Released: 2006, Century Media Records
Reviewer: Lord of the Wasteland
It has been a long time coming—sixteen years, in fact—for the mighty Celtic Frost to finally release an album of new material. Tom Gabriel Fischer (AKA Tom G. Warrior) first mentioned that he was working with Martin Eric Ain again after collaborating on the 1999 reissues of two Frost classics, TO MEGA THERION and INTO THE PANDEMONIUM, but other than an occasional blip and a rustic mp3 sample, things remained fairly quiet. This lull may have been intentional on Fischer’s part, thinking that fans would let their guard down—and at the same time, their expectations—so he could swoop in with a blitzkrieg of an album that would knock everyone on the asses.
Well, the new Celtic Frost opus, MONOTHEIST, does just that. Looming like a sinister black cloud, the buzzing, doom-filled riffs and darker-than-thou lyrics are as strong as those found on 1985’s breakthrough album, TO MEGA THERION. At the same time, some of the “avant-garde metal” that became synonymous with the band upon releasing 1987’s INTO THE PANDEMONIUM remains but to a far lesser degree. There is certainly experimentation here and remnants of Fischer’s industrial-tinged late ‘90s project, Apollyon Sun, rear their head but the accessible, commercially-driven focus of COLD LAKE is, not surprsingly, nowhere to be found. The wrist-slitting Gothic angle is also here, this time deeper and more depressing than ever with female vocals accompanying the music, and, of course, Fischer’s occult-based lyrics dominate. His vocals run the gamut from a low, Gothic croon to his instantly-recognizable half-speaking/half-singing growled snarl (yes, the “oohs” and “ughs” are still present). MONOTHEIST is the logical offspring of the mindset the band was in during its peak but with enough modernizations that keep it sounding fresh and certainly not dated. In essence, it sits somewhere between the raw brutality of MORBID TALES, the thrash-y middle ground of TO MEGA THERION and the experimentation of INTO THE PANDEMONIUM but with a dense, blackened, almost industrial chill that hangs over everything, surely thanks to Peter Tagtgren’s co-production. Celtic Frost always defied expectations and never rested on their laurels whether it brought them success (INTO THE PANDEMONIUM) or failure (COLD LAKE). Despite a lengthy absence, the band retains this characteristic and surges forward into the 21st Century to bring a new generation and long-time fans a monster of an album that will once again leave some people scratching their heads, some bowing in appreciation and others throwing barbs all at the same time.
Within the first twenty seconds of the mammoth opening track, “Progeny,” Fischer unleashes not one but two of his patented “oohs!” that will put long-time fans at ease over MONOTHEIST’s direction. “Progeny” is the epitome of heavy. Sure, the track fluctuates from a speedy, crushing rhythm to a slower, doom-y drone but this track crushes from beginning to end. Fischer’s riffs are distinct, choppy and biting, building a solid foundation for his distorted vocals to run over. Ain unleashes a vicious bass line on “Ground” as Fischer gleefully spits out such wickedness as “I’m your shit, your verbal smut…you tied my limbs and buried me alive…you watched me die with smiling eyes.” These first two tracks will surely have Hellhammer/MORBID TALES-era fans smiling from ear to ear! The painfully slow dirge of the Hell-ish “A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh” is a showcase of the influence that Celtic Frost had on today’s doom and Goth metal bands. The influence on My Dying Bride, Moonspell, etc. is immediately recognizable. The versatile vocals of Ain and Fischer and teh latter's guitar personify the dark, evil atmosphere that has shaped these bands’ sounds. Ain's barely-there Gothic croon and cleanly sung warble are breathtaking to hear and open the track before Fischer takes over with a distortion-filled howl (“I am dying in this living human shell/I am a dying God, coming into human flesh”). Taking the role of Claudia-Maria Mokri here, Xandria’s Lisa Middlehauve lends her operatic vocals to “Drown In Ashes” as Fischer channels his best Sisters of Mercy/Bauhaus imitation on this uber-Goth miasma that hearkens back to the experimentation of tracks like “Mesmerized” from INTO THE PANDEMONIUM. “Obscured” takes a similar road with Simone Vollenweider, Fischer’s collaborator from the Apollyon Sun days, handling harmony vocals alongside his pained, spoken-word delivery. The doom riffs and vocal combination lend an air of such dreary hopelessness that the track should come with a prescription for anti-depressants (“I think that I’m all alone/I can feel the pain pull me down again”). The lyrics of “Os Abysmi Vel Daath,” based on a book of Aleister Crowley’s Thelemic laws, are pure torture to read as Fischer captures an atmosphere of eternal torment and misanthropic sorrow. Picture Milton’s Paradise Lost or Dante’s Inferno and it doesn’t even approach the evil incarnate that Celtic Frost has captured with this one track. The wails of