Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Celtic Frost - Cold Lake (1988)

It's confusing how a band can be scaling towards the summit of its creative expression one year and then diving off a cliff the next, but in the case of the much maligned Cold Lake, that is exactly what transpired. I purchased the album when it was released in stores, with zero foreknowledge of its stylistic deviation from Into the Pandemonium, no advance screen of the "Cherry Orchards" video. About the only hint I had that the mighty had possibly fallen would have been the purple cover art, removal of the classic Celtic Frost logo and replacement with some iconic, chrome and cherry tinted logo against a nebulous purple haze. But frankly, this was nothing really unusual for the time. Saxon's Destiny, Van Halen's earlier output and a host of other metal and hard rock recordings used such stripped down, emblematic images to represent themselves, so it wasn't a deal breaker.

However, I could never have expected what came next: the enormously disappointing paradigm shift in the band's songwriting, a complete antithesis to the exotic wizardry that defined Into the Pandemonium or the leaden crushing of To Mega Therion. Celtic Frost had more or less 'gone glam', its creator surrounded by a host of new (and old) musicians and perhaps too accommodating to their desires and ideas. Tom G. Warrior has since condemned this record, citing that its faults were a result of the new four piece band dynamic and his desire to let loose and have a little fun, letting guitarist Oliver Amberg (who played briefly in Hellhammer) write a chunk of the material. That after a disappointing US tour and a perhaps too hasty decision to end the band, he was only too thrilled to experience its swift resurrection and share its fate with eager band mates. But I do have to wonder, as the heart and soul of this band, if part of the change in style was due to some inner fascination the man had with glam metal or commercial hard rock...I mean, whatever the excuse, he still signed his name to it, played on the record and appeared in the video.

There were a lot of fans who crossed over between the popular MTV garbage and the heavier speed/thrash, one dominating the mainstream, the other the underground. Both had their presence in high schools, colleges, clubs and radio playlists everywhere. But it's hard to qualify Cold Lake as a pure transformation into 'glam metal', because it didn't sound a hell of a lot like what you were hearing out of the shitty party rock bands like Poison or Warrant. This is more like 'pseudo glam'. There is still an ugly, chugging monstrosity lurking somewhere under the eaves of this record, only it'd been obfuscated beneath the facade of a bunch of hair sprayed Euro-rockers who seemed more into racing Aston Martins through Alpine speedways with a martini in one hand and the lingerie of some hair sprayed groupie slut in the other, than continuing to excel and expand the boundaries of their genre like the album's predecessor. I must admit, my very first thoughts upon listening through this album were that the band was being ironic, 'trolling' the audience with some avant-garde mockery of a scene they all loathed, thinking so far outside of the box that they placed themselves back INSIDE the box.

As history reveals, though, this was clearly not what was happening. Now, before I proceed any further, let's talk about 'image'. The fact that the band were dowsing themselves in ozone depletion or dressed in tight fitting, frilly or fancy clothes was not necessarily a huge concern of mine. I get the whole 'glam' thing, as much as I rebelled against it through high school and still sneer at it to this day, it's always been a park of the rock world. Boys like to play dress up just as girls do, and while some took and still take it to broad extremes (Japan's 'visual kei'), but for many in the Sunset Strip or traditional European metal scenes, it was just how things were done, an acceptable practice in the 80s by the raving legions of drooling fangirls and by extension, all the dudes who wanted to get in their pants. For me to write off Celtic Frost's momentary lapse into vanity as a critical fumble would be hypocritical while simultaneously ignoring the dolly wardrobes of Fifth Angel, or W.A.S.P., whose dress codes were absolutely ridiculous (i.e. retarded) and almost never seem to draw ire for it; or the many other bands who felt such a superficial allure when their music and lyrics were drawn from a deeper well.

So if Celtic Frost wanted to look like a mirror image of Hanoi Rocks, so what? The real issue for me is how this image and attitude also permeated the musical content. While Into the Pandemonium was no stranger to intricate seductions through the sensual female vocals or lyrical prose, the shallower chorus sequences to "Dance Sleazy", "Juices Like Wine" or "Tease Me" are unquestionably lame. You're still getting a lot of mystical, oblique imagery here in lines like 'obsessed with lies, in arms of sleep' or 'masking fears of silent decline', redolent of what you might read on the prior record, but the context in which they appear feels cheesy and dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. What's worse, Tom's voice sounds like a transvestite frog with a severe hernia. We'd heard his Gothic whining in the past, and it suited the music pretty well for several of the cuts off Pandemonium, but here it becomes almost unbearable when he hocks a loogie of 'check this out' during the first riff of "Seduce Me Tonight", or erupts into the plaintive whimpering of the chorus to "Juices Like Wine" or "Little Velvet", the latter of which is the second most painful point to experience on the whole album.

