Sunday, May 23, 2010

Only Death Is Real

Only Death Is Real: An Illustrated History of Hellhammer and Early Celtic Frost: 1981-85 by Tom Gabriel Fischer with Martin Eric Ain.

(Bazillion Points)

Treatises examining metal as a cultural phenomenon from a sociological or anthropological view, until very recently, have only been done from an outsider’s perspective. Works from DePaul University sociologist Deena Weinstein (Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture), and the rather infamous tome from Didrik Soderland and Michael Moynihan (Lords of Chaos), though fascinating, are largely ignored by many that are only interested in an insider’s perspective. Sam Dunn’s recent, very well done documentaries from an anthropological, yet rabid fan’s perspective have only fueled our desire for professional, insider examinations of the history and culture of our chosen art form. Ian Christe’s publishing house, Bazillion Points, is satisfying that desire with high end publications.

Although Hellhammer and Celtic Frost are predated by Venom, artistically, there’s no question that Tom Gabriel Fischer’s creations elevated black metal to a much higher form. Hellhammer and Celtic Frost are the creative wellsprings from which many of metal’s extreme subgenres originate; therefore, Fischer, already a published author, is perfectly situated to explain his artistic history and muse to metal at large.

Only Death Is Real is a sprawling, beautiful work with over 50% of the book devoted to the chronicling photography of Hellhammer and early Celtic Frost, much of it seen here for the first time. In addition, the final portion of the book is devoted entirely to the early artistic work of Fischer and Ain as they conceived and built the calligraphy and graphic designs associated with Hellhammer and Celtic Frost. Pencil drawings, beautiful ink fliers for Prowlin’ Death Management/ Promotion, logos, demo tape inserts, you name it, all of it is here and in gloriously large print on high gloss paper.

Fischer’s prose is distinctly Old World and comes from someone who learned a more formal English as a non-native speaker. At times, his prose can be a bit heavy-handed and formal, almost Victorian. However, his choice of style adds a great deal of weight and seriousness to the issues at hand; that is, the tumultuous early history of Fischer’s muse and art.

The narrative begins when Fischer was beginning the apprenticeships that working class Swiss enter after secondary school. Fischer details his troubled upbringing and broken relationships with his divorced parents, particularly his mother. The familial events of his youth coupled with the conservative, religious rural society that served to suffocate him and his small circle of friends is the staring point for his misanthropy and frustrations. These searing personal accounts, and how the horrendous conditions fueled Fischer’s desire to produce extreme art are, by far, the best passages of the book as insight into his character and muse becomes most transparent.

Although not seemingly well educated in a formal sense, it is obvious that Fischer is a very intelligent and ambitious individual with strong personal convictions and an absolutely unfailing lack of fear in his almost single minded determination to bring metal into extreme and artistic realms never before imagined. What is almost astonishing is that Fischer is, at best, a neophyte as a musician when he begins his quest.

The quest begins with the formation of Hellhammer and the events leading to the production of two demos and the legendary EP, Apocalyptic Raids. The frustrations with musical inadequacy, the never-ending search for a stable lineup of musicians, and the lack of dedication to (and almost palpable fear of) the cause by just about everyone other than Fischer is documented in painful detail. The painful decision to let Steve Warrior (Urs Sprenger) go from the band, obviously Fischer’s best friend at the time, is particularly poignant. Equally poignant is Sprenger’s honest recognition of his shortcomings as a musician and subsequent decision to give up music entirely.

Astonishingly, Hellhammer’s signing to upstart Noise Records does little to alleviate the problems. A stability of sorts is gained with the recruitment and addition of Martin Eric Ain, who adds his own personal touches as a young man emerging from a painful adolescence and a domineering mother. But Fischer indirectly lets it be known that he is never entirely satisfied, perhaps even with Ain.

A particularly fascinating moment is glimpsed when Fischer, quite tentatively yet boldly, contacts the renowned surrealist H.R. Giger, who, almost miraculously, responds to Fischer’s entreaties for collaboration. Given that Giger is already an Oscar winner by this time for his work on Alien, and Fischer is barely twenty and has not yet built a name for himself, this contact is a veritable coup, further elevating metal into the realms of serious art (a rarity, let’s not kid ourselves, certainly to this day).

The travails eventually become too much for Fischer and Ain, as Hellhammer falls apart and Celtic Frost is born. Although the artistic leap is great, the same pitfalls befall Fischer and Ain as those that frustrated Hellhammer, yet they finally persevere with the release of Morbid Tales. The book ends with the addition of Reed St. Mark, an American, on drums.

After reading, I went back and listened to Hellhammer’s two demos, Death Fiend/ Triumph of Death and Satanic Rites, from the Demon Entrails compilation (Century Media Records). Death Fiend/ Triumph of Death, though primitive, is obviously influenced by NWOBHM and sounds almost melodic at times. Fischer’s early vocal style is even reminiscent of early King Diamond from the demo days of Mercyful Fate (listen to "Death Kiss," an early version of "A Dangerous Meeting," and a distinct similarity is discernible). As chronicled in Only Death Is Real, the stylistic change from Death Fiend/ Triumph of Death to Satanic Rites is much more pronounced than that from Satanic Rites to Apocalyptic Raids, as the raw power of Satanic Rites resonates to this day. Demon Entrails becomes, along with the glorious debut from Triptykon, an essential companion piece to Only Death Is Real.

Needless to say, Only Death Is Real is a must have for serious devotees to extreme metal, as the art form’s painful birth is detailed within Fischer’s pain, muse, and prose. I am left wondering, though, if Fischer has attained any sort of peace with his tumultuous past, and whether he was able to reconcile any relationship with his estranged family.

I await a performance from Triptykon in Los Angeles.

Special thanks to Cosmo Lee.


Only Death Is Real

Buy at Bazillion Points


Invisible Oranges said...

A review that gives its subject the proper gravity and close-up examination. Bravo!

dschalek said...

Thanks, Cosmo, and also for the book itself!