Monday, February 6, 2012

Celtic Frost - Into the Pandemonium (1987)

Into the Pandemonium is not my favorite Celtic Frost production, but it's by far their most eclectic and creative, as evidenced by the wide array of styles implemented through its course. It's not at all dismissive of the slight intervals of evolution which led to its being, but if we were to compare any two of the Swiss legends' releases side to side, it would represent the largest solitary gulf. I realize there are those who would argue that its glam infested successor, Cold Lake was their biggest deviation, but I've never thought of that as more or less than a foundation of traditional Frost grooves and riffs drowned in an unfortunate, limp wristed whining and and unwelcome change in the band's image. Into the Pandemonium, on the other hand, feels as if the trio had gone on some worldwide vacation for two years, smoked from a variety of pipes and hookahs over numerous continents, and then returned by elephant back to their native Zurich.

This was a brave album, born almost entirely of exotic, worldly compulsion and a clear desire to bend the boundaries of possibility for not only Celtic Frost alone, but the entire metal genre. There were a lot of other bands evolving and enriching their sound at this time in both the US and Europe, but where an act like Running Wild, King Diamond or Savatage was centered on shaping and refining itself in the familiar environs of its earlier albums, the Swiss trio were reaching for the stars, consuming entire outside genres of music and then forging them into an impressive armor of eccentricity. To that effect, I can certainly understand the hesitation or outright resistance some felt towards the idiosyncratic gravity of Into the Pandemonium, but it's not one I can in any good conscience share. Growth and innovation are not mandatory traits in my enjoyment of a metal recording, but if I were to ply through a database of all time favorites it would prove a component of the vast majority. Music (and by extension, much of reality) is a kinetic voice. Not static. One can expand with its near endless variations, or contract from it and seek shelter beneath its prehistoric statuary. Celtic Frost chose the former, and so did I.

Of course, one of the beauties of this record is that they've done so without abandoning the backbone of their earlier works. Much of Into the Pandemonium is still comprised of the signature, sludgy thrashing rhythms they are known for circa Morbid Tales, only polished up a bit to match the hazy mystique of their neighbors. "Inner Sanctum", one of the most substantial 5+ minute tracks on the album is cast in the same vein as much of To Mega Therion, hook after hook of primal, pummeling goodness with Tom's traditional, constipated vocal barking. There is some slight increase of complexity from, say, a "Jewel Throne" in the sheer variety of riffs and the drumming, but it's not likely to offend expectations for further, mosh ready fare. "Babylon Fell" would have fit in perfectly with the prior album, it's huge and unforgettable palm muted grooves some of the heaviest in the Frost lexicon. Even the symphonic ingredients are not necessarily news. The beautiful "Oriental Masquerade" has a similar texture to the "Innocence and Wrath" intro, with horns, timpanis and sluggish riffing redolent of a Japanese giant monster movie from decades past...only the violins are truly top shelf here.

As much as I enjoy such songs, however, I can't help but drift towards the more extrinsic pieces that mottle the playlist. "Tristesses de la Lune" is perhaps the most ambitious track they've ever summoned forth, a sweeping and gorgeous string orchestration with a beautiful female guest spot in French, worthy of some of the better European composers of past centuries. The lyrics are eloquent, and the imagery evoked through the performance is like something you'd probably rent a suit for to witness at an opera hall. The Anglicized metallic version "Sorrows of the Moon", available on most of the CD releases, is less appealing, perhaps, but there's no doubt it was easier to pull off live and justifies inclusion. "I Won't Dance (The Elders Orient)" is another total standout here, a leaden rocker upon which Tom asserts a cleaner, passionate Gothic tone to his verses, returning to his usual barking temperament for the pre-chorus and chorus on which he's backed up by a 'soul' style female voice. Motown meets metallic, Mesopotamian antiquity.

I would also point out "Mesmerized", which has a similar Warrior vocal treatment and a glint of lush acoustics threaded through the verse, and a somber melodic passage through the bridge that inspire at least two dozen Paradise Lost tunes. Or "Rex Irae (Requiem)" which is this exquisite, 6 minute Gothic doom operetta with more of Mark's beloved timpani strikes and yet another lovely intrusion of strings. The vocal interplay between Tom and the female opera strain is impressive, especially where he's backed up by a blaring horn note, but there's also a more intricate, percussive thrashing in there with some driving, double bass kicks and a sequence of narrative exchange which is stunningly effective. With ease one of the most intricate tunes in all of the band's litany, passing beyond the realm of mere music to that of sensory experience as the listener's imagination drifts through ancient empires, passions and ritual incense. I DARE one of this album's detractors to create something so immortal and compelling.

But then, of course, the Swiss go even further out on a limb here, with the inclusion of the proto industrial track "One in Their Pride". This is not the greatest cut on the album, In fact it's one of the few exceptions to its near flawless musical interior, but nonetheless it was a fascinating departure for the band, a paean to the first man on the moon (Neil Armstrong) and a testament to human achievement. Musically, though, it's completely different for Celtic Frost. Primitive electro kicks reminiscent of some missing link between Kraftwerk and early Ministry (or Nitzer Ebb). Wailing, atonal strings and myriad speech samples abound in its swirling vacuum, to the point that it seems to conjure the image of some satellite spinning off beyond the earth's atmospheric envelope. Even stranger, perhaps, was the decision to open the album with a cover of the Wall of Voodoo's "Mexican Radio". Don't get me wrong, the LA New Wavers' hit is in good hands here, just given the Frost 'treatment' with heavier guitars and angrier, gruff vocals in between the backing shouts of the chorus, but, really...who woulda thunk it?

Into the Pandemonium trumps expectations at nearly every turn, but its decisions never feel rash or impulsive, no matter how unusual. Once again, as upon To Mega Therion, I felt that Warrior was trying to train his audience in the act of a wider, aesthetic appreciation. Take a few minutes to cross-reference the lyrics here with almost anything else in the metal spectrum in the mid 80s and you'll discover just how poetic and eloquent they are, how out of place amidst the usual volley of machine gun testosterone. These aren't mere hymns to nuclear war and TV Evangelists, but deeper reflections upon mortality, nature and the fate of archaic civilizations. Of course, as in "Babylon Fell", these are easy enough to relate to current events, but the prose is so simple and classy that it feels as fresh today as on its original release. What's more, the partial use of the "Hell" scene from Hieronymus Boschs's early 16th century triptych The Garden of Earthly Lights is perfect, its colors, structures and figures so immaculately in sync with the atmosphere of the songs that you wonder if they were written while staring at it...

All of these ingredients add up to what I'd dub the last of the 'essential Frost' recordings. Not that later albums like Vanity/Nemesis or Monotheist lack their charms, but they're nowhere near as imaginative and ageless as most of this content. "One In Their Pride" doesn't hold up for me in terms of quality so much as an example of experimentation gone awry, and the cover of "Mexican Radio" is naturally not so intriguing as the originals, but otherwise this album should be remembered as nothing less than an anomaly. A phenomenon whose alluring lyrical imagery, intricate variation and balanced production ensure that it survives as one of the finest examples of the avant-garde to arrive in heavy rock since the proggish embellishments of the 70s. Mood and inspiration, songwriting and distinction. This lacks none of it. Feast your ears.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (may they live in ecstasy)

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