Celtic Frost: “We hated these unwritten limitations in the metal scene… Music should be adventurous”

Celtic Frost were one of the most important bands of the ’80s. But it wasn’t easy. Tom G Warrior tells their story of alienation, overcoming a boring Swiss music scene, finding an ally in an Alien creator, and using music to block out a world they hated…

Celtic Frost: “We hated these unwritten limitations in the metal scene… Music should be adventurous”
Nick Ruskell
Header photo:
Sergio Archetti

Celtic Frost were once described by Kerrang! as “the Black Sabbath of the ’80s”. In a time of metal getting faster, harder and louder, like Sabbath, the Swiss trio stood out from their peers thanks their dark and sinister tone. Harnessed to a creative genius and a vision to be more than another metal outfit, not to mention their grim look, their aura was genuinely one of otherworldliness. There was nothing else on Earth like them.

This was a marked improvement on the review of their debut release. The write-up for 1984’s Morbid Tales earned bottom marks, just as Apocalyptic Raids, the sole EP by the band’s previous incarnation as the noisier, harsher Hellhammer had done. “One ‘K’ stood for ‘Kompost’ in those days,” recalls frontman Tom Gabriel Fischer (then known as Tom G Warrior) with a wry smile. “It said, ‘If Lemmy’s warts were inside of his mouth, they would sound like Warrior.’

“To me now is almost like a compliment,” he chuckles. “But at that time, it was devastating.”

Are you morbid?’ Tom had demanded during the title-track. Apparently the critics were not. Not yet, anyway. But Celtic Frost – and, indeed, Hellhammer – would grow to become one of the most important bands of their time. Most obviously, their influence can be seen in literally every black metal outfit to have come after them. But just as they were about more than metal, of pushing the boundaries of what a heavy band could be and do – utilising dramatic, classical instruments, female vocals, heavy, choking atmospheres and an occult-led sense of chain-breaking freedom – their touch can be heard all over the place. The list is endless, but try this: on the way to record Nevermind, Frost’s 1985 masterpiece To Mega Therion was one of two cassettes Nirvana were said to have had in their van. Dave Grohl saluted the influence by inviting Tom to sing the song Big Sky on his Probot metal album.

This week, the band’s essential first three records – Morbid Tales, To Mega Therion, and 1987’s gloriously rule-breaking Into The Pandemonium – will be released together for the first time, in a gloriously massive box set, Danse Macabre, a celebration of the dark majesty and formidable legacy of one of metal’s most creatively daring and artistically important bands. “I feel like a proper musician now,” says Tom. “I have these kind of sets of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, I never thought I would have one of my own music.”

Even for a man as modest as he – at one point he refers to the band’s early efforts as “a ham-fisted copy of Venom”, frequently and incorrectly places himself as being less talented than any other musician you could name, and jokes that he’s disappointed we’re here to talk about his own music “as I was hoping we would be talking about the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal” – there’s a tangible point to this remark.

Celtic Frost had to work uphill for everything. As kids, the only rock band of note in Switzerland’s small music scene at the time were AC/DC rip-offs Krokus, and attitudes toward the arts mirrored the country’s conservative temperament. Having fallen in love with music through his parents’ eclectic record collection, the teenaged Tom eventually became “fanatical” about the NWOBHM, British hardcore outfits like Discharge and GBH, and the arty new wave scene. In London, kids his age would have been well served, however counter-culturally.

Living in a small village outside Zurich, it was a rather different story. “Nobody really cared for the younger generation.” They had asked the government for a youth centre. They said no, while at the same time giving $40million to the city’s opera house.

“So this into went to the street, and there was a huge period of youth unrest in Zurich,” he remembers. “The establishment first reacted by sending the police with rubber bullets and tear gas. There were severe injuries. It was basically the establishment waging a civil war against the young people. And that’s the environment during which Hellhammer was formed.”

If it was easy to become an outsider in the eyes of the state, it was even easier to do it in the eyes of one’s neighbours. As the only divorced household in their village, reception to Tom and his mother after his parents separated aged six had been cold. Even this didn’t compare to the details of his living situation, where he would be left to fend for himself while his mother went away for extended periods as a smuggler.