Middlehauve (or is that Vollenweider??) add just the right creepy touch, too. To further the religious themes, “Ain Elohim” (Hebrew for “Eye of God”) is anything but. Not wholly blasphemous, the malevolence towards religion and an affinity for the occult has long been a lyrical theme of Celtic Frost, so early fans of the band can once again rejoice in knowing all things holy receive a solid skewering. The final three tracks of MONOTHEIST are a suite entitled “Triptych.” Even the grimmest of Black metal bands will shake in their boots upon hearing Ain croak through “Totengott” (German; translation = “Dead God”). Like “Black Sabbath,” an air of ominous doom is invoked as Ain screams, grunts, shrieks and moans his way through the foreboding musical landscape. The Luciferian themes continue through “Synagoga Satanae,” a brooding fourteen-minute stroll through Hades that lumbers along at a sometimes frustrating pace. The sheer length will find you looking at your watch but, with lyrics in English, German and Latin, it also boasts choirs and a shroud of marauding evil that has Tagtgren’s creative ear written all over it. The final piece of the trilogy, “Winter (Requiem, Chapter Three: Finale),” is a classical instrumental that incorporates all the swells of such past works as “Oriental Masquerade” and closes the book, not only on the three-part "Requiem" trilogy, but also on the latest chapter in Celtic Frost’s career.
I wasn’t sure what to expect after all this time but I am pleasantly surprised, though not wholly satisfied, with the end result. Admittedly, MONOTHEIST is an overwhelming blow that took a few spins to really sink in and I was originally put off not only by Fischer’s choice of a dense, low-fi production but also the effects used on his and Ain's vocals. Fischer isn’t the best singer but he has his own unique style and it suits him well. The industrial-effects used to enhance/distort each voice on many of the tracks is a tough pill to swallow and one that many who were put off by Fischer’s Apollyon Sun stuff will find offense with again. Still, after sixteen years, did anyone expect Celtic Frost to pick up where VANITY/NEMESIS, or even INTO THE PANDEMONIUM, left off? The fact that MONOTHEIST has taken the better part of four years to come to fruition could explain why the structure of the album seems a bit disjointed. Celtic Frost has never been a band easy to pigeon-hole—part of their appeal to me—but the smattering of styles here seems like they didn’t really know where to go with what they had. The eclectic, artsy-fartsy stuff is thankfully played down but with one song nearing a quarter-hour and others wavering between industrialized sludge and meldodramatic Goth, one has to wonder where exactly the band’s mind is at circa 2006. Sixteen years is an entire generation to be away from music as a collective entity and with so much that has happened, not just in metal, but music as a whole, it’s difficult to make up for lost time. MONOTHEIST clocks in at nearly seventy minutes and surely some of the dead weight could have been trimmed to furnish a sleeker beast rather than just throw everything out there all at once. "Less is more" and MONOTHEIST would have benefited by adhering to this show biz mantra.
To a certain degree, MONOTHEIST is set up to fail. The near-mythic legacy left by Celtic Frost has generated a buzz where, not unlike Judas Priest’s ANGEL OF RETRIBUTION, the bar has been set so high and expectations so immense that anything less than mind-blowing will leave many fans disappointed. Over the course of their career, Celtic Frost's albums have all been radically different, yet served a purpose and each seems to have its own fanbase. MORBID TALES laid the roots for Black metal (there would be no Darkthrone without this album). TO MEGA THERION solidifed the band’s underground cred. INTO THE PANDEMONIUM saw the band stretch their creative mind and brought a whole new audience to their music. COLD LAKE came served with a big helping of crow and nearly buried Celtic Frost under its own pomposity and facetiousness. Finally, VANITY/NEMESIS was an act of contrition that failed to bring the band its fans' redemption or forgiveness. So where does MONOTHEIST fit? Well, as before, many fans will instantly dismiss it for being “too modern,” while another faction will get all huffy thinking this is just another band trying to recapture some of its former glories. Some will get off on the slow, brutal riffing while others will cry the praises of its diversity and experimentation. Still others will revel in the fact that Celtic Frost has thrown everything into a blender and spit out this rich patchwork of music that only they can do. MONOTHEIST is as much an accomplishment in artistic eclecticism as it is an exercise in patience but no one can deny that this album will be one of the most talked about and anticipated releases of the year. Nothing less could, or should, be expected from Celtic Frost.
KILLER KUTS: “Progeny,” “Ground,” “A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh,” “Os Abysmi Vel Daath,” “Domain of Decay,” “Ain Elohim”