Top 7 Songs – Celtic Frost

Other than Slayer and Metallica, you’ll find few artists that emerged from the 1980s as influential as Celtic Frost, yet they released only one more album in the 1990s.

Formed out of the ashes of proto-black metal legends, Hellhammer, in Zürich, Switzerland in 1984, the group came to prominence with their debut album, Morbid Tales. Dark, heavy, and rough, it mixed Black Sabbath and Discharge and gravitated towards a vision of heavy metal as a sinister artform with bloodthirsty vocals. It’s primitive musicianship and cerebral lyrics would go on to influence the second wave of black metal and the misanthropic edge of death metal and leave its mark on sludge and even grunge. Yet its 1985 successor, To Mega Therion, would move into more experimental pastures with French horns and classical arrangements expanding the scope for a more highbrow approach to extreme music. This culminated in the career highpoint of Into the Pandemonium in 1987, which we now recognise as the first ever avant-garde metal LP. Simply put, nobody had heard anything like it, nor did they think you could even contemplate many of the unorthodox things that vocalist and guitarist, Tom G. Warrior, introduced into the world of metal in 1987. There would be no symphonic metal or gothic metal without this record, yet it remains a piece of savage blackened thrash beloved of death metal fans everywhere.

Like all great bands, Celtic Frost had their controversial moments – perhaps the most controversial moment in the history of extreme metal – when they turned into a glam metal band for 1988’s derided Cold Lake LP. As one of the most hated and misguided records of all time, it killed the momentum of the group and almost ruined their legacy despite the underappreciated technical thrash of 1990’s Vanity/Nemesis. They imploded in 1992 after two years of disarray and soul-searching.

The mother of all comebacks added one more triumphant chapter to the Celtic Frost story when the group returned with their acclaimed Monotheist album in 2006. Misanthropic in spirit and substance and replete with trademark moments of glorious pomposity and bowel-rupturing fury, it reaffirmed their legacy as one of the most important metal bands of all time. The death of founding bassist, Martin Eric Ain, in 2017, put an end to another reunion, but Tom G. Warrior’s successor band, Triptykon, is a continuation of the Celtic Frost vision.

Whether you’re new to this legendary group or a staunch acolyte of their music, it’s time to rank the top seven Celtic Frost songs from their acclaimed back catalogue. Watch our video below to hear snippets from their back catalogue.

7. ‘Os Abysmi Vel Daath’ from Monotheist (2006)

Celtic Frost’s return in 2006 after a sixteen-year hiatus is the comeback of all comebacks. They dropped their guitar tunings to B, set their amps to bleed, and slowed their tempos to a gratuitous sludge metal blaze. You could pick at least five tracks from the Monotheist album as classics, but ‘Os Abysmi vel Daath’ is the one that captures all the right ingredients. Here, iron forgery sounds give way to a monstrous down-tuned belch of palm-muted guitars and morbid vocal projections as clouds of feedback whistle in the background. An ethereal second guitar leaves an aching pitch bend wavering by a quarter step in the lead up to Tom’s declaration of “I deny my own desire,” in the bridge to the chorus. You want to insert a masculine grunt at the beginning of each new riff, which makes the intrusion of female operatics even more of a surprise in the second round of verses.

In hindsight, you can hear Celtic Frost’s influence on Neurosis and the latter’s influence on the Swiss legends in the same song. And forget about a guitar solo – how about a hostile noise track of throat singing samples and blistering furnace? It works to great effect as an interlude between choruses and allows the band to raise the tempo at the climax for a low-end thrash metal attack. This is where Celtic Frost buried the ghost of Cold Lake once and for all.

6. ‘Wings of Solitude’ from Vanity/Nemesis (1990)

Now, you wouldn’t expect a Beauty and the Beast song to start with a death grunt, but this is probably the first ever goth metal song led by sorrowful female vocals and contrasted with a gruff male voice in the chorus. The clean guitars in the melodic verses sound like harpsicords. Listen how French singer, Michelle Amar, reaches for a belting contralto approach in the galloping chorus as Tom harmonises her words with no concern for being in perfect tune. Clearly, Paradise Lost, Tiamat and Anathema found it enthralling enough to add their own perspective to this novel combination later down the line.

‘Wings of Solitude’ is also one of the few Celtic Frost songs to rip through the fretboard with a shredding hair metal solo. Emotions run high, sometimes into a wild agitation. Amar’s luscious French-accented voice aches with a spellbinding loneliness until the release at the end when Tom signals the transition to the last passage with his signature death grunt. What more do you want from a Celtic Frost song?

