Thursday, September 2, 2010

ONLY DEATH IS REAL - An Illustrated History of Hellhammer and Early Celtic Frost (1981-1985)

!! This review contains a lot of detail, don't read it if you don't like spoilers!!

I opened the package Only Death is Real came in, expecting a small metal hardcover with plenty of photos and a few anecdotes here and there, but instead a gigantic textbook-sized feast lay before me. First, an introduction by Nocturno Culto highlights the fanaticism Hellhammer brings out in people, having tattooed the Hellhammer bat on himself.
Next, an insightful forward by Joel McIver, author of Cliff Burton's biography "To Live is To Die". McIver states, in his usual, dignified way, that Hellhammer and Celtic Frost were pivotal in setting the stage for later thrash acts and, of course, black metal. Martin Eric Ain sums up Hellhammer's powerful influence with these words: "the music led to a radicalization inside of me and to the desire to define my life with music."

Hellhammer was born in 1982 in Zurich, Switzerland, initially a 'clone' of Venom. Tom G Warrior is a mysterious figure, sometimes coming across as an embittered, spiteful recluse. In fact, in Warrior's own words (describing Hellhammer): "it took years for the accumulated unease to subside."
But now that the unease has subsided somewhat, we are allowed a glimpse into Warrior's world. The book begins with the theme of alienation - Warrior was at odds with his bandmates in Grave Hill, who could not understand his drive towards more extreme music.
Back then, metal was as scarce in Zurich as it would become in the rest of the world by the 90s. It's hard to imagine the challenges Warrior faced putting a band together, barely being able to afford instruments, getting beat up by other guitarists and frowned upon by disapproving neighbours. Warrior not only faced these difficulties, but also had a profoundly disturbing childhood. To put it mildly, Warrior's mother was a crazy "cat lady." I have no idea how Warrior survived his ordeals with any of his sanity left intact, but it's clear that the pure evil that emanates from Hellhammer and later from Celtic Frost was not just inspired by music, but came from the grim reality Warrior faced. The darkness in their sound is very morbid, very raw, and very real.

Here I will stop to make an observation: Warrior endured all this adversity, hatred and pain, but he did not become a serial killer or a rapist or a bankrobber or a terrorist or a religious fanatic. Instead of using it as an excuse, he channeled it into metal. It seems that Warrior coped better than Mustaine, but then again he was far removed from the glitz, drugs, and violence in LA. In fact, Steve Warrior recounts: "But Fischer is the only one who doesn't smoke, doesn't do drugs, and doesn't drink."

Warrior pinpoints early on the role of disharmony in metal - songs never following the logical path of melody and harmony the listener comes to expect. This organized chaos, this disharmony, is at the root of what makes metal so interesting to listen to. The problem at the beginning of the 80s was that gods such as Led Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult and Aerosmith had by now become tired symbols of consumerism - boring and cheesy, and definitely following the expected path. This dissatisfaction led to NWOBHM and the formation of bands that would profoundly influence Warrior, like Venom and Angel Witch.
Despite having worthy influences, Hellhammer had a rough time starting up; their first drummer had to leave because he was too docile, their second drummer refused to grow his hair long, and they were all relatively inept at their instruments. Warrior never comes across as arrogant, describing his skills as "marginal at best" in the Hellhammer days, but he is unwavering in his metal fanaticism and also in his anger: at one point, Warrior says "My hatred towards human beings had become immeasurable. Even though it served as a valve, Hellhammer's music was sometimes barely able to contain my infinite detestation." Don't we all feel that way sometimes? :-)

Nonetheless, the members of Hellhammer were diligent: practice was incessant. The book describes in detail their first flyers, their first photo shoots, their equipment, and their growing setlist. "Angel of Destruction", with the lyrics "burn a church, strike it down" probably inspired an entire generation of Scandinavian pyromaniac pagans. [Bizarrely, in the early 80s, one of the only places for metalheads to meet near Zurich was at a church parish's hall, where the church council organized a regular music evening called "Quo Vadis" featuring metal.]

Anyway, the story of Hellhammer continues with the recording of their second demo and numerous line up changes. Eventually, Warrior's hatred shifted towards Hellhammer: "The obsessive struggle to abandon Hellhammer's inadequacies dominated everything." Thus Hellhammer was buried, and Celtic Frost was born, only to lose their drummer, Stephen Priestly. It seems that Hellhammer and Celtic Frost really were afflicted with the Spinal Tap self-combusting drummer curse.
Despite losing their drummer early, Celtic Frost embodied Warrior's vision in ways that Hellhammer never could. The first positive review came from Germany's Hard Rock zine: "You all know what I thought of Hellhammer, and now this! First class production, much better drum work, faster guitar parts, and I suddenly even like Tom Warrior's dead corpse throat. Celtic Frost are Europe's heaviest and most extreme band!"

One really interesting feature of the book are the commentaries written by Steve Warrior and Martin Eric Ain, among others, about what was going on in their heads and in the band. Martin Eric Ain: "I was able to identify with this figure, the monster [...] But seeing myself as the monster, I was not merely ugly and repulsive, I also radiated with might and power." This doesn't sound just like a description of himself, but rather like a description of the entity Celtic Frost had become - nefarious, repellent, and yet compelling and indomitable.
Martin Eric Ain also dissects the lyric-writing process, mentioning the influence of Michael Tournier and Charles Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal. Watch Immortal Ad Vitam if you like Baudelaire - the main character, Nikopol, whispers Baudelaire's poetry as his body is possessed by Horus (Aggressor!).

A mere review can't even begin to sum up the completeness of this Hellhammer/early Celtic Frost autobiography. It's not only riveting to read, but also full of album art, reviews, scans of old flyers and zines, and technical details. A must have for any Hellhammer or Celtic Frost fan, but also a worthy introduction to the next generation of metalheads who might not have a clue about the raw, morbid power of Celtic Frost yet. READ IT!


  1. Good review Luv Angel of Destruction of the first demo. Don't forget ther major Motörhead influence on HH early sound.