By Manuel Gemperli
To say that Tom Warrior and Martin Ain – the two masterminds behind Celtic Frost – had a bit of a shaky start into their musical career is a vast understatement. The few people that actually heard of Hellhammer - their first band together - during the time of its short existence reacted to them mainly with disgust, shock and horror. Their music was so abrasive, so aggressive, so heavy that they couldn’t find any venues that would let them play shows. They were outcasts in a scene designed by and for outcasts. But they didn’t give up on their vision. They regrouped under the name Celtic Frost and would go on to change heavy music forever, inspiring legions of bands. Even Nirvana blasted Celtic Frost’s music in their tour van. Was Kurt Cobain influenced by Tom Warrior’s riffs? It’s possible. What seems undebatable is that Black Metal as we know it now wouldn’t exist without them. But where did all that anger, all that darkness come from and how did they go from being misfits to celebrated pioneers of a new musical genre?
Art never exists in a vacuum. It always reflects the surroundings and experiences of its creators. Tom Warrior grew up as Thomas Fischer in a little farm village in Switzerland. Most people associate Switzerland with peace, stability, comfort, some might say it borders boredom. Certainly a safe place to grow up in. I should know. I grew up in Switzerland, in a town that was probably not dissimilar to the one Tom grew up in, at least on the surface. In Carol Reed’s film “The Third Man” he lets his character Harry Lime say: “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Now, first of all: as much as I would love to claim the cuckoo clock, it actually wasn’t a Swiss invention. That was the Bavarians. I could also point out that Swiss people invented Velcro, The Red Cross, The Swiss Army Knife, Absinthe or LSD to name just a few things, but that would make me sound petty. I do understand his larger point. Can great art only come from great suffering? Does an environment void of conflict lessen creativity?
Your greater surroundings are just part of the equation. What goes on behind closed doors within somebody’s household can tell a very different story. The façade can be misleading. We know that not only thanks to Desperate Housewives. Tom’s childhood was everything but peaceful, comfortable or stable. His parents got divorced early in his life and he went on to live with his mother who – as Tom put it – slowly drifted into insanity. One of the signifiers of her collapsing mental health was her hoarding of cats. At the height of her mania there were around 90 animals living in their small home. I think the general cutoff between cute animal lover and crazy cat lady is 5 or 6. But I’m not a doctor or a psychologist. Often, Tom had to deal with all of that all by himself while his mother was away working as a mule, smuggling diamonds or expensive watches out of the country. “My clothes smelled of cat piss. I had to eat the same food as them. The floors were covered in cat shit, tapeworms and cockroaches”, is how Tom described it. What’s interesting is that Tom grew up to be an ardent advocate for animal rights. “What the fuck gives us the right to treat animals as slaves, to abuse them, to torture them, to hurt them, and to kill them so we can have a few minutes of fun? It’s despicable. It’s a new form of slavery. What we do to animals defies description”, Tom once said. When Kirk Hammett and Rob Trujillo of Metallica played a cover version of the Celtic Frost classic “The Usurper” at a stadium concert in Zurich, he was not shy to voice his disapproval. For one, he apparently hated their rendition musically. He said they butchered the song and it was humiliating. It kinda was. But his true target was James Hetfield: “I don’t support people who go hunting bears for a hobby. I cannot respect a person like that, even if it’s a genius musician”, he stated. This is a guy who doesn’t care who he pisses off when defending his principles.
Growing up in the circumstances described earlier sounds horrific by itself, but what added to the feeling of isolation and despair for a young kid was the stark contrast to the greater environment. The fact that this was all happening in a conservative society that was unaccepting of anything or anybody different made it even worse. Tom is convinced that people knew what was happening in that house and in what inhumane conditions this little boy had to live, but instead of getting help he got ridiculed. There was nobody he could share his misery with. Music became the closest thing to a friend, something that provided some sort of comfort. And given his background, it was no wonder that Tom was drawn to the darker corners of music. First, it was bands like Black Sabbath, but he started to dive deeper into ever more extreme territories of heavy music, territories he would go on to redefine eventually.
