. Warrior's post-Frost artistic rebirth in Triptykon, the new band he formed after the final split and with whom he continues to tour and make music today. As he told me back in 2010, "I'm very proud of Monotheist and regardless of some of the personal issues I think it was probably one of the best albums I've ever made, if not the best musically speaking."
So few other seminal but long-running bands have managed to pull off the elusive "successful comeback album" with any sort of aplomb, let alone the finesse and magisterial tone with which Monotheist was presented. I remember years ago, when British crust godfathers Amebix were preparing to release their first new album in decades, they'd told me that the record finally sounded how they'd wanted to sound back in the 80s—the technology and their own skill had finally caught up to their musical vision. One gets the impression that a similar situation surrounded the recording of Monotheist—that a visionary band had finally accrued the experience and the tools they needed to release their ultimate testament. It was the rare final album that genuinely did justice to its creators legacy; more than that, it added to the legend, closing the final chapter on a majestic high note.
Playlist: "Progeny" / "A Dying God Coming into Human Flesh" / "Synagoga Satanae" / "Temple of Depression" / "Drown in Ashes"
Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey, and is most certainly morbid. She's also on Twitter.