Let’s ruminate on extreme metal’s coming of age: Bathory and Celtic Frost

Disparate artists across Europe and the Americas, growing up on a strict diet of Motorhead, punk, NWOBHM, and even some classical music, were in turn picking up guitars themselves (often for the first time) to emulate these musicians and hopefully surpass them, pushing the boundaries of just how noisy guitar music could be. This abrasive music was seemingly designed to alienate the listener as much as possible; one could not easily acquire a right to it, most certainly did not want to. In the case of Celtic Frost, Tom G. Warrior and the gang started out life as the now legendary Hellhammer, a band that existed for the sole purpose of being more extreme than Venom. In terms of musicianship this project put the cart very much before the horse, with a vision well beyond the capability of the players. But it set the template for a new level of raw production, sloppy playing, and primitive song writing, soon to become the staple of underground metal. At the time they were dismissed as something of a joke, as the music was just too noisy for the ears of the time. So they disbanded after releasing just a few demos, and reformed as Celtic Frost in order to distance themselves from this stigma.

Celtic Frost took the same basic template and added well thought out composition, and managed to find producers capable of taming the sound enough for it to make sense musically without losing any of the impact. By 1986 with the release of ‘To Mega Therion’, it was clear that Celtic Frost had leapt well beyond their forebears into an equally extreme yet highly melodic, almost regal take on primitive dark thrash that typified the first wave of black metal. The basic components of this music are relatively simple, with simple mid-paced thrash riffs forming the key building blocks of each track. A modest smattering of keyboards was added to this formula, with brass and timpani drums punctuating the slower passages, adding depth, foreboding, and dread. The music itself may be simple, but the delivery is precise, with creative use of tempo changes emphasising the slower doomy passages against periods of mayhem, where TG Warrior attacks his fretboard with simple yet brutally powerful solos emulating chaos, contrasted with the more thoughtful brooding passages of doom.

TG Warrior’s trademark grunt is pitched distantly in the mix, perfectly audible but spacious, full of reverb, as if he is shouting at the listener from atop a hill. The power of this music is found beyond the sum of its parts. Each separate component is simple, yet each riff is placed at just the right point to deliver the maximum impact within each track, within the album as a whole. This album is proof that you do not need to be a ridiculously proficient musician to create well composed music of colour and life and darkness with meaning beyond each separate passage. Its influence can be seen across the world of extreme metal to follow, shaping the direction of artists as diverse as Darkthrone, Obituary, and Opeth. Having said all this, ‘To Mega Therion’ still sits within the scope of inventive dark thrash, or the first wave of black metal, rather than black metal proper. This is because it lacks two essential components unique to the black metal to follow. One was the reintroduction of harmony, which took black metal back into more familiar territory in terms of contemporary music, contrasted with the endless atonal riffing of much death metal and extreme thrash. The second was tremolo strumming. Forming riffs from minor chords strummed fast enough to create the tremolo effect with almost trancelike repetition was one of the trademarks of Norwegian black metal. Darkthrone would combine this with basic Celtic Frost riffs to craft their unique and influential style that almost typified the genre.

By 1987 the stage was set for a new student of Venom and punk to take the reins from Celtic Frost. Bathory, the brainchild of one Quorthon, had already been making a lot of noise since 1983, creating an iconic style and imagery from the most primitive of workshops. His self-made Heaven Shore studio is now something of a legend, with his 1984 self-titled debut being recorded on a drum kit with no toms, one symbol, and a microphone hanging from the ceiling. Although this trademark low-fi production was born of necessity rather than choice, the raw sound it created was iconic enough to become something of a staple for much black metal to follow. By 1987 the production values had not improved…at all. But there was a more complete drum kit, and the beginnings of keyboard passages to create intros, samples, breaking up the assault of primitive madness that is 1987’s ‘Under the Sign of the Black Mark’, one of the most powerful and visceral creations of early black metal.

With a mixture of lightning fast thrash tracks and slower epic pieces, both black metal as we know it today and early examples of what would later become known as Viking metal were taking shape. This album became a call to arms in more than just its title. This obscure Swedish solo artist, who never took his project on tour, fired out albums throughout the 1980s from his primitive self-made studio, albums of such power and intensity that it captured the imagination of the international metal community. ‘Under the Sign of the Black Mark’ amalgamated the speed and aggression of its two predecessors with a maturity in composition and profound sense of the epic. By the time of this release Quorthon has stated in interviews that he was listening to Beethoven and Wagner and incorporating the spirit of these artists if not any actual compositional technique within this notoriously primitive music. The result lends a regal flare akin to Celtic Frost’s offering of the previous year; a big step of maturity for music that was originally considered noise for the sake of being more extreme than Venom.

These two albums gave newfound legitimacy to the underground movement, it made pundits take this music seriously, and it reminded the world that if you add an air of sincerity to this punky extreme metal, music with a clear ambition and scope beyond the sum of its parts, the result will go well beyond the comedic cabaret of the Venom school. Choosing one of these albums as the superior release is a pretty tough decision. For Bathory, the works that immediately followed would progress this music even further, the thrash would be even more extreme, the epic tracks even longer and more ambitious, eventually developing into what were essentially film scores. For Celtic Frost their more avant-garde tendencies would be accentuated even more in subsequent releases, producing works that smack of progress for progresses sake, with genuinely creative music being lost beneath the novelty. There is no one black metal artist that does not at least acknowledge some influence from ‘UTSOTBM’, and much death metal owes a debt to the level of integrity Quorthon brought to his project. ‘To Mega Therion’ can boast a similar legacy in the cannon of extreme metal, universally loved by the community as well as many outside it. For this reason I simply cannot decide which album should come out on top. So the only recourse I have is to simply say which one I prefer on a personal level, which would be Bathory’s offering. But this is ultimately a subjective view. There is no more justification for it than it being just like…my opinion man, sorry.

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