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Dissolving a band and forming a new one straight afterwards which retains two thirds of the original line-up might seem strange and a little pointless, but in 1980’s Switzerland Tom G. Warrior and Martin Ain had their reasons for closing the Hellhammer book and striking out into a bold new chapter entitled Celtic Frost. Hellhammer’s pounding adrenaline-fuelled intensity wouldn’t be left behind, but the vision behind Celtic Frost was a lot more refined, forward-thinking and ambitious. Not only did the crude moniker of their former band mismatch with this ambition, but Hellhammer was despised by a media not yet accustomed to extreme metal’s aural battering, the name synonymous with awful. Celtic Frost was a new start.
That new start would begin with Morbid Tales, released just a few months after Hellhammer’s final recordings. Originally a six song EP, the US version included two songs later found on the marvellously thrashy Emperor’s Return EP (along with the rest of the EP on later reissues), taking it over the thirty minute mark and technically making it Frost’s debut full-length. A somewhat confusing start to this new venture, but musically it would silence everyone. Beginning with a unholy cacophony of screams entitled Human, Morbid Tales straight off the bat set itself up as something a little different. It’s disconcerting and scary, and the perfect way to anticipate the explosion of Into the Crypts of Rays. A direct continuation of the straight ahead brutal thrash of Hellhammer, it’s as pummelling an album opener as any, but throbbing with its own identity and morbid feel.
The improved production values of Morbid Tales compared to the raw splatter of the Hellhammer demos meant that the Swiss upstart’s ungodly fury could be appreciated and felt to a level previously impossible for all but a few, and what a fury it was. A potent concoction of Black Sabbath, Discharge, and something altogether uglier and crueller stemming from inside Warrior himself, Morbid Tales still sounds bestial and menacing today. Visions of Mortality and Return to the Eve torment with dark, juicy riffing, closer Nocturnal Fear tears along with unbridled wrath incomparable to anything released at the time, and in Procreation (of the Wicked) Celtic Frost delivered an extreme metal anthem that simply crushes, its wrecking ball mega-riff steamrolling like Tony Iommi wearing elephantine spiked iron boots while Warrior barks the increasingly sophisticated lyrics over the top with bowel-churning potency. Then there’s Danse Macabre, the biggest hint here at the more avant-garde direction Frost would take. A four minute collection of eerie whispers, tortured howls and distorted noise, it’s one of the creepiest things committed to tape and clear evidence of the band’s refusal to play by the rules.
With the combination of Hellhammer’s smattering of recordings and this disembowelling slice of heaviness, Tom G. Warrior and co. could have left it there and still proven one of the most influential and important acts in metal history. Morbid Tales is one of the most powerful debuts ever written (provided you actually count it as their debut due to those damn alternate track listings). This wasn’t the end though, and Celtic Frost had only just greased the wheels.
Originally written for http://soundandmotionmag.com/
What I love most about the retrospective analysis of the metal music from my youth, that which I've matured alongside for decades now, is just how fascinating and divergent its evolution seems in the rear view mirror. How different nations and scenes contributed to parallel growth, structurally and lyrically. How particular releases launched a thousand ships like the fabled Helen of Troy, while others could not inspire disembarkation from even the scantest of flotilla. Funny then, that even among all of these coordinated fronts of competitive and emulous transformation, Swiss godfathers Celtic Frost stands as more or less an anomaly, an anthropological crossroads between the cultures of thrash metal, doom, hardcore punk, and the black and death metal scenes which had yet to fully embody their own identities.
It would be hard to take an accurate count of how many recordings have been directly inspired by Morbid Tales, because we're at a stage now where even its own aesthetic offspring are now at legendary status. Darkthrone is the perfect example. Both their death metal debut Soulside Journey and seminal black metal mutation Ablaze in the Norther Sky were openly, enormously inspired by Tom G. Warrior and crew, in atmosphere, attitude AND actualized riff structure; and I could name hundreds of shameless knockoffs of that enduring Norse outfit. Granted, Celtic Frost (and its prior incarnation Hellhammer) were not themselves without some precedent. Punk and hardcore music had by this point arrived and spawned a number of aggressive legends of their own (Discharge's Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing among them), while a not insignificant fraction of this band's relentlessness and filth might be attributed to UK demons Venom and Motörhead; lyrically the former and musically the pair. Tendrils of descent from the crushing pathos of 70s Sabbath are undeniable.
Even inclusive of these considerations, though, Morbid Tails is a distinct landmark on a trail of carnage that stems from the dawn of musical extremity to the ongoing struggle for attaining that next 'level' of aggression. By comparison to faster, more lethal contemporaries of the period like Bathory's self-titled debut, Slayer's Show No Mercy or Destruction's Sentence of Death, the material here often lacks finesse or the same knack for riffing complexity. Celtic Frost had cleaned itself up from Hellhammer, and the production values are noticeably more accessible and professional than the Apocalyptic Raids EP from the same year. That's not necessarily a positive, and I might personally prefer the earlier archetype to their first two releases under the new identity, but it makes sense for a band whose intent was growth alongside the emergent and diversified European underground of extreme metal. These days it's a badge of honor in certain scenes to produce the most amateur, afflicted and unwashed material possible, but by the mid 80s, that practice generally manifest as a symptom of having little to no budget.
