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Wed May 21, 2014
The Long Shadow Of Tom Warrior, Metal's Dark Innovator
Originally published on Thu June 26, 2014 9:11 am
Aside from Tony Iommi, whose ingenious use of the tritone on Black Sabbath's debut album spawned an entire musical style, aesthetic and culture, no artist has had as wide-ranging an influence on heavy metal as Thomas Gabriel Fischer. Best known under the nom de plume Tom Warrior in the bands Hellhammer and Celtic Frost, Fischer's shadow looms large over the entirety of extreme metal especially, with so many subgenres indebted to his groundbreaking music: thrash, death metal, black metal, gothic metal, doom, progressive metal, grindcore and even the avant-garde side of the multifaceted genre.
Prior to Fischer's emergence in the early 1980s, heavy metal centered on theatricality and escapism, bands creating larger-than-life personae, but in addition to sounding as imposing and aggressive as the genre demanded, Fischer brought a unique sense of tortured introspection that reflected his troubled upbringing as a youngster in Switzerland. In that regard it's easy to understand why Kurt Cobain was a huge Celtic Frost fan in the 1980s, and his pained, string-bending riffs on Nirvana's albums ("Heart Shaped Box" a prime example) can be traced directly to Fischer's own similar guitar style a decade earlier. With a fearless approach to songwriting, constantly thinking of ways to challenge what was permissible within metal's stylistic boundaries, Fischer's music would teach a new generation that there was a lot more to heavy metal than a pentatonic riff and cartoonish lyrics about the Devil. A visionary and metal auteur nonpareil, Fischer is revered today, and his latest album, the colossal Melana Chasmata by his current band Triptykon, is generating some of the most rhapsodic reviews of any metal album in 2014 thus far.
It wasn't always like this for Fischer. Despite his musical innovations, Fischer's career trajectory is rockier than some neophytes might expect. For all of its boasting about being fertile ground for musical creativity, heavy metal has always been surprisingly conservative, and the restless Fischer has provoked metal listeners for more than 30 years now, daring them to think outside the box, to broaden their musical horizons, to see the beauty in ugliness and the ugliness in beauty.
Going back to the dreary, dismal surroundings of Black Sabbath's Birmingham, heavy metal at its most innovative has always been a reflection of the artists' environments, and in many cases, the product of a burning desire to create despite lacking the knowledge and expertise to do so via conventional means — to make music by any means necessary. Having grown up poor and owning the cheapest guitar he could get, the teenaged Fischer simply worked with what he had when he created the band Hellhammer. Directly inspired by Newcastle band Venom, whose aggression, overt staged Satanism and complete disregard for nuance immediately set it apart from the rest of the burgeoning New Wave of British Heavy Metal, Hellhammer played faster, sounded grimier and was all the more unique thanks to Fischer's primitive yet evocative guitar sound and his bizarre, almost alien vocal phrasing.
What set Hellhammer apart was how Fischer turned the focus inward with striking poeticism, his lyrics almost Whitman-esque, a barbaric yawp sounded over the roofs of the world. Metal was never supposed to be about vulnerability and introspection; it was supposed to sound monstrous and empowering. But while Hellhammer did indeed transform Fischer into a colossus on record, the way he balanced outward power, inner torment and musical primitivism predated the equally ragged sounding Norwegian black metal — Darkthrone and Mayhem especially — and greatly informed Cobain's more atonal adventures with Nirvana. On "Triumph of Death" from the Apocalyptic Raids EP he wrenches every ounce of pain from his guitar, which carries over into the anguished wails that dominate the entire nine and a half minute song. "In moments of reflection / It all unfolds to me," Fischer mutters on "Massacra". "I walk down through my mind / And feel a bittercold fear."
It was with Celtic Frost, however, that Fischer truly made his mark. Formed in 1984 with Hellhammer bassist Martin Ain, his goal was to free himself of the musical constraints his former band had imposed upon itself. Morbid Tales showed enormous improvement in both musicianship and production. While "Dethroned Emperor" displayed a new command of dynamics, the song "Procreation of the Wicked" is where Fischer started to come into his own, that bent-string riff, the gloomy atmosphere, the authoritative barking of his lyrics all becoming hallmarks of the man's music for decades to come. The template is set in these four minutes, extreme metal history changed forever.
