In the beginning was the word and the word was pronounced "Keltic." Martin Eric Ain, bassist for Celtic Frost, speaks beautiful English with a lilting Swiss accent that requires just a bit of concentration to decipher. But there is no mistaking that Ain pronounces the name of his reconstituted band with a hard "K." Which makes sense, as Celtic Frost are the prototypical black metal band, the template for all things blackened and grim and thrashy; no gentle sibilance for the 'Frost, not even in its name.
Before Metallica killed 'em all, before Slayer showed no mercy, before Possessed consecrated their seven churches, Celtic Frost erupted from the underground of Switzerland, no less with the absolutely kult album Morbid Tales. Then came To Mega Therion, then Into the Pandemonium and then the much-reviled commercial album Cold Lake. One more album followed and then, improbably, a bare five years after its epoch-making debut the band burned out (emotionally and creatively), its label dropped them and Celtic Frost went to ground, seemingly forever.
So, why is Martin Eric Ain in Pittsburgh in the year 2006, preparing for another live show with Celtic Frost? And how is it that this tour, more than ten years after the group's last American tour, is in support of Monotheist, a new album that is as primitive and visionary as anything the band recorded in the glory years despite being almost five years in the making?
Blame it on Hellhammer.
Ah, Hellhammer. In 1982, a teenage Thomas Fischer (then known professionally as "Satanic Slaughter") and Martin Ain (he was "Slayed Necros" at the time) created the grinding, plodding maelstrom known as Hellhammer. Releasing one EP, three demo tapes and some compilation cuts, Hellhammer were quickly embraced by the international metal underground, thanks to the almost-lost art of tape-trading.
Rough-sounding at the best of times, the Hellhammer demos (Satanic Rites) reveal a band caught out by limited skills and limitless ambition. The ferocity of their attack is all bludgeon and volume, a battle-axe swung with such force that it pulls them apart as they try to play in the same rhythm. Their crowning glory, the epic "Triumph of Death," smashes on and on for nine minutes while Fischer grunts and roars his way through lyrics such as "Eurynomous [sic] sends his souls/Buried by horrible mistakes/You feel, you're eaten by worms/And the night's alive again." Once heard, never forgotten; a decade later, Norwegian black metal godfathers Mayhem co-opted Hellhammer lyrics for their stage names (Euronymous, Necrobutcher and Hellhammer) and the band's primitive recording techniques as their modus operandi.
When Ain and Fischer reunited in the studio to remaster Celtic Frost's early catalogue for a proper CD release in the late '90s, the two realized they both felt the urge to get the band back together and continue what they had started as teenagers. "We had to keep working but it wasn't easy to rekindle [our relationship]," Ain says. "Our friendship and our relationship, between Tom [Fischer] and me, that is the main core of Celtic Frost. [But] we're both stubborn-headed individuals. And sometimes there's idealistic or stylistic clashes, which is perfect, because that ignites the spark, you know, lights the fire but you can also burn yourself."
While both men have been blunt in admitting that the financial rewards of a reunion played a part in their decision to work together again, Ain is Teutonically mum on how they patched up their differences. It was easier to agree to work together than to actually make a new album; factor in that Ain had left the band twice during the '80s (prior to To Mega Therion, and again right before Cold Lake), and rebuilding their trust was clearly more necessary than dealing with the legacy they had left.
"Our reputation isn't a burden. It's a bonus!" Ain says. "It's something that generates interest for us right now. If it wouldn't be for all those people who cite us as an inspiration or influence, there would be no interest in Celtic Frost. Let's face that.
"The problem was becoming a unit and forming a band again, as people, as personalities," he admits. "And then creating the sounds from ourselves. Not trying to copy ourselves, to rehash old glories. That was the difficult part. We had to be true to what we thought was Celtic Frost, what we thought made up Celtic Frost in the first place.
"That's why we started delving into our past, not like rehearsing the old songs and trying to copy those, but feeling-wise. We realized we had to come to terms with our past, including Hellhammer."
But if Hellhammer is a black undercurrent churning through the Scandinavian black-metal scene, Celtic Frost is the eternal ocean. Fans at opposite ends of the musical spectrum, from young punk Dave Grohl to the young goths of My Dying Bride, drew inspiration from Celtic Frost's primordial sound. A roiling amalgam of the primitive and the avant-garde, Morbid Tales featured devil's choirs of multi-tracked, wordless howling, Fischer's necrotic buzzsaw guitar and Ain's relentless, thudding bass as well as unexpected moments of beauty. Frost was just as likely to unleash a string section or muted brass as a thrashy assault. Here was a band that out-pummeled Venom, but was more ambitious in its approach to songwriting, lyrics and melody.
Ain admits that when he and Fischer created Celtic Frost, "we tried to get away from Hellhammer as much as possible. But [this time around] we realized this is where Celtic Frost actually started, with Hellhammer. That genuine emotion that we had, that teenage angst music that we had created we tried to rekindle that, not copy that. I think this is the most honest album this band has done since...my guess is, Apocalyptic Raids," Ain laughs, referring to Hellhammer's EP. "A lot of bands, even ourselves, would use technical capabilities to hide the fact that they're not able to bring across genuine emotion in the music."
On Monotheist, Celtic Frost succeed once again in creating something genuine, terrible, dark, passionate and, above all, metal. Monotheist is the pay-off to the dreams Fischer and Ain hatched two decades ago; it's as if they've learned how to harness their ambition, to ride it instead of letting it ride them. "Os Abysmi vel Daath" combines soaring female vocals, a classic Fischer hook boring away at your face, and a simple, pounding riff that drops with heart-stopping weight.
Halfway through the song, the plates of the earth lean into each other, a juddering upheaval and a lone howling voice mark the end of the world then the sky opens, and Fischer and Ain hammer away at the galloping riff. "Where I am there is no thing. No God, no me, no in-between," Fischer grunts from the sepulcher. Twenty years after their first release, Celtic Frost have achieved what was impossible when they were young; they've honored the past and created a future unimagined by their peers.