By David E. Gehlke
The new, meticulously assembled CELTIC FROST"Danse Macabre" box set, spanning the band's classic 1984 to 1987 era, is a triumph (for the lack of a better term). The set includes the studio album trio of "Morbid Tales", "To Mega Therion" and "Into The Pandemonium" on vinyl, along with a full-color book, four 12" EPs and other odds and sods that make it the definitive statement on an early catalog that remains as influential as ever. Considering CELTIC FROST's original record company, Noise Records, frequently botched these releases throughout the 1980s with a variety of typos, missing photos and song ommissions (that the band wouldn't learn of until release),it's little wonder that guitarist/vocalist Thomas Gabriel Fischer (a.k.a. Tom G. Warrior) has been so quick to express his delight with "Danse Macabre". The man has only waited more than three decades to see these CELTIC FROST albums meet his standard of excellence on vinyl.
Fischer, whether through CELTIC FROST legacy projects, his ongoing main band TRIPTYKON or HELLHAMMER tribute act, TRIUMPH OF DEATH, is reaping the spoils of being one of underground metal's true innovators. Next July in Sweden, he will stage "A Tom Gabriel Warrior Trilogy", a three-day series of headline performances to celebrate his work in CELTIC FROST, HELLHAMMER and TRIPTYKON. And there is more on the way, including a new TRIPTYKON studio album and the third book from Fischer (who is an excellent writer, too) detailing the ups and downs of post-reformation CELTIC FROST. Those items, the box set and plenty more were on the agenda when Fischer and BLABBERMOUTH.NET caught up over a Zoom line.
Blabbermouth: There were the 1999, then 2017 reissues and now "Danse Macabre". Is there anything left in the CELTIC FROST vaults for reissue?
Thomas: "You have to ask BMG if this is it for reissues because they own the rights to all the early CELTIC FROST music. The rights to Noise Records, as you know, have traveled through a variety of companies and now rest with BMG. As for unreleased material, nothing of the classic period of CELTIC FROST is left. It's all out there. There's plenty of unreleased material from after the reunion, but I'm not sure that will see the light of day since Martin Eric Ain [bass] has died [in 2017]. I have to deal with his brother, who inherited all his rights. His brother is in the financial sector and is not interested in music or art. It's kind of unlikely."
Blabbermouth: Martin was your co-pilot in so many ways. Was it bittersweet or hard to put "Danse Macabre" together without him?
Thomas: "Martin's death is a constant thought on my mind. I'm not just saying that — it really is. Martin was a huge part of my life and we managed to save our friendship even after the second collapse of CELTIC FROST. I miss him immensely. It's an immeasurable shame that he and I can no longer create music together. To me, it's nothing new and a sentiment that only exists when I work with BMG on the reissues. Even when I do a TRIPTYKON album, I miss Martin's input. That's how important he was to me. I never thought he would die before me, but he did, and I have to deal with it. CELTIC FROST was such a significant part of my life that Martin Eric Ain's death was also a significant part of my life."
Blabbermouth: You have previously expressed surprise that HELLHAMMER had such an influence on a generation of bands. And now here we are, still talking about CELTIC FROST. Is that on the same level as being hard to fathom?
Thomas: "No, I'm very much in touch with our history. It's very much a factor in my daily existence because I'm still playing music and these songs. Some of the components, such as HELLHAMMER, have a very complex history for Martin and me, as everyone knows. We both regarded some of the aspects of HELLHAMMER as problematic, even today. The other parts were a lot of fun and legendary for us. It's always been a mixed bag. My entire life is based on HELLHAMMER and early CELTIC FROST. Everything that came afterward would have never happened without it. I'm in constant touch, emotionally and mentally, with my memories, nostalgia, and even my current music with these magical times. They were magical, even if I tried to get realistic and not get too nostalgic. These times were magical because they were a special time in our scene. It was when heavy metal rejuvenated itself. We were very lucky to be a part of that. How could I ever forget this?"
Blabbermouth: We'll never see a time like the early-to-mid-1980s again — that period of exploration and experimentation.
Thomas: "Unfortunately, I think you're right. I really want this to happen, of course, because it was magical. But the world has changed massively and heavy metal is no longer a young scene. I also find it difficult to envision such a time to come back, even though every member of the metal audience should be granted to experience this."
Blabbermouth: Do you share the same worry about what will happen when big bands like IRON MAIDEN and METALLICA retire?