However, fret not, heralds of grime, because Morbid Tales still retains the ruddy riffing texture and dynamic sensibility of its predecessors. Blazing, punk guitar passages are interspersed with slower palm muted hardcore/thrash sequences, the latter just as worthy of the primordial mosh pits as what the Stormtroopers of Death would soon start to build overseas. Of the five metal tracks on the EP (excluding "Danse Macabre"), there is a fairly even distribution of fast and slow material. "Into the Crypts of Rays", "Visions of Mortality" and "Nocturnal Fear" all feature rapt excursions into velocity, while "Procreation (Of the Wicked)" and "Return to the Eve" adhere to a plodding, crushing consistency which feels incredibly heavy despite the clarity and polish of the guitar tone. Martin Ain's low end and Stephen Priestly's drumming might not seem extravagant, but they add to the bruised ugliness of the music, in particular the syrup-thick bass which often competes with the guitar for attention, even if the notation runs a similar course.
I would like to spend some time discussing the signature components and techniques that these Swiss legends brought to the table. First and foremost, the corpulent and molten 'grooves' bear some mentioning. A strong example would be the opening for "Procreation (of the Wicked)", with its slosh of chords against strong palm muted chugging that is pretty much the default for how thousands of bands in various genres build a riff even today. Prior to this, I think only Sabbath could crush so hard ("Symptoms of the Universe", etc). But Celtic Frost also evolved a rare characteristic of opening and closing off certain measures with a simple, bended note that oozed torment while giving a false sense of 'incompletion' to the overall riff, a technique that progeny like Darkthrone would recycle for decades. They also stuck to a lot of very basic ascending and descending patterns or chords that helped solidify the grooves without scattering themselves over the fret board, like the incredible mosh riff in the lead-bridge of "Return to the Eve".
Most importantly, though, are the vocals of Tom G. Warrior, which sound like a man choking on crud while clearing his lungs, or some constipated, drunken drifter emerging from a bar in Zurich to take a squat in a dank alley of refuse. With the right amount of echo or reverb here, his bark sounds incredibly oblique, evil and memorable, and the guy's 'hoos' and 'has' and 'ooos' are just legendary, a clear remnant of his showmanlike, hard rock forebears. Surely there's a bit of Cronos and Lemmy in the 'spirit' of his delivery, but his thick accent ensures a unique quality that, to its day, I know I hadn't experienced. The lyrics are also pretty fucking impressive, paeans to the contrasted knight/serial killer Gilles de Rais ("Into the Crypts of Rays"), ritual magic ("Visions of Mortality"), the succession of original sin from the Old Testament ("Procreation of the Wicked"), the dreamstate ("Return to the Eve"), and even Lovecraft's Mythos ("Nocturnal Fear"). A pretty eclectic array of dark subjects delivered through thoughtful, image-thick prose that was well ahead of many of the band's metal contemporaries (internationally).
Despite all of its myriad qualities, and the many distinctions I've described herein, I will admit that Morbid Tales is not quite deserving of a bust upon the pedestal of perfection that others might claim. Its primal transgressions I take no issue with: not the simplicity of the songwriting structures, nor the predictable flow of the riffing. But, for example, I don't like the lead guitars, which are fleeting and messy but lack the energetic, unhinged pizzazz that bands like Slayer and Pestilence whipped up through the 80s. While consistent with one another, and the mood of both the iconic cover art and lyrical matter, I've never found all of the rhythm guitars to be that exciting ("Nocturnal Fear" and "Into the Crypts of Rays" have a handful I could do without). And then there are the experimental flourishes, not as eclectic and variegated as those later manifest to their sophomore album Into the Pandemonium, but not very interesting either. I like the wall of tortured howls that inaugurates "Into the Crypts...", but the 4 minute ambient ritual "Danse Macabre" sacrifices a little catchiness for its creepiness.
Screams, whispers, a piano here, a violin shred there, a morbid mantra. Acceptable for a Halloween evening, since it sounds like it might hail from one of those holiday CDs you buy at the grocery store; or as background noise for some obscure, Gothic seduction, but not something I would expressly seek out for its own allure... Fortunately, none of these minor mars can heavily compromise the surface area of the EP, and its importance as a cornerstone for the incessant thrash, death, doom and black metal lineage of the 90s and beyond still stands as it approaches its third decade of existence. It's not the peak of this band's repertoire (wait a year), nor a Lord of the Rings for extreme metal. I'd liken it instead to Robert Howard's original Conan stories: elegant but barbaric, crude but descriptive. But is the one really all that less influential than the other in the end? One final note: I was originally exposed to this and its successor EP (Emperor's Return) separately, so I'll review them as such. Today's crowd has the convenience of acquiring them on a single disc, which in no way decreases their individual worth, and makes for a rather consistent full length experience.
(A note before beginning: "Morbid Tales" has endured a slew of re-releases over the years and a perpetually shuffling track listing. My copy is the most commonly available one now, which features twelve tracks compiling the original "Morbid Tales" release mixed with the subsequent "Emperor's Return" EP. Without an original copy of the band's debut EP, deciding what exactly entails "Morbid Tales" is more a matter of what version you have than concrete fact. Considering the popularity of my version, the fact that the "Emperor's Return" tracks were composed alongside those on "Morbid Tales," my copy's branding as "Morbid Tales" rather than as a compilation, and for the sake of convenience and the prevention of redundancy, I've decided to review the compiled work as "Morbid Tales" rather than splitting the releases apart and covering them separately.)
One of the most heated and enduring debates in the metal critic "community" is whether older albums reviewed in a more contemporary era should be judged in terms of their position when the album was released versus how they hold up today. This discussion seems to pop up more often in metal's critical circles than in those of other musical styles, perhaps due to the style's unusually large community of reviewers, the similarly unusual regularity in which older albums are revisited by younger writers who entered the metal scene after many older albums' heyday, or even just the genre's emphasis on the importance of a sort of historical narrative. Metalheads, it seems, purchase older albums which aren't necessarily still relevant in the strictest sense with a regularity unmatched by those in other genres; or, to be more precise, less intensely involved fans of the style seem to partake in this sort of musical necromancy more frequently than those of other styles, where the resurrection and reexamination of older albums is more often the domain of the cantankerous grognards that inhabit other scenes. To rarefy the idea even further, metalheads seem more infatuated with discovering forgotten, definitively non-canonical albums of old than fans of other styles of music. It's for some of these reasons or all of them that discussions regarding the relevance of older albums tend to erupt so violently; there tends to be an emotional investment of a deeper degree than you might see in, say, the electronic community.
