Monday, June 20, 2011

Into The Pandemonium - Celtic Frost (1987)

Some bands release a ground-breaking album that defines, or redefines an entire genre. Some bands release a ground breaking album that defies classification. In 1987, Celtic Frost somehow managed to do both at the same time with their third album "Into the Pandemonium."

By 1987, Celtic Frost had already established themselves as pioneers in extreme forms of heavy metal - mainly what would eventually evolve into black metal and death metal. The band, however, was far from done with experimenting with new and radical ideas- so instead of riding on the success of their previous album, "To Mega Therion," they produced what has stood the test of time as their most radical, and most ambitious effort ever- "Into the Pandemonium."
In 1987, my circle of friends and I mostly listened to hardcore punk, some conventional metal, and a mix of everything else. One of my friends, who was very active in the New York Hardcore scene, pulled out an album adorned with H. R. Giger's bizarre artwork, put it on his parent's massive stereo system, and siad "listen to this..." That album was Celtic Frost's "To Mega Therion" - it was probably the heaviest thing any of had heard up to that point in our lives. The singer/lead guitarist was Thomas Gabriel Fischer- who went by the more aggressive name Thomas Gabriel Warrior - he grunted and growled through tales of Dethroned Emperors and Jeweled Thrones. Tales of warriors battling in the bleak landscapes of ancient fallen empires... we were entranced, and became instant fans.

It wasn't long before "Into the Pandemonium" made it's way to the turntable. This was still recognizably the Celtic Frost that captured our imagination with heavier than heavy riffs punctuated with Tom Warrior's trademark "OOH" and "HEY!!!" exclamations- but at the same time, it was a very different animal that delved into territory that would be considered blasphemy to most other metal bands of the time.

The album's cover art reveals it's unusual nature. On the surface, the cover appears to be a painting of  a burning city- fitting with the nihilistic themes the band typically embraces. A closer look reveals that there is even more to this cover. The artwork is actually a small excerpt from a much larger painting- Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" - a medieval triptych painting dating from the late 15th / early 16th century. The painting is in three sections, typical of a triptych, the left panel depicting the moment when God introduces Adam and Eve to each other in the Garden of Eden. The center panel shows many figures cavorting in a green field- and can be interpreted as either a paradise, or as lust and hedonism running out of control. The right panel depicts a fall from grace and the torments of hell- it features our burning city near the top. The actual meaning of the painting is debatable - it may be firmly christian in intent, as a warning against sin, or it may be mourning a lost paradise. Some of the symbols it uses may be interpreted as non- or anti-christian in nature- invoking ideas from alchemy and astrology.

Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights

The album starts off with an insanely heavy thrash metal style cover of Wall of Voodoo's "Mexican Radio." It seems incomprehensible that a band as heavy and dark as Celtic Frost would ever cover a goofy new wave tune, let alone lead off an album with it... but somehow, it works, and it is crushingly heavy. The lyrics talk about a person tuning into a Mexican radio station, and musing about the fact that he can't really understand what the announcer is talking about. Believe it or not... once you start to understand this album better, the inclusion of this song actually makes sense.

The next song on the album is "Mesmerised" - and this where where the album really takes a left turn from the expected (as if covering a Wall of Voodoo song wasn't strange enough...). Musically the song plods along at a mid to slow tempo, in more of a doom/sludge metal style. The strangeness comes in with the vocals- Tom Warrior abandons his usual guttural growl for a moaning whine that is somewhat atonal, and disturbing to listen to, and seems to have little in common with his normal speaking voice either. This vocal style was a source of much contention for the band's fans- a sudden change from the hyper-aggressive, hard edged snarl they were used to into this weepy, sniveling, somewhat erotic (in a disturbing way), moan was too much. Since this voice is clearly nothing like his normal speaking voice, it must be an intentional choice- Warrior wants the sound of his voice to be disturbing- almost as if the dead were calling out in chilling tones from beyond the grave. As if this effect was not chilling enough, a few lines are briefly doubled by a ghostly female operatic voice.

