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A little too weird for its own good - 59%

Valfars Ghost, May 1st, 2017

Perhaps the first metal album that can accurately be described as “weird as hell,” Into the Pandemonium was a trailblazer in avant-garde metal. This release must have been a shock when it first came out, with its numerous sonic experiments pulling Celtic Frost in a bunch of different directions, most of which no one had even imagined before. Throughout, there are plenty of bizarre, groundbreaking pieces, though the band’s execution of its own ideas doesn’t always pay off. The quality of the album varies greatly from one track to the next, with several songs dragging the whole experience down quite a bit with their ill-conceived strangeness.

In general, Pandemonium has an unsettling feel to it that stretches across most of its runtime. The riffs are more restrained than they’d been on past Frost outings and are typically accompanied by classical orchestration ranging from grandiose to eerie to straight-up dissonant, ghostly choirs, and industrial ideas. The all out riff-based carnage from To Mega Therion is gone, replaced instead by calmer, albeit less creative, riffs buttressed by the experimentation going on.

Only two of these pieces could be considered to be great all the way through. 'Inner Sanctum' is the song that deviates from Frost’s established M.O. the least, built as it is on some meaty riffs and Tom’s malevolent snarls. The out-of-nowhere cover of ‘Mexican Radio’ (how did such an idea even occur to the band?) that starts off the album is a triumph as well, featuring some tight, energetic playing and a rockin’ vibe with a layer of the band’s usual filth layered on top. With an ominous choir effect accompanying a fast backbeat between the first chorus and the second verse, the cover even manages to squeeze in some foreshadowing of the weirdness to unfold throughout the rest of the album.

Every other song here has glaring faults, even the ones that are good overall. Providing a concise impression of the entire release, due to its variety, is impossible so I’ll just spin off a few of the pieces that stand out the most. 'Mesmerized' is the first sign of trouble, with its slow, sparse instrumentation, the odd note progressions and dissonant weirdness of which don't do much to distract from the sluggish pace. ‘Sorrows of the Moon’ is similarly constructed, though it features Tom reciting an English translation of a Charles Baudelaire poem. Not singing. Reciting. Tom must have been high on horse tranquilizers when he recorded this because his vocal performance is so weak and garbled that I, a native English speaker, couldn’t tell that the recitation was in English until about halfway through (another attempt at this general idea, featured on some versions of the album, has some woman recite the poem in French while a string quartet provides some truly unnerving orchestration, and is much more effective and better thought out). This album’s obvious weak point, ‘One in their Pride’ is essentially a looped industrial drumbeat with a bunch of crackling audio from the Apollo 11 mission thrown overtop, accompanied by the occasional dissonant note or chord from a bowed instrument. This number is quite irritating in its repetition and insistence on cluttering up the mix with all the NASA transmissions, not that they're obscuring anything all that worthwhile. 'I Won't Dance' shows some Motown inspiration in its unforgettable chorus, where Tom and a group of female soul singers trade vocal lines. However, this song's quality is diminished somewhat by lazy vocals and lackluster instrumentation throughout most of the verses.

Though the experiments with unexpected musical influences are at least commendable, borne as they are out of a desire to expand metal’s boundaries even if they don’t always work, Tom does a lot of damage to the album just with his voice, which he foolishly decided to try branching out with. Tom’s vocals are only satisfactory when they exist in the form of a gross bark. Sadly, about 40 percent of his vocal lines are delivered in this weird attempt at…something. Sometimes he sounds like a sick old guy trying to do an impression of a pretentious Shakespearean actor (you know the stereotype—imagine the porcupine thespian in Toy Story 3), resulting in what seems more like a monologue than singing. Sometimes, he sounds like he’s imitating those lazy grunge vocals that hadn’t been invented yet while having an unsatisfying orgasm. This weird approach to singing is unengaging, off-putting, and a serious hindrance to the album’s flow, which is rendered stilted and awkward throughout the entirety of 'Mesmerized' and parts of several other songs, simply because Tom didn’t have the sense to realize his voice sounds horrible in every context that doesn’t involve howling or grunting his way through a song.

Frost's willingness to go so far out of its comfort zone in the name of innovation should be applauded for what it means conceptually, even if Tom's skills as a composer and singer aren't always up to the task of making it work in practice. Pandemonium's songs show a great deal of vision that was far too ambitious from the beginning for the band to fulfill. Despite the group's best efforts and plenty of moments where the bizarre mixture of metal, ambiance, and gothic orchestration is more than satisfying, ultimately we're left with an album that's a little too weird for its own good.