Fortunately enough for us metal critics, it seems that the decision is often made for us. It's a rare occasion that an album of old was brilliant then but comes off as a musical failure now, and it's equally rare that the garbage of old might become an unearthed gem later. There are exceptions to each, of course (Anthrax, I'd say, for the former, and Beherit is certainly a recognizable occupant of the latter category,) but more often than not, shit is shit and gold is gold without much waffling between the two. When it comes to the primary question of the judgment of albums, though, I tend to take the South Park approach: while we can hardly lambaste albums for evidencing the inherent limitations of their era (I'm not going to dock points from "Altars of Madness" for the distinct lack of gravity blasts or slams,) it could be said that the benchmark of truly great art is its ability to transcend its origin and maintain relevance despite the movement of ages. Wagner's work doesn't sound dated; nor should any other piece of truly great art. Once in a while, though, even that approach fails me, and I'm confronted by an album that forces me to question that view, tearing me between both my appreciation for metal history and my personal feelings and standards when viewed today. Celtic Frost's seminal debut "Morbid Tales" is one such release.
Reviewing "Morbid Tales" as an album alone puts one in a similar position as one who would attempt to review one of the original "Star Wars" movies as a film alone: it's nearly impossible. "Star Wars" has become such an omnipresent part of Western culture, so inescapable and deeply entrenched in cultural consciousness, that one's personal opinions and experiences with it are rendered sort of inappropriate and bizarre. One doesn't like or dislike "Star Wars," really- it simply IS. Celtic Frost occupies a similar place which makes independent appraisal difficult. With "Morbid Tales" (and, to a certain degree, the band's entire early discography) forming such a pivotal role in the development of metal as a musical style, a judgment of "Morbid Tales" is rather easily interpreted as a judgment of all its descendants as well. If one enjoys extreme metal but doesn't find Celtic Frost's work compelling, it's somewhat challenging to justify. Celtic Frost carries so much historical baggage on its shoulders that one has to tread lightly to prevent misinterpretation.
As I've stated in many other reviews of older albums, and as is obvious to those who read my reviews regularly, my taste in heavy metal tends towards the modern and extreme. While I appreciate the significance and necessity of many releases from the early '90s and before, they rarely strike me on a particularly personal level. As my primary interests in metal are rooted in subgenres and styles developed later on, older metal records tend to lack a lot of the essential qualities I look for in metal releases. Occasionally one sneaks by and I find myself greatly enjoying it, but for the most part, the more restrained nature of the music tends to leave me itching for a more extreme, updated realization. Still, my earlier question comes to roost: should these releases be judged in the appropriate context, or is viewing them without historical consideration a fair tactic for analysis.
I say all this because I can't say I greatly enjoy "Morbid Tales." Without a doubt I understand how seminal and crucial a release it is- without it, all of my favorite bands today probably wouldn't exist. It forms the most primordial building blocks of black and death metal, and arguable stands as the most crucial single release contributing towards the later realization of the extreme metal ideal. That being said, I can't claim to enjoy a release purely in terms of its historical relevance, nor can I ham-fistedly defend it with one of those "Black Sabbath was the heaviest band ever" attempts at historical revisionism. Since one of the more remarkable qualities of "Morbid Tales" at the time of its release was its relative extremity and heaviness, the fact that these aspects have been so thoroughly exceeded by more modern works dates it pretty intensely; it goes without saying that no one listening to this now will be in awe of it in the same manner they may have back in the '80s. Between that, the undeniably simplistic, fairly one-dimensional songwriting, and the very flat, dry production, the album comes off as something of a victim of its time- there's very little to criticize, particularly when considering what might have been had it more options to explore.
One of the problems that afflicts this album (as does, in my opinion, many of the classic albums from the pre-extreme metal area) is that it's composed of a handful of tracks which so far outstrip the rest in quality and memorability that the album ends up feeling weirdly paced and somewhat padded. Let's face it: discussions of the best tracks on "Morbid Tales" are nearly identical whenever they pop up. "Into the Crypts of Rays," "Procreation of the Wicked," and "Circle of Tyrants" (with maybe "Dethroned Emperor" as a floater) are so overwhelmingly representative of Celtic Frost's style at the time and so clearly above and beyond the remaining tracks that the rest of the album is perpetually cast in their shadow. This wouldn't ordinarily be a problem- after all, few bands manage to craft songs as enduring as "Procreation of the Wicked"- except for the fact that on this disc there's another 8 tracks to keep in mind. These, unfortunately, tend not to fair so well- there's not many out there who would call, say, "Return to the Eve" a crucial part of the Celtic Frost catalog, and for good reason: it's simply not that great.
To elaborate on that idea: Celtic Frost's role as the primordial soup from whence came black and death metal is both to the benefit and downfall of the album. Listening to music like this is somewhat refreshing, considering how relentlessly striated and fractured the different styles of extreme metal have become. To this day, Celtic Frost's music is still somewhat unquantifiable; a well-blended and homogeneous (and I mean that in a good way) combination of proto-black, death, doom, thrash, trad, and hardcore punk, it's at once a sort of crossroads for all sorts of styles and unique in its own right. However, in another example of the curse of changed impressions and expectations, the best tracks come off as stirringly independent while the others tend to sound generic and uninspired. It's more my fault than the band's; in the modern metal scene, the heightened expectations and more distinct ideas of genre in both restricted metal and refined it to a vicious point, giving it less structural depth in many cases but also more immediacy. Most of the tracks on "Morbid Tales" lack that immediacy, though: they trudge, they chug, they creep along, employing all these different styles in a manner that would be described as the lowest common denominator had the denominator even existed at this point.