Lyrically, Mesmerised reads more like a poem than prose- it is clearly not telling a story, but rather presenting a series of images. Lines such as /You who made these ancient walls/Shine like divine marble/ and /The sand remained - purified/ seem to be alluding to an ancient ruin in the desert- a city wiped out long ago perhaps leaving behind little but purified sand. Other lyrics seem to speak about pride and corruption - perhaps relating our lost city to a story like the fall of Babylon, or Sodom and Gommorah- a place destroyed by it's own vices.

The next track is "Inner Sanctum" - which is one of the more easily digested tracks on the album for established Celtic Frost fans.  The song is more of a straight forward thrash style song, and Warrior returns to his more familiar growling vocal style. The lyrics read like a depressing poem- and in fact quote Emily Bronte's poetry- /That from which they sprung eternity/ which typically speaks about death as a welcome event. The lyrics seem to follow Bronte's longing for death- they speak of a person haunted by thoughts of those who died before him - /The shadows of the dead/My waken eyes may never see/Surround my bed/ - who now longs for death as an end to his suffering- /I long to be at rest/I wish the damp earth covered/This desolate breast/.

"Tristesses De La Lune" follows - this track is about as far from a heavy metal track as you can get. Musically, it is a string quartet piece with some distorted guitar in the background (mixed very low in the mix - when I say it's in the background, it's way in the background) to fill out the chords. The lyrics are not technically lyrics at all - they are a straight recitation, in the original French of the Charles Baudelaire poem "Tristesses De La Lune" (Sorrows of the Moon when translated to English). The poem is not sung, but rather recited as spoken word by a female voice- taking us from a metal album, straight into chamber music and hipster poetry session territory.

When you examine the content of Baudelaire's work, you can more easily understand what it is doing on a Celtic Frost album. The poem is from a collection titled "Les Fleurs du Mal" (The Flowers of Evil) - a collection that was controversial for it's time. Baudelaire was brought up on charges of obscenity due to the eroticism contained in many of the poems, and the collection only saw wide distribution once several offending poems were removed. In this poem, Baudelaire compares the moon to a woman lying in a bed of clouds- mournful and in sorrow because of her isolation. The poem describes the moon/woman shedding a tear, which is captured by a poet, who hides the teardrop away from the sun deep in his heart- in effect, describing Baudelaire himself, taking inspiration from the idea of the moon as a lonely woman. In a broader sense, this could also be interpreted as gaining some secret knowledge or enlightenment from someone else's suffering.

Celtic Frost in 1985
Reed St. Mark (Drums), Thomas Gabriel Warrior (Guitar/Vocals) , Martin Eric Ain (Bass)

"Babylon Fell (Jade Serpent)" is our next track - this song returns to heavy metal territory, and most of the song is sung by Tom Warrior using his growling, aggressive voice. As the title suggests, the lyrical images in the song allude to a fallen civilization. The middle verse is sung in the "moaning" voice - indicating that a different character may be speaking- in this case possibly someone speaking from the point of view of a citizen of fallen Babylon- /We rose from sand and stone/To follow the light's allure/ - this line seems to indicate that "Babylon" followed some seductive temptation that drove it's rise, and led to it's fall. The voice switches back to the aggressive character, and continues to describe the fallen empire- /Tears drift in shadows deep/Turn innocence into excess/Fragments of a dying world/And destiny lies beneath/ - furthering the idea that "Babylon" fell as a result of it's people living a life of excess. The song obviously parallels the actual fall and sacking of the ancient city of Babylon in the Bronze age - a city known for it's decadence, indulgence, and arrogance (as shown in the biblical tale of the Tower of Babel...).