“She started smuggling when I was very young,” he recalls. “After the divorce she rented this huge old farmhouse which had no central heating. She would travel the world smuggling, sometimes for up to three weeks, and I would be on my own. Sometimes there would be thunderstorms and the electricity would go out, which was scary. It took me a while to get used to that, but I had no choice. I couldn’t go to a neighbour if anything happened – nobody gave a shit about me. Nowadays you would call it child abuse or neglect, but back then nobody gave a toss.

“I never had to struggle be to be an outsider,” he continues. “Actually, when I was young, I wanted to be normal. In school I was such an outsider, I was marked and was subjected to violence every day that I want nothing more than to be included. But the mere nature of my mother's insanity made it impossible for me to be an insider.”

Photo: Martin Kyburz

It was into music where Tom would escape, first through diving into records, and then forming his own band, Grave Hill, in 1981. This quickly became Hellhammer, and in 1983 he met – ironically, at a youth disco run by a church – long-time co-conspirator Martin Ain, a younger lad who nevertheless shared a love of the weird and wonderful, of boundary-free expression.

Renting a nuclear bunker beneath a kindergarten (“It was sloppy construction, everything was damp and even your instruments would begin to stink after a while, but it was our sanctuary”), they began to shun the world back, making ever more extreme music. After releasing Apocalyptic Raids, Tom and Martin changed the band’s name to Celtic Frost to signify their growing musical ambitions and influences.

Morbid Tales announced the new band. But it was on To Mega Therion where the band’s wider vision properly came into focus. Becoming “even more fanatical” about what they were doing in their bunker, the music was staggering, despite Tom insisting their own skills were nothing special ("If we'd had musical training, we wouldn't have made the music we did. But that meant we could create things by getting it wrong"). When they got to the studio, they began adding in classical instruments. Having to explain such ideas made things difficult. Only having short opportunity to do it more so. And their label weren’t keen. “But we were so pumped on testosterone and youthful energy, we just staked everything on it,” says Tom. “We set up timpanis in the in the large freight elevator, because that would give it this metallic reverb.”

Where the influence of bands like Joy Division and Siouxsie And The Banshees added to the band’s musical palette, visually To Mega Therion found Celtic Frost working with another Swiss outsider: genius artist H.R. Giger. Though by now the owner of an Oscar for his work on Alien, for much of his career Giger had been subject to similar criticisms as Hellhammer and Frost. His paintings were too dark, the art world had said, too weird, too unconventional. His ideas were dangerous, offensive, blasphemous.

Gifting the band use of his painting Satan I – a rendering of Christ being used as a catapult by Lucifer, representing the circular hypocrisy of religion – after both Tom and Martin contacted him by letter expressing their admiration and explaining their own creative endeavours, though with a preference for jazz and the occasional prog album over metal, Giger nevertheless saw kindred spirits in the band.

“He was another outsider in Switzerland,” says Tom. “And of course, the Hollywood thing only came after years of struggle, where he too was pushed into the underground for a long time. Because he was doing dark art that one doesn’t do. I think the level on which he connected to us was because he discovered some parallels in the struggle and in the origin of what we were creating.

“It was extremely inspiring to us, in a country that basically shunned us and shunned our music and where nobody gave our bands a chance. But that guy, one of Switzerland’s most famous artists ever, actually took us seriously and said, ‘Let’s collaborate.’ That was, of course, a tremendous boost for us, and filled us with endless energy. And that's also why we waited until the second album to use that painting. We wanted to be able to live up to that grandiose painting, we wanted to be better musicians to better match the quality of the art.”

The better reception to the album was vindicating. Journalists – and here Tom gratefully notes Kerrang! writers Malcolm Dome, Xavier Russell, Paul Elliott and Dante Bonutto – began to understand that they wanted to be a different kind of metal band. Not only that, for the first time the band began playing live, making their London debut at the Hammersmith Palais.

