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The Emperors Return - 95%

Falconsbane, July 26th, 2006

Metal has been deluged in recent years by a flood tide of 'reunions' and 'comebacks' from old heroes and also rans alike. What most of these releases had in common was the distinct odor of cash grubbing from 'artists' who no longer possess anything remotely resembling creative vision. I didn't hold any particular hope from the 'comeback' release from Swiss legends Celtic Frost. After all, this is the same band that petered out in one of the great acts of artistic self-immolation in the genre's history, first collapsing into artfag pretension with Into the Pandemonium, then going glam with Cold Lake before finally descending into self-parody with Vanity/Nemesis. However, I find myself not only pleasantly surprised with Monotheist, but actively astounded by an album that, while not perfect, is a brilliantly evocative and powerfully diverse work of art from a creative powerhouse that I had thought dead and buried.

Among Monotheist's strengths are the things it is not. Monotheist is neither an attempt to recapture a 'classic sound' nor the work of a band capitalizing on current trends in hopes of scaring up a buck or two from a new audience. Instead, Warrior, Ain and company have gone back to the drawing board, taking a look at new look at the art that inspired them in their youth and using it once more as a springboard for their own creative process.

The results are nothing short of stunning, a diverse smorgasboard of musical delicacies running the gamut from brutally punishing to startlingly beautiful all laid out as a feast for the ears. Monotheist opens with two of its most consistently (and insistently) bludgeoning tracks ("Progeny" and "Ground"), tracks that bring to mind Discharge or early Master in their unrelenting violence and invitingly distressing simplicity. From there, things only get better, as the album lurches in equally sinister, but more sophisticated direction with songs like "A Dying God Came in Human Flesh," "Drown in Ashes" and "Obscured," which, with their 'gothic' melodies and dual male-female vocal technique resemble nothing so much as first album Dead Can Dance reimagined as genius-level metal. The true climax of Monotheist, however, is the monumental album closer "Synagoga Satanae," a bruising, brooding monster that encapsulates nearly a quarter century of experience and vision into a 14+ minute incantation to the night. With it, Celtic Frost achieve the seemingly impossible, a fitting conclusion to what Warrior and Ain begun with "Triumph of Death."

Monotheist possesses a coup of remarkable attributes above and beyond its atypical success for a 'comeback.' The exceptional coherence of the album, despite the diversity of material it contains is noteworthy. Equally significant is the way Monotheist adds to the structural lexicon of metal. Most early metal bands retained (if sometimes only in modified form) the verse/chorus format inherited from rock music. Hellhammer/Celtic Frost (along with Slayer and a few others) were instrumental in the early and mid 1980's in the move toward a more expansive, linear narrative form (a process that would culminate in the early 1990s with the symphonic ambient styles of bands like Burzum and Immortal). Much of the strength of Monotheist lies in reincorporating the viral/memetic approach pioneered by Discharge into its aural narrative. Celtic Frost's dark designs retain a holistic unity, but at the elemental level, break down into a series of repeated idea fragments that worm their way into the brain, ready to fester and infect. While the technique is perhaps somewhat crude at this point, it should rightfully be seen both as a revolutionary departure and as a promising vector for future exploration. Hail the emperors' return!