While "Morbid Tales" was an undeniably essential part of extreme metal's growth and development, calling it an extreme metal album (or even more absurdly, a proper example of death or black metal) is a stretch I simply can't agree with. Much in the vein of "Seven Churches" or "Black Metal," the usefulness of this album, in my mind, is more in what happened when others across the world attempted to copy it and failed, resulting in more unusual ideas. Structurally, this has much more in common with the heavy metal of the '70s than the extreme metal of the '90s, and perhaps just as much with punk as the traditional strains of heavy metal. Much of the material on this disc sounds like a beefed up, dark interpretation of Motörhead, particularly on the more energetic tracks like "Visions of Mortality"; there's a certain rock and roll spirit to much of this music that would be progressively stripped away by later artists. Thrash is one of the building blocks, but even at the band's fastest and most snapping, it rarely seems to reach for the feeling that thrash did; where the best thrash comes off as a sort of dizzying array of razors slashing at the listener, "Morbid Tales" sounds more like a series of heavy-handed punches to the gut. It's a blunt record- an interesting change of pace, but somewhat trying after a while.
I'd say the production is to blame for much of the record's lack of connection with me, which is perhaps the part of this album I feel the worst about criticizing. This was a factor almost utterly out of the band's control; the production styles of modern black or death metal weren't even a thought, and there was no reason (or ability, for that matter) to approach this album's mixing in such a manner- this isn't even taking into account the obviously slim budget the band had at their disposal. Still, it's one of the biggest hurdles to appreciating this album that I have to jump over. It's very flat, very dry, and when combined with the already very simple songwriting that dominates the record, tends to make the songs sound even more minimal than they already are. The guitar tone is very constrained and midsy, the drums are flat and lack space (particularly in the kick and snare,) and the vocals, while often doused in echo, tend to sound sort of small and unobtrusive. The sound doesn't fill the musical space in the manner the music truly needs; you're left with what sounds like a very small band playing in a very large room with their amps set to 4. Oddly enough, the exception to this is the bass tone; it's rich, smooth, and perfectly balanced against the guitars, and while it lacks the slight growl I might prefer for the style, I can't bring myself to criticize it.
The end issue, though, is that aforementioned songwriting simplicity. It's not that aspect in and of itself- with how much Von I listen to, I'd be an utter hypocrite to take issue with it in isolation- but when combined with the production and overall style of the band, the songs often sound spartan to the point of minimalism. Tracks are composed of three or four very simple riffs each, and the straightforward drumming and vocal performance hardly help to provide a great deal more variation. In some ways, it's more primitive than Hellhammer (who, all things considered, probably came closer to the end aesthetic of black and death metal than Celtic Frost ever did,) and even my favorite songs on this album feel unadorned and begging for more texture, be it from more riffs, more dynamic songwriting structures, or simply a better, more expansive sound. In the end, I'll stand by my opinion that the songs themselves on this album tend to be strong and unique- it's all the other factors involved in their display to the listener which prevent me from enjoying them fully.
Amusingly enough, my feelings towards "Morbid Tales" (and Celtic Frost's early work in general) tend to echo those of Tom Warrior himself. I was fortunate enough to catch the band opening for Type O Negative, touring off "Monotheist." In interviews and on his blog, Tom has expressed feeling as though the band's change towards a more extreme, slower, downtuned, oppressive direction with "Monotheist" (and the subsequent reinterpretation of their older tracks in this manner) was a sort of long-awaited perfection of the band's aesthetic, and I tend to agree. When listening to live recordings of tracks like "Procreation of the Wicked" after "Monotheist," the songs have a gravitas and drama to them that's an exponential improvement over their original form. The denim and leather coolness of the '80s is stripped out and replaced with a decayed, filth-ridden, occult vibe that manages to instantly update the music to legitimately compete with contemporary bands but still maintain its unique sense of style. "Procreation of the Wicked" on "Morbid Tales" feels like a cool, chugging, but ultimately rather human heavy metal track; the same song post-"Monotheist" is a frightening, ritualistic invocation of demons from beyond the veil. It was Celtic Frost finally achieving what they were meant for from the start; it's a shame that more didn't appreciate the transformation.
I think it's substantially more insulting to an album to claim it excellent merely due to its influence and historical position than to give it a realistic, honest appraisal, so I'll say that while the historical significance of "Morbid Tales" is undeniable, that's where my interest in it essentially begins and ends. Hearing it is a rite of passage, and owning a copy is a sacrament, so I won't discourage anyone from acquiring a copy merely to have it. Unless you were around to hear the album when it was released, though, its musical properties are likely to fall flat- doubly so for those listeners like me who already have to overcome a relative lack of extremity. "Morbid Tales" has become extremely dated, and the era of its greatest significance has long passed- which, it might sound odd to say, I don't really consider a failing of the album, nor a particularly heavy slam against its overall quality; there's something to be said for art designed to be experienced at a certain moment in time, intrinsically temporary and present, designed for those in the right place at the right time to experience it in its full form and no one else. I laud this release and will never deny its significance, and the fact that it's been eclipsed is, given the circumstances, a sort of wry compliment: the student has become the teacher, the son the father, and while recording this album, Celtic Frost unknowingly signed its death warrant- perhaps what they'd always intended.