Returning to the studio to make Into The Pandemonium, any set of rules were firmly out the window. Describing the mood as “irrationally confident”, Tom also says that the surge of music from all over at the time, inside and out of metal, meant that it was easy to become inspired with every new thing he heard. It all went in, whether it came out metal or not.

“New wave that had arisen from punk was extremely ambitious,” he says. “Every time we would go to a record store and listen to a new wave album, there would be ideas we had never heard before. Every new wave album opened new horizons and showed you what was possible. And simply by that, it was extremely exciting, even if you didn't really like a particular album, you’d always go, ‘Wow, I never heard something like this before.’

“We hated these unwritten limitations in the metal scene,” he continues. “‘You cannot do this on an album, otherwise it's not metal…’ We thought, ‘Who writes these laws?’ Once we embarked on that path, Martin and I basically egged each other and continuously made each other more extreme in our endless discussions about these things. We just decided to abandon any restraint and not recognise any limits.”

The label didn’t see things the same way, though.

“I’m not overstating it when I say they hated it,” says Tom. “They hated every aspect of this album. And they let us know almost every day. I was mainly engaged in producing the album, as I wrote almost all of the music, and Martin was handling the phone calls, which wasn’t an easy job either. He was getting extreme negativity from Noise Records, threats that they’d cut the production, that they would withdraw the budget for the album, that they would send us home.”

Instead, Tom says they tried to sabotage production. When the label came to the studio to hear what the band had done, they told them in no uncertain terms: “Nobody is going to buy this piece of shit. Can you record an album like Exodus or Slayer?” As punishment, financial support for touring was cancelled, as was a planned video shoot with legendary British filmmaker Ken Russell. They changed their tune when the album was (correctly) hailed as a visionary artistic statement and began to sell, but by this point the band had parted ways with the label, and Tom says “the experience basically destroyed us”.

Nevertheless, both despite and because of the circumstances of its creation – all the negativity simply made them dig their heels in further – Into The Pandemonium is incredible and important. From its opening cover of new wave outfit Wall Of Voodoo’s Mexican Radio (“Weirdly, until I started doing interviews for this box, nobody ever asked me about that”), to its grandiose sweeps, to its gothic overtones and limitless horizon, it is also a unique work, the art of people who “burned all our bridges so that we had only ourselves”.

“I think the album stands, not least because the spirit of defiance,” says Tom. “On one hand, it’s artistic defiance, we didn’t accept any of those limits that were invisibly set in the metal scene. But we also didn’t accept the behaviour of the record company, the conduct of the company. And I think that spirit of defiance, I can hear it on the album. And it really fits the experimental nature of the album. That’s also why it’s authentic, and that’s why it still stands.”

Photo: Fred Baumgart

Just as then, today as a 59-year-old man and reluctant metal legend, Tom believes that music should be something without walls, without limits, a deep expression of its creator. With current band Triptykon, its’s a route he continues to take, brilliantly searching the shadows for ever-darker shades of music.

In his village, he shows what he means when he says that musicians aren’t particularly well respected in his locale when says he continues to be asked, “Are you still unemployed?” Sadly, Martin Ain may no longer be with us, having passed away in 2017, but time has proved that the pair’s instincts and visions were right. The albums in Danse Macabre represent metal at its most urgent, its most creative, its best. It is what happens when people with nothing to lose but their own self-respect and artistic integrity go for broke, even when everything seems against you. Because it’s all you have.

“I sought refuge in music,” says Tom. “I spent my days listening back and forth to my mother's record collection, then through my own record collection, that found my own world in this. And then I formed a band, which united a small handful of fanatics in a bunker every night, and we hated the world, and hated what the world did to us. We hated human conduct in this world, and we created this little world for ourselves, where we could be ourselves and we could express what we wanted to express, and we played the music we wanted to play.

“That’s essentially what all music should be, isn't it?” he continues. “It's pathetic and sad if music is just a commercial token, as it is maybe the case for 99 per cent of the music that you hear on the radio these days. That’s not what music should be. Music should be adventurous, it should be artistic.”

Rarely has metal been quite so much of either.

Now read these

The best of Kerrang! delivered straight to your inbox three times a week. What are you waiting for?