Interrogating the Origin Myth of Celtic Frost

The history of Celtic Frost begins with the band Hellhammer. Hellhammer was founded as a trio in 1981, and they released a couple of demos and an album before two of the members decided to end the Hellhammer project, kick out half the band, and reform under the name “Celtic Frost.” The band has promoted the idea that their work as Hellhammer was amateurish and earned such a bad reputation that they had to change their name to get people to take their music seriously. While I’m sure there is some truth to this story, the fact is that not quite *everyone* hated Hellhammer. One of the early German fanzines I’ve been reading recently actually gives a glowing positive review of Hellhammer’s first release! But as you will see, it doesn’t entirely contradict the story Celtic Frost tells, just adds some fascinating nuances.

First, I should review the legend as it’s been passed down to us. This is how Martin Eric Ain told it in a 2007 interview with DECIBEL magazine:

“When we did the Apocalyptic Raids album, we realized that we were sort of stuck with the abysmal name we had made for ourselves as musicians with the first couple demos. This was very much in the tape-trading days […] We realized that if we wanted to be taken seriously, it would probably be helpful if we used a different name, because a lot of people were like, “Oh, it’s Hellhammer—they can’t play.” We wanted to disassociate ourselves from that.” (Mudrian 2009, p. 32)

Makes it sound like everyone hated Hellhammer. Thomas Gabriel Fischer related the same version of the story to Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman in an interview for their 2009 oral history of metal, Louder Than Hell.

“When Hellhammer existed, the band was ripped apart by everybody—fans, media, record companies. Ninety-five percent of all of the reviews of the demos and [1984] EP [Apocalyptic Raids] were obliterating. The words journalist found to destroy Hellhammer are beyond belief. Nobody understood what Hellhammer was doing at the time. The myth of Hellhammer only happened later, after the band was gone.”
(Wiederhorn & Turman 2013, p. 508)

According to Fischer, nobody appreciated Hellhammer’s extremity—not even the fans! There might be plenty of people nowadays who will contradict this: for example, on the very next page in Wiederhorn & Turman’s book, Ihsahn from Emperor says that early Celtic Frost “were a hugely respected band from having influenced the scene when they called themselves Hellhammer.” But for all I know he hated Hellhammer in the 80s, and made up good things to say because Celtic Frost’s star has risen so high compared to their early days!

The only way to be sure would be to find sources from before Celtic Frost got super ultra famous and became a touchstone in the standard history of the extreme metal genre. But 80s extreme metal fanzines are so hard to come by…. or they were until just a few years ago, when Jason Netherton started the fantastic site Send Back My Stamps! What an amazing resource! He has scanned and uploaded literally hundreds of fanzines, in many different languages, a mind-boggling mass of material for metalheads with historical interests like myself. So I searched his site to see what I could find about Hellhammer that was written too early to be swayed by the later prestige of Celtic Frost.

Apocalyptic Raids cover art
Hellhammer’s Apocalyptic Raids EP (1984)

The first thing I found was a review in the German fanzine Speed Attack #1 (1984), of the very same Apocalyptic Raids EP that Thomas Gabriel Fischer said everyone hated. And it’s a positive review! (my translation from the original in German may have errors, and is probably less cool-sounding than the originals)

For all satanic priests and black metal kids of the hardest variety! Hellhammer (yeah, the same one, that inspired the slogan: Venom is killing music–Hellhammer is killing Venom) have just released their first mini-LP on the market, that leaves the Swiss Alps shaking to the foundations. Their music is not to be compared with Krokus or killer[?]. Nope–not now or ever!!!!
Dirty and dark, with primal howls and cannibalistic guitar riffs–that is Hellhammer: Hell personified. The four tracks (The Third Of The Storms, Massacra, Triumph of Death and Horus/Agressor) are altogether ULTRA-HARD and consequently not for weak nerves. I can scarcely believe that any Hardcore Wardog would not spend a paltry 12 Marks in order to own this legendary LP.