It’s often puzzling how artists are when it comes viewing their work – though, I feel for the purposes of adding to his own ever-growing headaches, I should refer to Tom as an “entertainer” – as Mr Fischer himself feels this is merely another step-up on the career ladder for his and Martin’s band. But, of course, as a fan of his perplexing body of work I feel Morbid Tales to be the peak of their achievements. It’s 1984, and this mini-LP or actual LP (depending on where you’re located) has just rose itself from the warm, stinky corpse of Hellhammer; it’s a time when the beast and beast-man in TGW’s head are still fiercely locked in combat – ferocity or avante garde? Songs built on monstrous riffs or female guest singers? Celtic Frost’s future was, as of yet, uncertain and it would be a few years yet till Tom’s ruthless pursuit of ‘bettering’ himself artistically would prove the band’s untimely undoing.
Well, the success of Morbid Tales is, in part, due to the fact that it can teeter between both. Not so much avante-garde as it is une bande petite avante-garde (please pardon my French, and I’ll pardon your garlicky smell). For every obviously looped screaming intro there’s still a wonderfully atonal solo that reeks of an amateur trying to extend his skills beyond what he’s capable of, whilst sounding all the better for it (or is that true of both?). Whereas Tom Fischer views Hellhammer as a noisy, juvenile fumbling of some inexperienced Swiss boys – often in a wholly derogatory manner that brings to mind the time when your parents would dismiss, say, Slayer’s Reign in Blood “bloody awful noise” – this is clearly more focused, if still completely charming in its unique construction and execution; as despite his own inferiority complex no-one plays guitar quite like Tom. In both shrouded, gloomy metal in a way Venom never imagined and the more out-there sections it’s a wonderfully complete listen, which never holds back on riffs that every self-respecting metalhead would want for Christmas.
It’s perhaps funny that such a seemingly primitive album (from a musical stand-point, at least) achieves far more than Tom’s own self-appointed Jewelled Throne, Into the Pandemonium. “How can this be my legacy?” Tom would surely say in the depths of night (in between looking for hair-restoring potions in Swiss mens’ magazines). I don’t know about you, but the subtle variations in mood and the obvious if completely fantastic tempo changes in the songs here are a far higher art form than the “second-head made of papier-mâché” add-ons of Into the Pandemonium (don’t get me wrong, though, I still like that album).
Of course, I don’t think anyone could argue that this is a truly amateurish attempt, I must stress that the lyrics are fucking excellent; there’s not all too many Satans and hex-demons from the gates of Rotherham, but Tom Warrior (who, I feel, is a separate entity to Tom Fischer) and Martin Eric Ain craft some deliciously dark images. It’s occult, evil stuff – but it doesn’t feel like it’s the 31st of October and children are asking for sweets but being given apples. If you needed a more obvious note of sophistication, which this record does possess in spades, look no further. It certainly goes a little deeper than the regular interjections of “ugh” and “hey”, all whilst being lyrically several steps above what most, if not all, English or American bands of the time were doing. In all, as a complete artefact from metal’s grim and dank past it possesses both a grandeur and intensity that few could ever match. Peerless, really!
As for a personal favourite from this heavy metal smorgasbord of metal, well, I’d have to go with the title track: A one-eyed beastie, morose and stone-faced upon its throne. It’s the classic Celtic Frost sound but with a deceptive chorus riff that conveys more melody than it initially seems. A monument to everything that band strove for and a stunning realisation of everything metal can be. If that’s simple then the next Satyricon album is going to be called “Yo! Satyr Raps!”… Actually, that doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Perhaps I should choose a better analogy?
It’s funny just how far bands could go in the early-to-mid 80s with merely the original intent of being “heavier than Venom”, isn’t it? And they certainly weren’t done just yet. But, of course, how could you relate to such a thing? Pre-internet heavy metal just isn’t your thing! It’s not your scene, man! It doesn’t match your perfectly sculpted eyebrows! Timeless music doesn’t transcend the decades, no; it simply lays in its box and rots!
The first full length release from the band that was formed from the ashes of the raw, part-hokey, part-disturbing Hellhammaer represents a clear shift in style and sound. Far more professional than their earlier incarnation, Tom G's trio recorded an album that has a definite focus, development and execution. Despite that it is impossible to deny a certain thematic continuity that identifies this as a successor of Apocalyptic Raids. //
The production is less raw just and that description is true for every aspect of this release when compared to Hellhammer. At the same time, it is far removed from the slick, polished finish one would expect from modern power metal bands - a grainy, muddy sound is a constant accompaniment in the background. The guitar tone is heavy, bludgeoning and dominant throughout the album. I cannot overemphasize the aggression that makes a strong presence in every song. In that regard, it has moved ahead from their previous effort where the songs were uneven and relied heavily on the eeriness and shrieks. Talking of which, this album has no dearth of atmosphere and darkness or screams and grunts. While the bizarre, unearthly bells, screeches, howling winds and various unclassifiable sounds of Danse Macabre are the most extreme in this regard, the others have a powerful, intense sense of dread, horror and primeval expression. The general pace is slower than most contemporary thrash outputs, but the most distinct moments are the bass-heavy, thick guitar-riffs in slower segments. Thrash breaks can be heard in almost all song and they are used very effectively in a manner that complements the overall mood of the album. The guitar solos are short, atmospheric and adds to the grim, bleak and hopeless aesthetics. Standing on their own, these solos would not be particularly imaginative, but they could not be more in sync with the songs. The drumming is good and maintains the pace and aggression while providing a sense of structure to the songs. //
It comes as little surprise in hindsight that this was an extremely influential album which eventually heralded a whole new genre that was later explored to great lengths over the next several years. It is hard to think of another band that created such a dark art with a clear, topical focus both in sound and mood and yet managed to kick-ass( in the traditional sense) and not abandon the broad framework Heavy Metal.
