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(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.