This doesn’t entirely contradict Fischer’s current version of the story. This one review could be an outlier, and he did say 95% of reviews were bad, not literally all of them. But what is fascinating about this review is that it admits the band’s bad reputation (apparently “Venom is killing music—Hellhammer is killing Venom” was an established slogan). But the reviewer Tomo apparently doesn’t care, or maybe even finds that infamy a reason to like the band! After all, when you spin musical ineptitude as “primal howls and cannibalistic guitar riffs” that are “not for weak nerves,” it starts to sound like a good thing in some circles!

The next piece I found was an interview with Tom Gabriel Fischer himself in another German fanzine, Raise The Dead #1, from the same year (1984). A couple of questions deal with the creation of Celtic Frost and cast some light on what Fischer’s opinion of Hellhammer was back then. (Again, sorry for any bad translation!)

R.T.D.: It seems the critics really gave your EP hell. How does that stand with you?
TOM: …that’s okay! The huge sales figures (ex. in the English magazine Hitparade) of our EP showed us, that we did well by our fans. And we’ll stay by our fans, not change to suit our wimp critics!! It’s alright with us, what they think of us, we’ll go our own way! …except for Bernhard Dee: when someone begins, even with personal contact with us, to lie about us and to say our success comes only from METAL FORCES, then it’s definitely over, that goes too far with us, we’ll see…!!!!

R.T.D.: Since you have renamed yourself, will no records be released any longer under the name Hellhammer(?)!
TOM: We have not renamed ourselves, Martin and I founded a new band, to finally play better/HEAVIER/more technically. We already wrote total Hellhammer-material, therefore there will be strong similarities there, but we believe we will only bring with us the positive side and have still more improvement to make. We think that the astonishment will be huge, when the CELTIC FROST – EP is out, since many expect something softer…. and haven’t bargained on us [Celtic Frost]… No, there won’t be any more Hellhammer releases!

These excerpts from the interview are mostly consistent with the 1984 review from “Tomo” in Speed Attack. Which is to say that while all of the professional reviewers panned Hellhammer’s releases, he seems to have thought in 1984 that they had a dedicated fan base who loved the band’s extremity, bought lots of copies of the record, and totally got what the band was going for. Quite different from his story in 2009! Why would Celtic Frost change their story? Well, to be honest, it could just be that 1984 was three decades ago (I know, groan, check your calendars, and sigh…) and they don’t remember it all that well. Or it could be a clever bit of legend-writing, because it does sound like a better story if Hellhammer had to rebuild their band concept and image from scratch because nobody liked them or accepted their music.

But I think the truth tells us more about the values of the metal community: some kids in Hellhammer who could barely play their instruments had an unmatched vision of musical extremity, and plenty of underground metal fans chose to like them despite their rough musicianship (or maybe even because of their rough musicianship). Metal fans have always identified with the ugly, the underproduced, and the underdogs, and Hellhammer’s amateur early recordings are no different. But the professional journalists and the record labels (and maybe many established musicians as well) weren’t all too fond of all those same qualities.

A shout-out and much respect for the archival work Jason Netherton that made this post possible! Uploading and tagging all those fanzines, not to mention tracking them down in the first place, must have taken a lot of dedication and hard work. It’s quite a service to the metal studies community for him to have made so many unique sources available!

Mudrian, Albert. 2009. Precious Metal: DECIBEL Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press.
Tom. 1984. “Hellhammer Apocalyptik Raids (Review).” Speed Attack. p. 18.
Weber, Timo. 1984. “Interview: Celtic Frost.” Raise the Dead. p. 15.
Wiederhorn, Jon, and Katherine Turman. 2013. Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal. New York: HarperCollins.

—Stephen Hudson is a PhD student in Music Theory and Cognition at Northwestern University and lives in Chicago, USA. For more of his musicological perspective on metal, see his blog Metal In Theory.