The next song up is "Caress Into Oblivion (Jade Serpent II)" - another heavy/doom-like song where Tom Warrior alternates between the sickly moaning vocals and his guttural harsh vocals. This song continues with the ideas and images presented in "Babylon Fell" - a city in ruins, and implications that the people fell into temptation and decadence leading to their fall- /Temptation and fame/Temples of prowess/Left a man among ruins/Caress into oblivion/. The image of a "caress into oblivion" seems to imply that the path to destruction is
a seductive one- a caress into oblivion rather than a forceful push into oblivion.

"One in Their Pride" seems, on the surface, to be a misfit song thrown in for no apparent reason, however, in terms of how it fits the overall concept of "Into the Pandemonium" is almost artistically perfect. The off putting thing about the song is that it is basically a club music mix rather than an actual song - constructed from a drum loop, a few snippets of creepy chords played on violins, and sound bytes of radio chatter from the Apollo space missions. On a first listen, it will seem completely out of place- but when you consider how it works as an abstract depiction of the biblical "Tower of Babel" story - it shows clearly the level though an conceptualization put into the overall record.

Celtic Frost in 2006
Martin Eric Ain (Bass), Thomas Gabriel Warrior (Vocals/Guitar), Franco Sesa (Drums)

In the book of Genesis, the people of Babylon thought, in their pride and vanity, that they could accomplish anything, so they began to build a tower tall enough to reach heaven. God punished them by destroying the tower and causing them to all speak different languages so they would not be able to understand each other- breaking their unity of purpose and scattering them around the world. The quotation from Genesis 11:6 describes God's reaction to seeing the tower- "And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do." I believe this passage is where the title of the song comes from- as it uses a repeated loop of one of the astronauts saying "One in their pride" as an important component of the piece.

"One in Their Pride" takes an abstract of this this idea- a people who are too proud, who invest their energy in  an achievement that encroaches on God's territory. In this case, Celtic Frost uses the Apollo moon landing as a stand-in for the tower- the connection is easy to make- instead of a tower, we have a moon rocket, and instead of reaching heaven, we have a man standing on the moon. The piece also contains samples of the "Christmas Message" from the Apollo 8 mission - where the astronauts read the "Let there be light" section of the book of Genesis - perhaps this is meant to imply that man's attempt to reach heaven (the moon) is allegory for an attempt to usurp God's status as supreme being - the ultimate act of out of control pride. The piece ends with a repeated clip saying "return safely to Earth... return safely to Earth" - in the Apollo missions- this return was quite literally a fall from from the sky- allegory for the fall of the tower- here man's pride in believing he can supplant God, directly results in his fall.

"I Won't Dance (The Elder's Orient)" is an interesting fusion between metal and a club/rave type vibe- along the lines of the kind of music found on White Zombie's "La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume 1" album in the early nineties. The song is heavy but has an insistent pulse that would be at home in a (dark and angry) club. It is probably the only song on the album, even in Celtic Frost's entire history to have something resembling a pop "hook" - but it strikes an interesting balance with the heaviness that just works- much like the almost dance-friendly songs White Zombie became known for years later. The song uses the moaning vocals for the verses, and an interesting combination of Tom's harsh vocals and a female singer singing in an almost hip-hop/R&B style. The song lyrics seem to be speaking about falling into decadence, and the refrain "I won't dance" takes on a defiant tone - a refusal to follow the crowd, and a very strange sentiment for a song that comes about as close to a "dance tune" as an extreme metal band can.

"Sorrows of the Moon" should seem strangely familiar if you pay close attention to the lyrics and the general shape of the musical phrases and chord changes. It is, in fact, a restatement of the song "Tristesses De La Lune" - again using Baudelaire's poem for lyrics, however, this time, the poem is sung in English by Tom Warrior using the "moaning" voice. Musically, the song is performed as a heavy metal song with guitar bass and drums rather than as a string quartet piece. Basically, Celtic Frost presents the same song twice on the album, but in radically different styles each time. This confounding of languages ties in to the whole "Tower of Babel" concept. If you recall- I mentioned earlier how the cover song "Mexican Radio" fit the album - also by making reference to confounding of languages- the "Mexican Radio" lyrics talk about how the listener can't understand the DJ he hears on the Mexican radio because the DJ is speaking another language. This is the punishment delivered by God in the book of Genesis- broken unity, people divided by barriers of language.