5. ‘Circle of the Tyrants’ from To Mega Therion (1985)

There’s a reason why the rock press lumped Celtic Frost in with the emerging thrash metal bands of the time, and that’s because of track number six from their influential 1985 LP, To Mega Therion. Starting with a vicious blaze of sharp fifth chords and leading into a head-banging palm-muted rhythm, ‘Circle of the Tyrants’ stands out for its heroic tom drum fills and menacing vocal lines that sound like a man with meat hooks piercing through his shoulders. Listen how the band dispense with the first chorus and embrace the second act with a muscle-flexing doom metal groove. Tom G Warrior’s guitar solo is noisy and ignorant of any musical theory, but one hundred percent suited to the mood and presence of the song.

Vicious and yet triumphant in its muscular posture and covered by the likes of Obituary, Opeth, Incantation and Pro-Pain, this track is heavy enough to sound down-tuned even though it’s in standard E tuning. That’s because Celtic Frost had the chunkiest guitar tone of the 1980s. Metallica and Slayer played faster, but they seldom reached this level of brutality.

4. ‘I Won’t Dance (The Elders’ Orient)’ from Into the Pandemonium (1987)

If To Mega Therion planted the seed for an avant-garde vision of heavy metal, Into the Pandemonium nurtured it into a highbrow reality. The band’s 1987 classic boasts some of the heaviest and darkest songs of their career and some of their most astounding genre-smashing efforts like the Dead Can Dance serenade of ‘Tristesses de la Lune’. Yet the catchiest and most playful track is ‘I Won’t Dance (The Elders’ Orient)’, which might be the first ever attempt at a metal opera piece. Here, Tom chugs at his guitar strings like a man ramping up the engine of a speed boat as Reed St. Mark thunders behind him from the drum stool. Hark how the duet in the bridge floors you with its sudden infusion of melody. Where did those female vocals come from as they dig into your veins like morphine?

Tom’s bloodthirsty vocal inflections provide a wonderful contrast to the enchanting female echoes, and Helmet’s Page Hamilton would be proud of the feedback drenched guitar solo, but this song is all about the anthemic chorus. Who’d have thought that the man who formed Hellhammer would one day write a sensual affair like this with the pomp and glory of a musical theatre production?

3. ‘Procreation (Of the Wicked)’ from Morbid Tales (1984)

Is ‘Procreation of the Wicked’ the first ever sludge metal song? It’s hard to think of a more influential guitar riff on the genre than the reverse string bend and palm-muted crunch at its core. Covered by Metallica, Mayhem, Mortician, Sepultura and Enslaved, this is vintage Celtic Frost. Tom’s vocals gurgle like a man drowning in his own blood; Martin Ain’s basslines stalk the gaps like a prowling creature; and Reed St. Mark pounds his drums as if recalling the glory days of John Bonham at Maddison Square Garden.

They paid as much attention to this song in Seattle as they did in Bergen, and you can hear its towering influence today on every metal band that anchors their sound in a grinding mid-tempo dirge. You can be the guitar hero, the cult leader, and the doomsayer all in one song. How can something so primitive be so enjoyable? That’s the paradox of this music.

2. ‘Necromantical Screams’ from To Mega Therion (1985)

We laud artists ahead of their time, yet Celtic Frost’s 1985 album was an immediate influence on the proto-death and black metal bands coming into fruition. It was also light years away from anything in contemporary metal with its classical elements, Wagnerian horn arrangements, and female soprano vocals. Nothing encapsulates this better than closing track, ‘Necromantical Screams’, which we’d call blackened death-doom or avant-garde metal if it came out today. Coated in thick guitar overdrive and built around an abrupt sequence of fifth chord placements, this composition makes every second of its six minutes count. The A harmonic minor verse with dual vocals; the sudden uplift in tempo for the pre-chorus; the tension release in the half-timing drums of the chorus; the imperious rotary valves of the French horn announcing the presence of death incarnate – this is a song that helped to make heavy metal a serious artform.

Celtic Frost would expand on their idea here for 1987’s Into the Pandemonium, but this is where the heavy metal historian can pinpoint the origins of avant-garde metal.

1. ‘Dethroned Emperor’ from Morbid Tales (1984)

Like Venom’s ‘Welcome to Hell’, track four from the Celtic Frost debut has been ripped off more times than Megadeth have changed their lineup. In the case of Napalm Death’s legendary Scum album, they used it as their basis for at least four songs. And yet it’s a simple act of rock posturing played with savage glee and introduced with a cowbell before the band get into gear and make your nostrils flare. The key to ‘Dethroned Emperor’ is its disregard for repetition while staying faithful to its catchy elements. The morbid downward scrape of the E chord and ringing doom of the chorus are as dark as anything you’ll hear in metal in the 1980s. Listen to the abrupt drop-out to the vibrato-heavy guitar contemplation at the half-way mark as Tom navigates his way to a chaotic solo armed with no musical knowledge or care for playing the Western music scales.

Covered over the years by Anthrax, Vader, Cancer, Vital Remains, and The Gathering, ‘Dethroned Emperor’ is Celtic Frost in full body armour at their fearsome best.

Honourable mentions