Venom was the band that changed his life, he once said. At the time, this was the pinnacle of heaviness. Venom wasn’t only brutal sonically, their whole imagery pushed the boundaries of what people deemed acceptable at the time. They showed Tom that there weren’t any limits. He would play their 45rpm single “In League With Satan” at 33rpm deliberately, because it just wasn’t quite heavy enough for him the way it was originally intended. That was the sound of Hellhammer in a nutshell. Tom did eventually manage to find people who shared his love for heavy music and in Martin Ain he found more than a bandmate, he found a kindred spirit. Martin may have grown up in very different conditions than Tom, but he shared his disdain for conservatism and was fascinated with the dark arts just like him. Martin was an unconventional intellectual whose strong, individualistic personality would clash with Tom’s many times, but while they were able to work together they would push each other’s creativity to heights that neither of them could have reached on their own.
Tom let his pent-up anger run amok in Hellhammer, creating some of the heaviest, most extreme music people had heard at the time. When examining music history, you always have to think of the context. The Rolling Stones were once the heaviest band in the world. Hellhammer probably still sounds extreme to your grandmother, but if you’re on a steady diet of modern death metal, black metal or grindcore, you might not quite be able to appreciate how far out there they were in the early 80’s. They certainly were too extreme for their contemporaries and got ridiculed even by their peers or those closest to being peers, since you might argue that they were peerless at the time. They seemed stuck, not being able to play shows, so they dismantled the band and started fresh as Celtic Frost. What on the surface seemed like a mere name change was in reality a complete reinvention.
While Hellhammer was all about primal aggression, a vessel for the traumas of their youth, Celtic Frost was a much more refined act of rebellion. Rebellion against the conservative society in which they grew up in but even rebellion against the arbitrary limits set within the genre that was supposedly all about pushing boundaries. This was as much an intellectual as it was an emotional pursuit. They saw themselves in the tradition of artists who question conventions and defy expectations. Tom and Martin outlined the concepts of the new band’s first three records - including some of the song titles - before they even wrote any of the musical pieces. It was the second album “To Mega Therion” on which they found the perfect balance between dark belligerence and avantgarde. It speaks to the complexity of Tom’s and Martin’s relationship that Martin actually left the band before the recording of this landmark album, just to return shortly after. But even though Martin isn’t heard on it, his aesthetic and conceptional influence can surely be felt. Celtic Frost didn’t just want to explore what was possible within the confines of heavy metal, they set out to shatter those limits.
French horns on a metal album? Why not. They didn’t shy away from incorporating influences from classical music into the maelstrom of riffs, but unlike some of their contemporaries it wasn’t about scales or harmonies, it was about the vibe. Is this what Richard Wagner would have done had he lived in the 1980’s? The visual aesthetics matched the grandeur of the music and were a very important part of the overall concept. “To Mega Therion” is Greek for “The Great Beast” and the album’s cover has become as iconic as the music itself. It is a painting by legendary Swiss artist H.R. Giger – or as we in Switzerland would say Hans Ruedi Giger. Its title is “Satan I”. Giger is most famous for shaping the visual direction of the “Alien” film franchise. His art combined the humane with the grotesque. He started drawing as a little boy as a way to deal with his fears induced by his recurring nightmares. A lot of his art has a nightmarish quality. It’s frightening yet familiar, otherworldly as well as inward looking. It wasn’t the first time his art graced an album cover. Possibly the most famous examples are Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Brain Salad Surgery” and Debbie Harry’s “KooKoo”. But there may have never been music that formed such a perfect symbiosis with his art. Giger was a well-established, world-renowned artist at the time already. The fact that he agreed to work with them at that point in their career impressed Tom deeply. In an emotional statement after Giger’s death in 2014, Tom wrote: “H.R. Giger became our mentor, against all odds, when we, somewhat audaciously, first established contact with him. At a time when almost everybody ridiculed, ignored, or even obstructed the music the then almost completely unknown Swiss underground band Hellhammer was creating, Giger listened to us, talked to us, and gave us a chance. Not least at a time when he was at one of many peaks of his path.” To Tom, Giger was a mentor who turned into a friend and somebody who he always looked up to, as a person and an artist.
