CELTIC FROST are one of the original –and possibly the ultimate – Marmite bands. Some people got them from the off, or developed an interest in their experimental and genre-twisting approach to metal, while others couldn’t comprehend what Tom Gabriel Warrior, Martin Eric Ain and Reed St. Mark were trying to achieve. And, to be fair, label boss Karl-Ulrich Walterbach was in the second camp. It didn’t help that the tarnished reputation of Hellhammer, Warrior’s and Ain’s previous band, hung over their heads like the sword of Damocles. Ignored by most of the handful of metal magazines of the time and pilloried in the UK’s Metal Forces, Hellhammer had to die for Celtic Frost to live. And Hellhammer’s name had been so sullied that when some writer and metal fans saw Warrior’s and Ain’s names attached to Celtic Frost they immediately steered clear of the pair’s new creation. Yet Celtic Frost would go onto be acknowledged as one of the most inspirational and innovative bands of the mid-Eighties. There was no rulebook for what they wanted to achieve, so they wrote their own. And the material that makes up ‘Danse Macabre’ is that rulebook.


This isn’t so much a box set as a narrative journey through previously uncharted musical territory. In his book ‘Are You Morbid’ Warrior points out how he’d set out his vision for the band which “looks ahead for the next three years and three albums... We have already named the albums, ‘To Mega Therion’ and ‘Into The Pandemonium’, along with the title of an initial EP ‘Morbid Tales’”; and so with Hellhammer firmly in the rear-view mirror and their label Noise Records rolling over the Hellhammer contract with a new name, Celtic Frost were ushered into the studio in October 1984. They emerged (as planned) with ‘Morbid Tales’, a six-track mini-album (originally, the intro ‘Human’ was originally just part of ‘Into The Crypt Of Rays’ and not listed on the sleeve) which boasted amongst other things a pair of songs which would go on to become band classics – ‘Into The Crypt Of Rays’ and ‘Procreation (Of The Wicked)’ – as well as the eerie ‘Danse Macabre’ itself. Two further tracks (‘Dethroned Emperor’ and ‘Morbid Tales’) had been recorded at the same time but Noise boss Walterbach was adamant he wanted to release a mini-album (which tallied with the band’s original concept anyway). That said, the version he licensed to the US market via Metal Blade Records was classed as a full LP and added these additional tracks, which Noise then issued in Europe on their April 1985 ‘Metal Attack Vol.1’ sampler LP.


Enter skinsman Reed St. Mark. Hellhammer alumnus Stephen Priestly was reticent to commit to Celtic Frost and had drummed on ‘Morbid Tales’ on a session basis (although he would later re-enter the story on the 1988 ‘Cold Lake’ album). The new drummer was impressive and powerful, and within two months of his recruitment the band went back into the studio in April 1985 at the label’s insistence to record an EP entitled ‘Emperor’s Return’. The original five tracks featured three new songs bulked out with ‘Dethroned Emperor’ and ‘Morbid Tales’. A left-over from the session, ‘Journey Into Fear’, later appeared on the 1992 compilation ‘Parched With Thirst Am I And Dying’ and was added to subsequent releases of the EP, along with a remix of the cut ‘Visual Aggression’.


Just five months after that session the trio were back in the studio again where they crafted their breakthrough masterpiece. Issued in October 1985 as a gatefold LP whose sleeve featured two pieces of artwork by H.R. Giger ‘To Mega Therion’ was unique: unbelievably different to anything released under the term ‘metal’. It was artistically, if not commercially, a tremendous body of work. “It was the first time we were taken seriously,” explained Warrior [under his real name Fischer] in David E. Gehlke’s excellent book on Noise Records ‘Damn the Machine’. “Unfortunately, that was the beginning of the end with Noise... We started playing concerts worldwide... We were the only Noise band from Europe that was successful in North America... I would put ‘To Mega Therion’ as the start of us realising the deficiencies of the label... From then on, our rise musically and decline in label relations began.”


But if ‘To Mega Therion’ put them on the metal map it was ‘Into The Pandemonium’ that raised their profile to an astonishing degree. The band’s most ambitious offering to date, ‘Into The Pandemonium’ (released on 1 June 1987) saw Warrior, Ain and St. Mark thinking well and truly outside the box and delivering an album swathed in orchestration and operatic vocals alongside brutal riffing and the obligatory death grunts. Walterbach hated it and gave it limited promotion, convinced it was a turkey. But one man’s turkey is another’s Christmas dinner, and, as Gehlke points out, “only when the press started hailing it as the ground-breaking release it was did the album start to sell.” The band were now finally recognised as visionaries and innovators, and although they probably never reaped much in the way of financial reward, their legacy is undisputable.


‘Danse Macabre’ offers up the four Noise releases, with the appropriate bonus tracks, as well as a four-track disc of rehearsal material from their practice room at their Grave Hill Bunker. A poster, booklet, badge and patch complete the set, and if you’ve opted for the vinyl version there’s a memory stick with all the tracks as mp3s, as well as a range of singles. The set is excessive, expansive and experimental, and is, therefore, the very essence of Celtic Frost itself.

© John Tucker October 2022