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Celtic Frost is a strange creature. The constant evolution of their sound, style and image has been incredibly successful, with just the Cold Lake era glam phase being usually mentioned as a mistake. They have treaded the paths of black, thrash, doom and avant garde, usually at the forefront, scouting new territories, never settling for less than their own, extreme vision. How on earth could Monotheist, with its reported mallcore influence, fit the picture? The question is easy to answer: Monotheist could just as well be called Monolith. It's huge, unforgiving, and ruthlessly original, and does not care about its surroundings; it just is, and it's magnificient.
Before beginning to explaining the greatness of this piece of art, the most pressing question to be answered is the alleged mallcore influence. The band uses downtuned guitars, the riffs are mostly relatively simplistic, the album is "gothic" for the lack of a better word, and there's angst in everything on the bass-heavy, distorted album. So, we are talking about Korn's gothic little brother, right?
Mallcore, itself an ambiguous, amoeba-like term with many simple explanations but not a single dictionary-worthy one, has been defined by listing many features. There's downtuning, teenage angst, turntables, rapping, hardcore influence, simplistic riffs more centered on the sound's texture than actual riffing, breakdowns, more image than content, and other less-important things. Of those listed above, we can find downtuning, but it's just an effect used today by many credible death metal acts. We can also find angst, but not the my-girlfriend-left-me-for-this-polish-guy-I'm-gonna-cutmyself-just-to-feel-sumthin sort of teenage garbage. No, the angst on Monotheist is existential, profound, philosophical and grown up. It's the kind of Weltschmerz only those who think too long and too hard upon the fundamental issues of the world, religion, existence and purpose can feel.
What we have left of the list of "mallcore influences" are guitars more centered on the texture, rhythm and mood than on actual technical riffing. That's a more daunting piece of evidence to topple, but it can be shown that the origin, purpose and result of those guitars differ from their nü-metal equivalents.
To take a longer detour, let us talk about food. The world's cuisines are mostly centered on tastes. Sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, sourness, and, debatably, umami, are considered the basic foundations to build on. After the basic tastes, the olfactory epithelium takes over, and expands the experience by integrating smells and flavour. The sense of smell can multiply the possible tastes by millions, and expand the horizons of the experience thousandfold. The looks of the food are another point to consider, and to a connoisseur, the surroundings, the wine served with the food, and even the company, cutlery and background music can be important parts of the experience.
To a more brutal consumer, there is another factor to be considered, however. It's even more fundamental than the basic tastes, goes deeper into the predator's evolutionary history and sometimes outweights the flavour. At its best, it gives a more profound satisfaction that the tastes alone. It's the texture. The way the teeth must work to chew the food, the feeling of the grains on the tongue, the satisfaction of finally biting through the sinewy meat. Think about it. Do you like the crunchingly palatable but virtually tasteless squid? The crunchy piece of cartilage in the top end of the barbequed chicken's leg bone? Do you prefer the chewier pomelo over the grapefruit with its similar taste? Have you enjoyed the tenderness of a good eel sashimi without even noticing that the vicious wasabi had already killed your tastebuds? Have you eaten a calf's heart and enjoyed the pleasurable stringy toughness more than the mildly liver-like taste? Or simply kept chewing the gum long after the taste has vanished? If you have, you may have an inkling of the worth of Monotheist and it's basic, feral nature. It goes deeper than just riffs, melodies or lyrics. It's there, burrowing somewhere, and while the taste is that of dirty, rusty electricity, the texture makes it worthy.
What Celtic Frost have done is exceptional. They have taken their basic formula, the very same as found on some parts of Into the Pandemonium, and first degenerated it into the most primitive basic components, then finished the whole with a few well-chosen touches of beauty and refined spots of bleak colour. Monotheist is more of texture, emotion and atmosphere than technicality, melody or riffs. To reach the intended texture, the downtunings and occasional simplicity were neccessary. The result is rude, ugly and primitive, but like a stony desert, it contains beautiful oases, an occasional ruin of a ancient palace, or the fallen and decrepit remains of the statue of Ozymandias. The ugliness and rudeness has a majestic quality, and the beauty on the album just serves as the polar opposite of the jagged gravel desert underneath.
Musically, Monotheist is based on two factors: on one hand, the downtuned guitars playing slurried riffs mix and meld with Fischer's familiar grumpy vocals. On the other hand, there are spots of very beautiful melodies, an excellent clean-voiced female vocalist, strings and tranquil stretches. Contrasts abound and the two layers of the texture create the consistency Celtic Frost strived for. Any kind of sense of humour is completely absent, and the album is as serious as they ever come. The seriousness tops even that found on Into the Pandemonium, which is not a mean feat.
The "gothic" aspect of the album, often quoted in various contexts, is misleading. There are no romantic stories of the undead, no erotic tales of female vampires, no haunted house horrors. The atmosphere is bleak and melancholic, but at the same time angry and aggressive. Anyone looking for the kind of gothic metal that features operatic female vocals, whitewashed faces and a trickle of blood dripping from the rosy lips of a pale temptress can go and find something else. Monotheist is about bigger issues, it's all-encompassing and philosophical. Gothic doom is a mislabel, but like so many times before, Celtic Frost's specific genre is nearly impossible to name due to their originality. This may rather be the birth of a new genre than gothic doomdeath.
This piece of art will be imitated and copied, and hundreds or thousands of bands will be influenced by it. It's quite unlikely that anyone can reach the same artistic height, however; Into the Pandemonium, with its similarly original concept and execution, remains alone in its own category, despite its advanced age of two decades. There are not even credible pastiches of it yet, and the raw emotions expressed by its refined and occasionally symphonic sounds remain as potent as ever. Monotheist will have a similar fate: few will name it among their favourite albums, but it will be secretly revered by thousands, and influence and inspiration will be drawn from it for decades to come.
Monotheist is not an easy album to understand. It's even more difficult to like. But if you wish to like it, you must do it on Monotheist's own rules; the album will not yield an inch to accommodate your taste. It stands there, tall and foreboding, as a Monolith is supposed to do, and doesn't care. Worship it, loathe it or ignore it, it's all the same. Monotheist will simply ignore you.
It took just six months for the Monotheist to move from the record stores' front shelves to the bottom of the cheapest bargain bins. It just serves as evidence of a tragic truth: mankind still does not recognize its own greatest creations.