The religious – or should we say anti-religious – imagery may at first glance seem fairly conventional for a heavy metal band. But up until that point, Satan was mainly used in metal as a tool to shock people. The tale of the guys in Black Sabbath realizing that if people enjoy to be frightened by horror movies they would also be drawn to scary music is part of heavy metal lore. Even Venom’s use of demonic symbolism was so over-the-top that it seemed cartoonish and they never claimed to be serious satanists. Neither did the guys in Celtic Frost, but for them, Satan as the ultimate antagonist in Christian theology, was the perfect symbol for their disdain for the conservative surrounding that they didn’t fit in. Swiss society – at the time – was still very influenced by Christianity, its norms and its so-called moral code, especially in rural areas. This concept including the lyrics were bound to be misunderstood, by their adversaries as much as by their admirers. Many of the bands that they inspired would turn the metaphorical use of Satan into full blown devil worshipping.
Bands like Darkthrone, Emperor or Mayhem were all heavily influenced by Celtic Frost and especially – maybe even more so - Hellhammer. All of the original members in Mayhem chose their pseudonyms based on Hellhammer songs, the drummer even called himself straight up Hellhammer. These and many other Norwegian bands would form the so-called Second Wave of Black Metal in the early 90’s. Tom and Martin often seemed conflicted with their influence on a scene that was marked by exploring new musical and creative territories but also by extreme violence. In many ways, Norwegian Black Metal of the early 90’s is a True Crime story. It involves murders, suicides and church burnings. While they shared their descendant’s abhorrence towards organized religion, Tom and Martin never condoned the violence in which it resulted. Tom was ambivalent about Hellhammer for a long time. He seemed almost embarrassed by it. He’s a complex character and making assumptions about somebody’s inner feelings is always dangerous, but the fact that his creations with Celtic Frost but also (and for some even specifically) with Hellhammer have had such a huge impact on other musician’s creativity and visions may have helped him to make peace with it eventually. He is now only embarrassed by “Cold Lake”, Celtic Frost’s surprising dive into hair metal in the later part of the 80’s. But that’s a different story.
Martin Ain returned to the band for the follow-up to “To Mega Therion”: “Into The Pandemonium”, their bravest foray into avantgarde territory. It was musically even more adventurous. Their artistic metamorphosis was complete. Once again, they proved that they refused to stand still and accept conventions. It was the last time Tom and Martin collaborated until the dawn of the new century when they would return with what would definitely become their final album: “Monotheist”. In German, the term “Altersmilde” describes the tendency to become more compromising, more accepting, mellower as you get older. You might not fight for your principles as fiercely anymore. It is a term that never suited Tom nor Martin, at least not when it came to their vision for their band. When they got back together they were as uncompromising as they ever were, working for five years on the album to ensure that it matched their vision exactly. And like in their early days, this vehement devotion to their art and their principles led to an impressive artistic output but also to them going separate ways once again soon after. It would be the last time they created music together. Martin died in 2017. Tom remembered him in a deeply personal statement. These are just some excerpts from it: “Martin was a part of me, and I was a part of him. The partnership with Martin was instrumental in enabling me to fulfill my ardent teenage dream of becoming a musician. Martin was one of the very few people who were prepared to embark on this journey with me, uncompromisingly and against significant opposition, unlike many others who only supplied hollow talk and then withered away. Martin, I will miss you deeply until my days, too, will come to an end.” After all, this is also a story about a deep friendship.