Thomas: "I've been following this debate, but I don't think it's that drastic. Yes, we're going to lose some of the major players. But there are plenty of fantastic bands around and they will become big. JUDAS PRIEST and IRON MAIDEN weren't always that big. It's just a factor of hanging around and surviving the decades and I don't think we're short of talent to fill that space, as sad as it is when these bands no longer exist. The heavy metal scene is huge and has recovered from the harsh years of the '90s and I don't think we're going to see festivals without any significant bands. There are so many fantastic bands and then they'll take over as it has always been. There's no BLACK SABBATH and LED ZEPPELIN, but the metal scene still has gigantic festivals with huge headliners. That's how things go. I don't think we'll starve to death."
Blabbermouth: Back to "Danse Macabre": Reed [St. Mark, drums] wrote some interesting things about regretting not signing the contract with Noise and not being there during the album recordings once his parts were finished. Have you reconciled those feelings with him?
Thomas: "I was, of course, aware of that situation. To me personally, I don't remember it as being as drastic as Reed has stated. I have to say: I really enjoyed reading Reed's interview in the book. We are still close friends, but I didn't know what he would say. We were interviewed separately. It was extremely interesting to read his viewpoint. Reed was an immense part of CELTIC FROST. Without him, those albums wouldn't exist. Many of the artistic details wouldn't exist. I don't have such a regretful view of this as he apparently has. Yes, he didn't hang around, but he was in love. Who can blame him? His later wife was extremely beautiful. Martin and I would have gone for her immediately. [Laughs] As for not signing the contract, I can't blame him for not signing it. There were some unfortunate moments when we were touring in America and we had really heavy problems with Noise. He said, 'I could just go home.' That didn't go down well with Martin and I. That was five minutes, but we owe Reed so much for everything else. I wouldn't be here talking to you if it wasn't for Reed."
Blabbermouth: The story of him joining CELTIC FROST is still amazing. You found this good-looking American drummer who could play — in Switzerland, of all places. What a stroke of luck. Things could have turned out so much differently.
Thomas: "We were immensely lucky to stumble upon each other, talking about both sides, Reed and Martin and I. We needed a different horizon in our little provincial band. We were radicals. We had a lot of ideas, but Reed brought with him maturity, professionalism, experience and the viewpoint of an American. The fusion of all this was really what CELTIC FROST was. I don't think Martin and I on our own, or Reed on his own would have achieved anything like this. For us, these few years seemed like an eternity. Now looking back, we were lucky to have these years together. I'm eternally grateful. I think that's why Reed and I are still close friends to this day."
Blabbermouth: It was never a smooth ride during those years, either. Martin left before "To Mega Therion", Reed didn't sign the contract and you had regular record company issues. Maybe those things made you work harder.
Thomas: "I totally agree. All the things you described, everything was a component, even the negative ones, were essential. It made us work harder and more fanatical in defending our ideas. It was a mixture of sometimes having a dispute in the band or sometimes having extreme camaraderie. That's real life at the end of the day. Two weeks before Martin's death, we sat and had coffee in Zurich, and we talked about that — we both agreed that we always managed to turn this tension into something artistically different at the end of the day."
Blabbermouth: The best example of that might be "Into The Pandemonium" when you didn't get any of your choices as producer, the label didn't understand your direction and you were trying to make this very experimental album with a little budget on your own.
Thomas: "Yes, and we still pulled it off! In hindsight, I don't think the album would have carried that desperate spark of creativity had we been given a lavish budget and producer. We would have masked a lot of the radicalness on the album. I thought it was a catastrophe not having these resources and we struggled to produce the album on an underground level. Now looking back, it's one of the most essential components. This album wouldn't have benefitted from more commercialism and polish. At the end of the day, it's pretty close to what we envisioned."
Blabbermouth: Pulling something like "Into The Pandemonium" off under those conditions may be your greatest accomplishment.
Thomas: "It was. But, I must say 'To Mega Therion' served as a beacon for my life. When I left CELTIC FROST in 2008 and was faced with continuing that path without Martin in TRIPTYKON, I looked at 'To Mega Therion' as a confirmation that I could pull it off. For me, it is as crucial as 'Into The Pandemonium' for different reasons."
Blabbermouth: CELTIC FROST bore the brunt of poor quality control from Noise when your albums first came out. Did you ever get to track down all the original liner notes and photos?