If Morbid Tales was Fischer's "eureka" moment, where he found his voice as an artist, 1985's To Mega Therion was where the ominous, cathartic music and dark poetry established on the debut bloomed in startlingly beautiful fashion. His great leap from primal, no-frills metal to jaw-dropping Wagnerian majesty — reflected in the iconic artwork by H.R. Giger, who embraced the young band — the album boasted the awesome "Circle of the Tyrants," the closest Celtic Frost would come to having a hit song, which blended the speed of thrash, the measured, lumbering pace of doom, the savage musical attack of nascent death metal, and stunning operatic arias that would foreshadow the rise of symphonic metal a decade later. Nothing like that had ever been created in heavy metal before, and was greeted with as much rapture as bafflement.
Typical of many musical geniuses, Fischer's work was at first grossly misunderstood and critically reviled — most famously by influential underground zine Metal Forces — before the tide turned and the accolades began rolling in. But both critical hatred and lofty expectations only goaded to Fischer into pulling the rug out from under his audience: Celtic Frost's third album, created over the course of a full year amidst internal strife, recording problems and quarrels with its record label, could have been the first clue that Fischer works exceptionally well when he's least comfortable.
The wildly eclectic Into the Pandemonium became one of the most talked about metal records of 1987. After all, leading the album off with audacious and downright buoyant cover of Wall of Voodoo's "Mexican Radio" will do that. Once you get past that admittedly fun red herring, however, you discover a band trying to push a genre's boundaries as far outwards as possible, practically trying any way to upset the status quo. There are dalliances with gothic rock ("Mesmerized"), recitations of Baudelaire poetry by a woman ("Tristesses de la Lune"), R&B background singers ("I Won't Dance"), and even electronic music similar to that of Ministry at the time ("One in Their Pride").
It was a marvelous achievement for Fischer to dare his young fans to broaden their musical horizons, but typical of many provocateurs, he took that can-do-no-wrong hubris too far with an album that not only was a commercial failure, but would reduce Celtic Frost to pariahs and send Fischer's career reeling. Continuing with a band of hired hands after the departure of Ain and drummer Reed St. Mark, 1988's Cold Lake was greeted with universal scorn by the metal scene, its glam metal production and teased hair on the back cover was too much for a conservative fan base to take. Although it remains one of the most universally panned albums in metal history — Fischer himself has disowned it — it's largely misunderstood. It's greatly flawed, yes — "Dance Sleazy" is unforgivable Mötley Crüe smarm — but parts do have merit. "Cherry Orchards" is a gaudy satin purse among a collection of sow's ears, a brilliant, subversive co-opting of pop metal aesthetics to create something dark and oddly poetic. However, people couldn't look past the preening band they saw in the video, and the album quickly fell into notoriety for all the wrong reasons.
Looking back at the failure of Cold Lake, one can easily say Fischer's only fault was being happy for once in his life. In 1987 he felt he had more important things to sing and write about than the usual miserable poetry. He had a girlfriend, was in love and started spending more time with her than his longtime best friend Ain. In the remarkable 2008 documentary A Dying God, Fischer candidly admits the primary reason Cold Lake failed was because he was happy in his life, and happiness had no business being expressed in Celtic Frost's music, which was originally formed as an outlet for his misanthropy and malevolence.
Therein lies the troubling crux of Fischer's aesthetic. You can't wish for bad things to happen to a person who makes pleasing art, but throughout Fischer's career it's been hinted that he makes his best music under bleak circumstances. "What is still the driving factor is the darkness that I became accustomed to when I was in my childhood," he tells metal writer Jonathan Dick. "The darkness rising from the daily conditions of my youth, which directly led to the kind of music I liked. I wasn't attracted to happy music or to lively music ... That kind of darkness, of course, is still powering me today." For a person as private as Fischer, he understands that conflict of making a career out of baring his tortured soul, cashing in on his misery by making it public, yet at the same time is thankful to have such a rewarding outlet. "I always wonder what would happen if I didn't have a valve — violence, drugs?" he tells Justin M. Norton in the excellent May cover story in Decibel magazine. "What are the other valves that are available? It could be a million dollars in psychiatry bills."
