|Celtic Frost's impact on the evolution of European heavy metal cannot be overstated. Along with power metal kings Helloween (and to a lesser degree, the rather cartoonish Mercyful Fate), Frost's enduring influence on the European heavy metal landscape is arguably comparable to Metallica's standing in America. Labeled by critics as avant-garde for their radical fusion of violent death metal and elements of classical music, the band represented a distinctly European metal perspective. But their history was troubled and their output uneven to say the least, and their ignominious end was hardly fitting of their important legacy.
Thomas Gabriel Fischer was the product of a broken home and a less than financially secure upbringing a rare predicament in his native Switzerland, but one that instilled in him the burning ambition and outcast mentality usually required in the formative years of a rock star. Fresh out of high school, the teenager was enamored with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and particularly high-energy, proto-thrash trios like Raven and Venom. Inspired by the movement's do-it-yourself credo, Fischer renamed himself Tom Warrior, and along with bassist Steve Warrior and drummer Bruce Day, formed his first band, Hellhammer, in the fall of 1982. Less than a year later, and though still raw beyond description, the band's (now featuring bassist Martin Eric Ain and drummer Stephen Priestly) demos had become surprisingly popular among the underground tape-trading community. In late 1983, start-up German label Noise Records signed them to a contract and included two of their tracks on their first release, a compilation of rising German metal bands appropriately called Death Metal. But Warrior and Ain felt that Hellhammer had already run their course and that the group's extreme nature was too limiting for their increasingly mature compositions. Thus, with their gothic, pseudo-satanic image already coming into focus, in May 1984 they evolved into Celtic Frost.
By October, the trio was in Berlin recording their first album, Morbid Tales, which cemented their position as one of Europe's most promising metal acts, thanks to its excellent thrash metal attack. The sudden departure of Priestly also proved to be a blessing in disguise, as his replacement, American drummer Reed St. Mark, brought a confidence and musicianship that the group sorely needed. Amazingly, Celtic Frost had yet to play their first concert, so after putting the finishing touches on the Emperor's Return EP in April 1985, they performed a warm-up show in their hometown of Zurich, then set out to tour across Germany and Austria. With the band growing from strength to strength, Warrior decided to replace the increasingly unmotivated Ain with bassist Dominic Steiner for their second album, To Mega Therion. But he soon had second thoughts, and Ain returned after the album's completion in the fall. Its cover graced by original artwork from acclaimed Swiss artist H.R. Giger (of Alien fame), the album furthered the band's growing reputation and was followed by their first North American performance at the World War III metal festival in Montreal. After the release of the Tragic Serenades EP in the summer of 1986, the band embarked upon their most extensive tour yet; first through Europe (including their first visit to England) with Helloween and Grave Digger, then across America with Voivod and Running Wild.
By the end of the year, Celtic Frost was poised to fulfill their destiny with a groundbreaking third effort. On To Mega Therion, Warrior had begun experimenting with different musical styles (especially classical music and electronica), leading certain journalists to describe the band's direction as avant-garde metal. 1987's Into the Pandemonium would substantiate these claims and then some, introducing an unconventional collision of death metal brutality and symphonic overtones on its way to becoming one of the classic extreme metal albums of all time. Frost's most defining and influential work, it paved the way for the evolution of European death metal as a full-fledged underground phenomenon over the next decade. American guitarist Ron Marks was brought in to flesh out the band's live assault, and their subsequent U.K. tour was a resounding success on all fronts. At the peak of their powers, Frost headed for America to undertake their biggest tour ever, but trouble was right around the corner. The band's high spirits were quickly dampened by personality clashes with new member Marks, and the tour itself was mired in organizational and financial difficulties almost from day one. By the time it finally concluded in New York (where the road crew was forced to hold their gear hostage in order to get paid by Noise Records), the band was on their last legs. Furious at their record company and completely burnt out from long months on the road, the band members had enough. Celtic Frost effectively ceased to exist.
Six months would pass before a disillusioned Warrior was finally convinced to resurrect Celtic Frost by Swiss guitarist Oliver Amberg. After drafting bassist Curt Victor Bryant and bringing back drummer Stephen Priestly, the revamped unit entered Berlin's Sky Trak studios in the summer of 1988 with producer Tony Platt to begin sessions for the infamous Cold Lake album. Warrior's lack of interest in the project allowed Amberg and Platt's commercial tendencies to run wild. In what has since been viewed as one of the most misguided changes in artistic direction in heavy metal history, the duo subverted Frost's ferocious death metal roar into a radio-friendly form of thrash. If this wasn't bad enough, the group then signed their own death sentence by adopting a glam rock image, including teased hair, makeup, and colorful outfits to match. The repercussions were instantaneous and devastating. Both album and band were burned in effigy as utter sellouts, and what was supposed to be a triumphant world tour became a protracted agony for all involved.
Following this unmitigated disaster, Warrior began backpedaling as fast as he could. Reassuming control of the group, he fired Amberg and lured guitarist Ron Marks back to the fold for 1990's back-to-basics Vanity/Nemesis. Unstable as ever, Marks would exit soon after, forcing Bryant to switch from bass to guitar and opening the door for Martin Eric Ain's return. Attempting to pick up where Into the Pandemonium had left off (and make believe Cold Lake had never happened), Vanity/Nemesis was a respectable return to form, but couldn't undo the damage done to the band's reputation. After a troubled European tour, Frost planned to return to America for the first time in three years. But when a new recording deal with major-label EMI (which would finally sever their long-troubled ties with Noise) fell through due to corporate restructuring, Celtic Frost found themselves dropped, and still in shock, decided to call it a day. Their final act was compiling a collection of hits and album leftovers for 1992's Parched With Thirst Am I And Dying, its bizarre title taken in typically quirky Frost fashion from a fourth-century Roman poem.
Warrior would avoid the spotlight for a few years before resurfacing with a new band called Apollyon Sun in the late '90s. ~ Ed Rivadavia, All Music Guide