The first, of course, is the horrendous hip hop intro "Human". I was more than willing to excuse the amateurish proto-industrial beats of "One in Their Pride" from Into the Pandemonium, because it was an interesting choice in subject matter and experimentation. Here, though, such 'open mindedness' doesn't seem even remotely like a good idea, nor does it match the tone of the remaining record, and so Cold Lake is automatically off to a terrible start. Another questionable decision was to leave in the snippets of mic chatter after the band did their takes at the ends of many of the tracks. I realize they were trying to seem all lighthearted, organic and raw, but they make the songs even more difficult to approach with any semblance of seriousness. I must also point out that there are a few riffs here which seem to have been lazily or unconsciously retread through the album: the opening guitar in "Blood on Kisses" sounds quite a lot like "Seduce Me Tonight", and the groove in "Little Velvet" sounds similar to the verse riffing in "Cherry Orchards".

Yet, despite its many flaws and disappointments, the sense of utter revulsion and betrayal that the album evokes in me as in many others, I cannot entirely write it off, and never have. The reason being that, for what its worth (and that's not a lot), I generally find myself nodding along to various of the riffs, digging some of the guitar progressions. In fact, had the goal of Warrior and his new crew been solely to write a raw, back to basics Celtic Frost record, I don't think it would have received such negative blowback. Tracks like "Cherry Orchids", with its straight and airy guitars, pumping bass, male/female vocal interchange, or "Petty Obsession", bristling with memorable mutes and chords in an admittedly charismatic flow, would have been more than acceptable if not for Warrior's sobbing timbre. "Downtown Hanoi" and "Roses Without Thorns" have some muscular, semi-memorable riffs as well, the latter with a cute and bluesy curve to it around 1:10. "(Once) They Were Eagles" and "Juices Like Wine" have some solid, inherent melodies in their chords which wouldn't have been out of place for a band like Queensryche or King Diamond.

That's a pretty good chunk of the album, that, handled differently, might have salvaged some dignity. Granted, even if this were recorded with a more modern Monotheist production, Tom growling throughout and far heavier drumming, it still wouldn't be as interesting as the two previous albums, but I certainly feel there's enough to the song structures that they're not a total waste, and thus I've never held this album so low as a lot of those staggering disappointments of the 90s that were foisted upon us by more popular acts. I hold Cold Lake in higher regard than, say, Load or Diabolus in Musica, The Least Successful Human Cannonball or Stomp 442, but that's not saying a lot, since these are essentially feces given musical form, so bad they stink across the decades. But then, it's not like Cold Lake is a whiff of fresh breath, either, and many of the criticisms leveled at it are all too glaring with veracity.

From a studio standpoint, one might argue that Tony Platt's production job did the material little enough service. Quite an experienced engineer, his experience lay in a lot of NWOBHM or hard rock albums from AC/DC, Samson, Trust, Krokus, Motörhead and so forth, so it's not an inappropriate terrible match, but the vocals and leads feel a bit on the loud side, and though I don't have a personal problem with the airiness created through the reverb (a common trait in the 80s), it doesn't make for the most potent rhythm guitar tone which might have contributed to overall heaviness. Jan Nemec's work on Into the Pandemonium was far more impressive and refined. Stephen Priestly had previously appeared on the Morbid Tales EP, but his drumming here is little more than standard hard rock fare circa Bobby Blotzer, Tommy Lee, etc. The leads are relatively interesting, messy and wailing, yet well defined enough to shift favorably alongside the supporting rhythms. There's not a lot wrong with Michelle Villanueva's sultry guest vocals, but in the Cold Lake context ("Cherry Orchards", "Little Velvet") they come off almost as corny as Warrior himself.

In summation, this is not an album I feel so strongly against that I'll curse it to the end of my existence. Of the many thousands of metal recordings I've experienced through my years, there are a good number I find more irritating and outright offensive. But at best, the songwriting is weak and misguided, a textbook case of what NOT to do when your band is an established cult favorite, regardless of how much you're seeking acceptance after a perceived slump in momentum. What were they thinking? That their underground audience was going to somehow forget who they were, or what they represented for extreme metal? That somehow the larger glam audience was going to accept their dirty, heavier riffing and herniated toad eroticism in lieu of "Talk Dirty to Me", "Smokin' in the Boys Room" or "Living on a Prayer"? It boggles the mind, but more regrettably, it's a tragedy that some decent riffs were thrown to the wolves, sentenced to drown, down with the rest of the ship. I wish I had more to say in its favor, as I don't hate it down to the guts like so many others, but there's just no happy ending for Cold Lake, and there never will be.

Verdict: Fail [4/10] (roses for an unborn face)


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