Typical of many 1980s metal innovators, Fischer spent the '90s doing some musical soul searching. Celtic Frost quietly dissolved after the middling 1990 album Vanity/Nemesis, and he eventually created the electronic/industrial project Apollyon Sun in 1995. With major label support and the help of former Swans drummer and Björk producer Roli Mosimann, the 2000 album Sub was a bold reinvention of Fischer's sound — even including a daring new interpretation of the Hellhammer song "Messiah" — but it failed to find an audience on either the electronic or metal sides of the fence.
While Fischer's new music struggled to get a footing in the 1990s and early-2000s, the legacy of Hellhammer and Celtic Frost only grew more. Legend has it Nirvana listened to Celtic Frost obsessively prior to the recording of the Bleach album. Industrial innovators Godflesh owed a great deal to Celtic Frost's influence. And of course, the early-'90s wave of black metal, which burst out of Scandinavia and spread worldwide, was so indebted to Fischer's early work that he should have received royalties. Above all else his 1980s music had mystique, even the notorious Cold Lake, and in a genre with as obsessive a following as heavy metal has, the more silent Fischer was, the more his stature seemed to grow and the more towering his recorded work became. And, conveniently, the more lucrative the offers to reunite became.
What Fischer's alienated fans stubbornly wanted from him, was a full-on return to metal. After that 1990s period of musical experimentation, during which Fischer came to terms with his legacy in his well-received autobiography Are You Morbid?, audiences got what they craved in a huge way as he underwent an astounding transformation and creative rebirth. His post-millenial work with Celtic Frost and Triptykon is a perfect distillation of his best 1980s work, a sublime yet horrific hybrid of brute force and staggering beauty. Much like Michal Gira has accomplished with the current incarnation of Swans, Fischer has gone on to create new music that not only honors the trademark sounds he created 30 years ago but elaborates on them further, informed by the wisdom and experience of middle age, yet sounding as mercurial as ever.
Celtic Frost's magnificent and harrowing album Monotheist shook the metal world to its core in 2006, Fischer and Ain exploring the more doom-oriented side of the band's oeuvre, at the same time incorporating more gothic influences. Fischer adopted a haunting, Peter Murphy-style singing voice on the standout "Obscured." It remains a comeback album for the ages. However, the stress of the band's world tour and unresolved issues within the band would lead to its sudden implosion in 2008 when Fischer announced he had severed all ties "due to the irresolvable, severe erosion of the personal basis so urgently required to collaborate within a band so unique, volatile, and ambitious."
Triptykon was formed with the intention of giving a voice to the ideas Fischer envisioned for the follow-up to Monotheist, and indeed, Triptykon's two albums and one EP are obvious extensions of that baroque Celtic Frost sound. 2010's Eparistera Daimones remains just as harrowing as Monotheist, treading the exact same territory but with Fischer digging deeper into his disturbed psyche ("Abyss Within My Soul"). The most interesting development in Fischer's current incarnation, though, is his development as a more melodic songwriter. Using Leonard Cohen's old trick of countering a ragged male voice with sultry female singing, he's learned to add color and richness to his otherwise blunt style, which was executed beautifully on 2012's "Shatter" and continues in gorgeous fashion on the new album Melana Chasmata.
Equal parts extreme and exquisite, and once again featuring stunning artwork by Fischer's good friend, the recently departed H.R. Giger, Melana Chasmata touches on various aspects of Fischer's long career, from primal energy ("Tree of Suffocating Souls") to that unholy marriage of power and theatricality ("Breathing") to mournful epics ("Black Snow"). The Crowley-referencing "Boleskine House" is the highlight of this stunning new album, an immaculate balance of power and melody, sensitivity and harshness, sex and violence. Fischer veers from fluid, majestic melodies, to pummeling, gnarled riffs and snarled vocals with the grace and skill of the master of metal form that he is.
Melana Chasmata might initially feel like a well-rounded look back at more than three decades of groundbreaking heavy metal, which in most cases would leave audiences satisfied, but even better yet, it is a profound statement by an artist who is nowhere near through bringing innovative new ideas to heavy metal. Typically restless, Fischer has already expressed his dissatisfaction with the new album, stating on Triptykon's official forum, "Melana Chasmata might be the most deficient post-Celtic Frost reunion album I have been involved in ... I personally am utterly puzzled by the extremely favourable opinions the album has garnered." Whether audiences disagree with him or not, the mere fact that Fischer insists his work is nowhere near finished is a testament to his desire for perfection and transcendence through his art, a sign that his days of provocation through music are far from over.