Thomas: "I was invited by the revamped Noise Records in 1999 to their Berlin office to do the first reissues. By then, [Noise owner] Karl Walterbach was no longer an active part of the company. He was residing in America and was getting royalties from Noise. The company was led by Antje Lange, who became my manager. This made it possible to work with Noise Records again. While in Berlin, I went through their archives and was shocked. There was nothing left. They only had fragments. From the other bands, too. So much had been thrown away, lost. Material that was irreplaceable. Photos that were without negatives, booklet concepts, just gone. God knows what happened to them. We all know Karl wasn't thinking strategically. He was thinking about a quick profit. This is the result. It was shocking but not surprising to see that it was really like this."
Blabbermouth: Those mistakes —from typos or songs omitted without your knowledge, like "Tristesses De La Lune" from "Into The Pandemonium" had to kill you.
Thomas: "They did. We weren't alone in this. Record companies had an immense amount of power in the mid-'80s. So many bands that I know experienced the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic. It was that time and all of us in the metal scene were young. We were fueled by passion, enthusiasm and testosterone, but none of us had experience. We hardly had money to go to music attorneys — if there were any. It's not an unusual story, but it made us more fanatic. It didn't stop us. In my case, it made me — I hate the word — it made me a much better businessman. When we reformed CELTIC FROST, we created our own record company and publishing house. We are in full control of everything to this very day. We are partners with Sony and Century Media. I'm not signed to them. I'm a partner with the record company. All this would have never happened if it weren't for the negative experiences of the '80s. It forced us to reform ourselves, inform ourselves and establish that we could take control. It was crucial to have this experience."
Blabbermouth: You once told me "Vanity/Nemesis" has not aged well. It's not included in the new box set, but I was wondering if your perspective has changed.
Thomas: "BMG decided to do the period of '84 to '87 for the box set, and I don't disagree. This is the classic period of CELTIC FROST. As far as 'Vanity/Nemesis', it's okay. To me, it's irrelevant. It doesn't matter if it has aged well or not. If you compare it to 'To Mega Therion', there's no competition. It's irrelevant in the FROST catalog. The important albums are 'Morbid Tales', 'To Mega Therion', 'Into The Pandemonium' and 'Monotheist'. Those are the albums CELTIC FROST attempted something bigger. The other two exist, but are they important? It's up to each member of the audience to decide. But I think they are irrelevant."
Blabbermouth: You still get asked about "Cold Lake". When was the last time you listened to it?
Thomas: "I haven't heard it since 1988. I don't own it in any shape or form. I don't own it on vinyl, MP3 or CD. I don't have it. I will never own it. Why shouldn't people ask me? It exists.
To a great extent, I'm responsible for it. You can call me many things, but I'm not a coward. I explain it and answer questions about it. My view, of course, is that the planet is perfectly fine without it. But to each their own. We should be careful with resources. It would be a waste of vinyl to reissue it."
Blabbermouth: What's the status of your third book that would cover post-reformation CELTIC FROST?
Thomas: "I'm working on it and it's massively delayed, like many things. [Laughs] But it's going to happen. My publisher, Bazillion Points, is casually reminding me every other week. I'm fairly certain I can hand in the manuscript next year. I'm confident it will happen unless I have a stroke."
Blabbermouth: And, what's the status of the next TRIPTYKON studio album?
Thomas: "Yes, it's happening. Our partners at Century Media are putting the gun to my head. Yes, it's going to happen."
Blabbermouth: Has the recent TRIUMPH OF DEATH shows influenced the writing of the new TRIPTYKON?
Thomas: "I think it certainly has. For many reasons, HELLHAMMER has been difficult for Martin and me. It's much easier to look at HELLHAMMER from the outside based on the merits of the music than having been a band during a difficult time both outside and within the band and our lives, and also having to stand for certain very problematic lyrics. It's not straightforward and I know some of the fans have not forgiven me for being critical of HELLHAMMER. But HELLHAMMER's output warrants a critical look. Martin shared that viewpoint. There were many things about HELLHAMMER that were complex without context. There were many things about HELLHAMMER that we thought were fantastic and proud of. By going onstage, I closed the circle Martin and I started when we reformed CELTIC FROST. We spent two years every night talking about our history, including HELLHAMMER. Without these extensive talks, I don't think TRIUMPH OF DEATH would have ever taken place. It's been a phenomenal experience to play that early music. For many of those songs, I remember writing them like a movie in my head. To go onstage to play music without any commercial pressure or not having to promote something or satisfy a record company, to go out and have a good time with the audience, that's what it's all about. So, yes, I think it has rejuvenated my creativity and outlook. It's a very positive thing after decades, finally."