This album generally gets a lot of praise for being a huge influence on the death metal genre and a classic staple of early “brutal” thrash, which it is for the most part. However, in reality it doesn’t really hold up to similar releases such as Endless Pain or even Apocalyptic Raids, which was belched out by practically the same band (except for name and drummer) that penned this slightly more elegant, yet less exciting release.
Gone here is the unrivaled murky guitar tone and so-bad-it’s-good drumming of the previous effort of Mr. Warrior and co., and here to stay, for good or bad, is a much crunchier guitar tone and some drumming that is at least professional. The vocals are definitely unique, rooted firmly somewhere in the evolutionary process of the death growl, though they seem to lack conviction at times. This is probably due in part to the drunkenness of the lead singer or lack of sleep or something. Either way, the vocals could be better, but the fact that he butchers nearly every other word just makes it that much more enjoyable. Another very interesting characteristic of this guy, and therefore this album, is his tendency to throw in random “EUGH!”’s in the song that usually lend a hand in ruining the evil primordial atmosphere that issues forth from the speakers. Although sometimes it is kind of nifty, it is completely overdone here.
The riffs on this album are decent, although there are not a lot that really stand out, except the main part of “Circle of the Tyrants” and the ending riff-fest of “Visions of Mortality.” My main qualm with the music and guitar-work of this thing, though, is the sameness of it. The riffs don’t just sound the same, some of them are the same exact fucking riff. I swear. I call it the Morbid Tales riff. It’s at the beginning of “Dethroned Emperor.” It’s in some parts of the title track. Not that it’s bad, its just like a fucking virus or something. It is funny in a way, but the music suffers from this sameness.
The solos are nothing special really. They’re just way too much whammy bar stuff and squealing. Of course they do have a lot of attitude and a decidedly demented bent. It’s definitely better than the next album’s soloing though.
If this album gets anything right, it is definitely atmosphere. The sludgy crunch of the guitar and the strange bark/groan of Tom really project the feeling of things forgotten, things not meant to be mentioned, dare I say… things morbid? And these guys certainly do it better and with much more personality than most black metal bands do.
Highlights of this album include the menacing doom anthem of “Procreation of the Wicked”, the time changes and aforementioned awesome ending section of “Visions of Mortality” that surely influenced bands such as Obituary (just listen to the song Slowly we Rot), and last but not least, the mighty “Circle of the Tyrants.”
Overall, what this album lacks in aggression and energy compared to other pre ’86 extreme metal releases, it makes up for in mood and the outstanding obscure lyrics that were a definite influence on later bands like My Dying Bride. So if you are looking for some good early extreme metal or want to get into Celtic Frost, Morbid Tales is good for you. So go forth and prosper and listen to Morbid Fucking Tales or forever be a poser!
(And never listen to Danse Macabre late at night!)
“Alluring children for his masses
Robbing and buying young souls
Sacrifice to morbid demons
Satisfy his repulsive sexual lust”
Hearing that blaring from your speakers, from the first song gives you an idea of what this album is about.
Definitely groundbreaking, this came out right after Hellhammer broke up and kept up the tradition. Can this be better than Apocalyptic Raids? Yes it certainly can and it is. Cleaner songwriting, production, and maybe a tad bit more professional Celtic Frost’s debut blew Hellhammer out of the water. A mixture of black, death, and old school thrash and not to mention the ultimate guitar tone. Listen to that tone of Procreation of the Wicked for a taste of that. Around this time thrash was poking its way into the metal world showing a deadly increase of speed. Along with that, Venom and Mercyful Fate were still planting the seeds of black metal with Don’t Break the Oath. But Celtic Frost held an original sound that was somewhere in-between, mainly leaning towards the Venom sound. Another thing to add is that this album just isn’t complete without the added EP Emperor’s Return. It really rounds off the album, not to mention has the best Celtic Frost song ever, Circle of Tyrants. The only thing that brings the album down is the sometimes monotone moments that you start feeling by about track 6. But don’t worry it isn’t that bad, its still 84. Maybe around ‘87 is when that feeling started getting annoying, but here it’s still fresh and brutal.
Probably a bit terrifying for back then, Human is a short little intro of moans and screams that runs right into one of the fastest songs on the album and a great little piece of old school thrash, Into the Crypts of Rays. I was surprised when I heard this because all I had heard from Celtic Frost was their slow bludgeoning songs but this had plenty of thrashy type riffs and a nice chorus and goes in-between fast thrashy to midtempo, keeping things interesting. Also note the molestation on the drums from Priestly. “Visions…” have always been a bit boring to me for some reason and is somewhat of a throwaway track.
Dethroned Emperor is more along the lines of what I expected from Celtic Frost, midtempo heavy as fuck metal. They throw around a good riff that first comes around 1:20 throughout the song. Listen to that guitar/bass sound, its completely menacing. This sounds something that upcoming doom/death legends would sit around jamming to. Next is the classic title track, Morbid Tales. It starts off slowly put picks up with a shriek from Tom G. Warrior and keeps up the speedy pace with a nice pre-chorus and the classic “Are you morbid?.” And then it’s over almost as soon as it starts.
Oh god, such unholy guitar tone!!! Procreation (of the Wicked) kicks so much ass with that opening OUGH from Tom to that main riff to the crushing chorus. What the fuck at 3:30 how hardcore/necro is that, some distorted vocals about killing an old man in the background. What an ending. Return to the Eve is something a bit a different, which is not a bad thing… for the most part…; its still gut-busting metal. They take a different approach on the vocals especially in the verses, leaving you with a few “wtf was that” moments. A nice solo thrown in there as well. Speaking of “wtf moments” they throw in this odd female sample toward the end that’s a little unnecessary. If this song didn’t have nice riffs I’d probably skip this song much more often.