"Rex Irae (Requiem)" is the climax point of the whole record. The band pulls out all the stops here, and brings together several of the musical ideas they have been experimenting with throughout the album in a heavy, sludgy, bombastic piece combining metal, orchestral sounds, and operatic singing. The title is Latin for "King Wrath" - and the song is presented as an operatic conversation between "King Wrath" (Tom Warrior) and a "Dream Voice" (played by a female opera singer). Musically, the string quartet is present, but now a french horn choir accompanied by timpani take more of a front seat. The lyrics refer again to the fall of Babylon- perhaps this time from the point of view of a wicked, vengeful king- /I am the wrath beneath the heavens/The downfall's monologue/.

The instrumental "Oriental Masquerade" completes the album- at least in it's original form. The 1999 remastered version contains additional bonus tracks- but this track is the original intended conclusion. The instrumental uses the same orchestral instrumentation as "Rex Irae"- horns, timpani, and strings backed by the heavy metal instruments. The instrumental is presented much like the end titles of a film- and this one brings to mind the same kind of tone and mood as Basil Poledoris' score for the 1982 film "Conan the Barbarian." The music picks up on themes from "Rex Irae" and also some elements and rhythms from "Babylon Fell" and "Caress Into Oblivion" as well - tying the album together musically.

The remastered version of the album released in 1999 contains four additional bonus tracks. The first of these is an alternate mix of "One In Their Pride" referred to as the "re-entry mix." "In the Chapel in the Moonlight" is actually a song first written in 1936, but was made popular in 1967 by Dean Martin. Also included are two versions of the song "The Inevitable Factor" - the first version using the "moaning" vocal style, the second using the more aggressive vocal style.

"Into the Pandemonium" marked a high point in Celtic Frost's early career. The band has claimed that the effort involved in creating the album, and dealing with pressures and interference from their record company left the band burnt-out, and on the verge of collapse. The band would continue with Tom Warrior, who, still reeling from his efforts on "Into the Pandemonium," allowed other, newer additions to the band to take on more of the creative role- resulting in the disastrous "Cold Lake" album- an ill-advised experiment in achieving a glam-metal sound and image.

After alienating most of their fans with "Cold Lake" - the band went on to record "Vanity/Nemesis" - a return to a harder edged sound, and an attempt at damage control. While far better than their previous album, "Vanity/Nemesis" was not enough to revitalize the band's career, and Celtic Frost disbanded shortly afterwards. In the early 2000s, however, Tom Warrior and Martin Ain discussed the possibility of reforming Celtic Frost- this time under their own record label, and with total creative control. Over the next few years, they rebuilt the band, and finally released the album "Monotheist" in 2006, that proved to be a very successful attempt to create something new and heavy that would still feel very much like a Celtic Frost album- this album succeeded where "Vanity/Nemesis" failed.

"Monotheist," however, would be the last Celtic Frost album. Personal tensions between some of the band members resulted in irreconcilable differences- and Tom Warrior resigned from his own band in 2008- ending any possibility of another Celtic Frost album. Tom Warrior, however, formed a new band- Triptykon, with the intent of continuing in the musical direction of the "Monotheist" album. Triptykon released their first album, "Eparistera Daimones" in 2010, and appears to have lived up to Celtic Frost's legacy for extremely heavy and extremely creative metal.

Celtic Frost left a lasting impression on the more extreme forms of heavy metal- especially in Europe where the more drastic forms of metal always found more popularity. Their genre-bending album pioneered ideas that would later become a part of black metal, death metal, avant-garde metal, gothic metal, symphonic metal,   and progressive metal. "Into the Pandemonium" was clearly not an album that everyone would be able to digest, but it was clearly a strong artistic achievement for a metal band at a time when metal bands that made abstract artistic statements were rare, if any existed at all. Truly ahead of it's time.

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