CELTIC FROST has had one of the strangest and more controversial career arcs in recent metal history. Rising out of the ashes of Swiss act HELLHAMMER in 1984, FROST centered largely around singer and guitarist Tom Gabriel Fischer (a.k.a. Tom Warrior) and bassist Martin Eric Ain. Early releases such as "Morbid Tales" and "To Mega Therion" won the band instant acclaim on the underground scene. The group combined brutal, doom-laden and distorted death/thrash riffs and vocals with operatic singing, orchestral arrangements and electronic loops, creating a boldly experimental sound that was dubbed by some journalists as "avant-garde metal." The band's imagery and lyrics were equally compelling, exploring the occult, ancient history and arcane mysticism, and helped solidify the band's reputation as one of the underground's heaviest, most innovative and most intelligent outfits, not to mention one of its most influential.
Then came 1989 and "Cold Lake". Jettisoning nearly everything that was integral to the FROST style, including the rest of the band (which at the time included Ain, drummer Reed St. Mark and touring guitarist Ron Marks) and nearly every identifiable aspect of the group's sound, Fischer recruited three new musicians who looked like rejects from a TUFF or PRETTY BOY FLOYD audition and set about remaking CELTIC FROST as, for all intents and purposes, a hair band. "Cold Lake" was a mediocre hard rock album, stripped of the musical heaviness and epic sweep of earlier FROST efforts, while the lyrical concerns degenerated from the likes of "Babylon Fell" (from 1987's "Into The Pandemonium") to "Tease Me".
Ain came back a year later for the heavier and somewhat underrated "Vanity/Nemesis", which in retrospect might have done better had it followed "Pandemonium" instead of "Cold Lake". But the damage was done and FROST disbanded the following year. Fischer spent the rest of the Nineties working on a variety of projects, most notably the band APOLLYON SUN and a written memoir, "Are You Morbid?" (2000). By the turn of the century, however, rumors about a FROST reunion had begun to pick up steam and finally became official around 2001, with Ain coming back into the fold and the duo beginning work on the first new FROST album in 16 years.
That album is "Monotheist", and the question regarding every comeback by a long-dormant group is always whether they can recapture the sound, vibe and chemistry that make them successful the first time around. The answer here is yes: Fischer and Ain (along with new drummer Franco Sesa) have labored long and hard to create an album that ranks with their best work in terms of sheer heaviness and atmosphere, while employing some dramatic new musical ventures that honor the experimental side of the band. If the group's songs are less concise and perhaps not as catchy as earlier work, they're still propelled by sheer musical muscle and an epic, ambitious scope.
"Progeny" and "Ground" open the album and are instantly identifiable through Fischer's distorted, tuned-down guitar and the band's overall crushing sound and powerhouse rhythms. "A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh" is one of the group's darkest and slowest songs, opening in TOOL-like fashion with a solitary, haunted guitar and a subdued vocal from Fischer that soon explodes into a churning, doom-infested crawl reminiscent of NEUROSIS. Fischer continues exploring new vocal ideas on "Drown In Ashes", channeling SISTERS OF MERCY while playing off a haunting female singer. The frontman's vocal range on this album works far better than the "crooning" affected on parts of "Into The Pandemonium" and "Cold Lake", while his original death metal style has held up surprisingly well (there are a few "death grunts" thrown in as well).
Perhaps the most successful aspect of "Monotheist" is that the band has become much better at merging its disparate musical influences into a complete sound, rather than dividing the album — and sometimes fans — between the group's heavier material and its more esoteric. While "Into The Pandemonium" stands as one of FROST's best albums, going from the hardcore thrash of "Inner Sanctum" to the goth-influenced ballad "Mesmerized" still made for jarring listening. On "Monotheist", elements of everything from BLACK SABBATH to DAVID BOWIE to BAUHAUS to SWANS are present throughout each song, but woven into the overall material instead of standing starkly apart. Two of the album's strongest tracks in this regard are "Os Abysmi Vel Daath" and "Obscured".
If "Monotheist" has one major flaw, it's simply that the group has sacrificed some of the memorable nature of earlier songs, progressing perhaps a bit too far away from the simpler pleasures of songs like "Circle of the Tyrants" and "Procreation of the Wicked". As primitive as those tunes might be in comparison to the material on "Monotheist", they had a catchiness that was often too rare in thrash/death metal. But that is clearly not what Fischer and Ain are after with "Monotheist", and it's fair to say that many of the songs here do have moments that stick in the head long after listening, like the plaintive opening guitar line on "Obscured". In the grand scheme of things, however, this album is not about easily accessible songs. A few, like "Progeny" or "Ain Elohim" occasionally fall into a repetitive, droning cycle.
That being said, however, this is still a monstrously heavy and oppressive slab of metal that instantly recalls what made this band so unique. If anything, CELTIC FROST has gone into even heavier, blacker territory on "Monotheist", with the album's 11 cuts painting a chilling portrait of decay and ruin on a cosmic scale. The closing triptych of "Totengott", the 14-minute "Synagoga Satanae" and the eerie closing requiem of "Winter" are alone indicators of just how far heavy music can stretch its musical boundaries. Fischer and Ain have restored much of their band's former glory with "Monotheist", producing an epic work that picks up where they left off in the mid-Eighties and brings it boldly and agelessly into the 21st century.