All right, after listening to what we have so far, an attempt at atmosphere would end up being laughable after those Return to the Eve episodes. Well Dense Macabre has a fitting title and damn well lives up to it. With just a mixture of chimes and random effects you get a feeling of pure doom, especially 2 minutes into it when they begin adding morbid (whoops) chants and more wind effects. It begins to linger and slightly fades into calm desolate atmosphere… Holy Damn what do we have here. What a song Nocturnal Fear is. It has that slaying opening riff, the speedy kickassness, not to mention the killer solo. In Celtic Frost fashion it slows itself down a bit for some more violent midsection riffage. Everything freezes at 2:00 with just a quiet bass line and then they hit you AGAIN with that opening riff and speediness. Then they go in between midtempo and speediness until it’s all over.
But wait, it isn’t quite done yet. We still have Emperor’s Return.
And thank god we do because here it is, the most punishing Celtic Frost/ Hellhammer song around, Circle of Tyrants. Oh god what a fucking riff we have here. That trademark “UUGHH” kicks this thrasher off the ground and into your bleeding ears. It doesn’t stop there, after this thrashing has exhausted you out for the time being there comes this BRUTAL slow section. Nice drumming and more riffs. The thrash comes back for a good solo and then at 2:55 the most tortured scream I’ve heard. Visual Aggression starts out with a surprisingly more upbeat sound, sort of like Motorhead mixed with Venom but it turns into a thrasher real quick. Nothing to fantastic riff-wise or technical-wise but it has a lot of energy and a cool little break with nice drums. Then there is another gem and a perfect way to end this album, Suicidal Winds. It’s got a nice pace and a crushing riff and speeds up double time for some more headbanging material.
You pretty much have to get Emperor’s Return (if not just for Circle of Tyrants) for the whole sense of “classic” to sink in. If you think you’ve heard it all from your Hellhammer albums you’re very mistaken for this is the much better logical step up from Apocalyptic Raids. They have the formula down on this record and this is the peak of the member’s career. Unfortunately this formula would be exhausted to the point of plain shit after a couple albums and the experimental stuff doesn’t work out either. But why dwell on what will come; this is still ’84 when you listen to this album. So get your hands on this if you can.
"...could I ever return, it would be my doom...
Hellhammer broke up?! I can still remember my buddy telling me at the lunch table he read it in Kick Ass Monthly (RIP). Though I didn't lose my appetite, I wasn't the least bit happy about it (or to be going to dreaded Spanish class next). About a month later there are reports Hellhammer has regrouped under the obscure moniker Celtic Frost minus drummer Bruce "Denial Fiend" Day. The world isn't in shambles after all.
Also inflating my mood was that an indie record store opened up in town that actually carried underground metal. Life doesn't get any better, eh? I get a ride over there, at this point looking for anything that wasn't mainstream, let alone anything from Celtic Frost. Guess what I found.
The bottom line is that Hellhammer's ashes were barely cold when Frost set nay sayers and their cynicisms on their ear with this one. As Hellhammer, they were called sloppy, sightless, and plain bad - the sewer of metal. Now
sporting real names, a hardier production, honed songwriting, and the same superior lyricism, it turned out Morbid Tales would become one of the most influential early underground metal lps...and hardly anyone saw it coming.
While bands like Slayer, Metallica, and Anthrax were playing faster than average, Frost's tempo went against that grain and while they didn't fear the speed realm, much of their material remained lethargic to mid-pace, one of the many elements that set the trio apart from their peers. In addition, few vocalists could remotely challenge Tom Warrior's deep sepulchral delivery, a short enviable list that would include legends Cronos, Tom Araya, Angel Ripper, and evil Chuck if you want to throw his demos into the fray. Lyrically, Tom and Martin's darkly lit prose are cryptic candles illuminating a chamber shadowed with the banality and overuse of other band's topics and have yet to be paralleled (and my old lady couldn't get on my case 'cause there was no way she was deciphering their meaning). Then there was the presentation of it all.
Sure, after hearing a hundred or so uneventful and overlong intros of everything from groaning organs to people throwing up to movie snippets, the overlapped vocal melange may have your head lolling back, but in '84 when there were maybe 10 actual intros roaming about, "Human" (unnamed on the original North American lp) was quite disturbing. "Into Crypts of Rays" erupts with more speed than any of the four tracks on Apocalyptic Raids, a straight shot of aggression to rip Hellhammer cynics apart, yet Tom doesn't lose the finesse of his patented noise solos. To dispel illusions Frost has transformed the murky HH resonance into aural adrenaline, "Visions of Mortality" hauls in the pace to showcase true Frost grit; pillars of guttural guitars downtuned to the cellar floor for the ominous plod to come. With quicker momentum the track races to a close, but is tackled by the groaning sneer of top track "Dethroned Emperor". DE is a beast that travels with a mid-pace churn, then stalks with a frighteningly menacing plod that creeps over into the chorus where Tom actually bellows the title about three different ways. The title cut welds unconventional riffs and even-keeled tempos to speedy, double bass driven ones, ending side one with the serenity of a gorilla attack.
Side two unceremoniously collides with "Procreation (of the Wicked)", the red-eyed brute that revels in a riff so discordant and heavy it almost rivals Sabbath's "Electric Funeral". The gait never increases above a quick lumber, and Tom's low, crying solo matches its mood. "Return to the Eve" is the birth of the band's future-famed experimentalism. Borrowing an uncharacteristic feature in Venom's track "Welcome to Hell", the female-narrated and hauntingly monotone verse 'Take my soul away into the dark...' is a purveyor to what Frost will accomplish, but it is a pebble to the avalanche that is "Danse Macabre", a lurid soundscape comprised of tinkling chimes, disparate moaning, chill wind, and lingering gloom that is more nightmare than song. With the subtleness of a choleric boar , "Nocturnal Fear" closes the eight-tracker with raucous rhythms, a quick primal chorus, the fastest rate yet, and a sinister 7-second interlude that comes out of nowhere and could've easily been in the previous track.
Morbid Tales was just the beginning of the eclectic and obscure nuances, the avant-garde tidbits that would warp their way into songs with seemingly little provocation. "Danse Macabre" drifts from a blackness only Tom and Martin had seen through. Did anyone see it coming? Was anyone ready for it? Where did that tiny burst of bass-pumping horror come from in "Nocturnal Fear"? I notice many seem to either downplay or just plain forget this shade of Frost's fabric, the avant-garde tinges that would infiltrate their up-coming lps to a much more prevalent degree. At least they gave us a few albums to listen to before sinking into Cold Lake.
Words can’t describe the importance of this album for metal. Any black metal band in existence should lick the boots of everyone that was involved with this CD, bow down to their knees whenever they see one of these guys and say “Hail Celtic Frost”.
It’s really that amazing. The version I have is the reissued one, Morbid Tales/Emperor’s Return from 1988. But the truth is, these songs were writeen circa 1984/1985, two years or so before the thrash explosion of 1986. This came before Darkness Descends, Reign in Blood and countless others. Damn, but even for today, it sounds still fresh and ready to kick everyone’s sorry asses.
The guitarwork is so damn top-notch. The eeeevil, noisy tone really adds up to the already great riffs not that complex like Sadus or anything, but there’s nothing marginal here. It’s very variated, with fast riffs coexisting with some midpaced ones and even some slowish, sludgy riffs. “Visions of Mortality” shows their hability. The drumming is simple but precise, to the point of making me not to wish some high-end drummer of today, like Proscriptor etc etc. I want it simple, raw and heartfelt.
Talk about being heartfelt. This is the best adjective you can give to Tom G. Warrior. His vocals are full of will, he’s not the kind of musician that does his stuff looking at his watch, waiting for the session to end. He likes to talk within the songs: “Thraaash!”, he has the trademark “uuuh, urrrrghh! aaagh!” that we all know and love. And how can we forget:
“Are you morbid?”
It’s also very cohesive. The faster parts and the slower ones are perfectly alternated. We start with the blazing-fast “Into the Crypts of Rays”, then we go into the slower one, and the we go fast again, and fast… to stop into the massive, amazing midpaced sludge of “Procreation of the Wicked”. This riff is among the best of the CD, and the overall atmosphere is just priceless. Sepultura made a cover of this song, even sludgier and very well executed, but I can’t exchange the original for nothing. Talking about covers, Opeth made a great job with the timeless classic “Circle of the Tyrants”. I don’t care if this is a textbook thrash song but it rules so fucking much, namely the slower riff, backed up by the thunderous drumming.
“Danse Macabre” is a fucking nightmare recorded on a fucking CD. This is one of the few songs in metal that can REALLY create a doomy atmosphere, not those boring funeral doom bands. It’s a collage of creepy effects that WILL scare the shit out of you.
From that track on, it’s just lots of great riffs, from the pumping, ultra-fast, alarm-like one from “Nocturnal Fear”, the overcatchy “Suicidal Winds” and the Kreator-like thrash attack of “Visual Aggression”. Damn, everything is a classic.
Get it. Plain and simple. Obvioulsy, every metalhead I know has this, and it should be institutionalized that this should be among the first 5 CDs a rookie metalhead should get. Absolutely mandatory.
Ahh, yesss, Celtic Frost! One of my very favorite bands from "back in the day", and this album reigns supreme like few others do. With its unique and disturbing vibe, this is Tom G. and friends at their heaviest and most uncompromisingly "kvlt". Before that term even came into play, even.
First of all, this is THE most evil, ugly, saturated wall of guitar noise EVAR. Few have even come close to even *trying* to clone it, the only person I kow of successfully doing so 100% being Trevor Peres (Obituary), and Sammy Duet of Goatwhore comes mighty close, too. It is what I model my personal guitar sound after when I play guitar, second only to "RIB"-era Slayer. It is Death personified, and the riffage that Tom spews out from start to finish is simply godhead, from the first charging riff of "Into The Crypts of Rays" to the last proto-speed metal riff in the title track.
His vocals are at their most guttural and distorted on this album, too--this is long before he got it into his head he could sing (he can't; sorry, Tom, but you just can't hang). Creepy occult lyrics left and right only add to the mysterious and sinister aura surrounding this album--it's like a template for Bathory, but with far better English and a slightly more artsy slant to the proceedings to set it apart from the average bands of that era.
Bassist Martin Ain (who actually wrote much of the lyrics due to his superior command of the language, if memory serves correctly) has a thick, bottomy tone that underpins that guitar onslaught perfectly, and Stephen Priestly is a master drummer, playing the right parts at the right times with impeccable timing and precision. The drums are a bit muffled for my taste, however, in the mix, but what else do you expect for 1984?
This album features some of the most overcovered tunes in metal history; "Into The Crypts of Rays", "Procreation Of The Wicked" (gotta love Tom's accent and how he makes that last word sound like "Pro-creation uv de WICK-ETT!"), and of course "Dethroned Emperor". It's not Tom's fault that those songs feature some of his most amazing riffing, whether it be "Crypts" and its merciless speedroar, "Procreation" with its groaning Sabbathy verse parts, or "Dethroned Emperor" and its fairly obvious ripoff of Diamond Head's "Am I Evil?". The rest of the album holds up and how as well, with the likes of "Morbid Tales" (proto-speed metal, as previously mentioned) and "Visions of Mortality", which builds from a doomy beginning to a thrash extravaganza that devastates all in its path.
If you don't own this classic album in some form, you just are not metal. There, I said it.