Why Hellhammer’s Satanic Rites is possibly the most important metal record ever made

hellhammer-satanic_ritesMost people place the birth of black and death metal somewhere between Venom’s first album Welcome to Hell (1981) and Bathory’s third full-length Under the Sign of the Black Mark (1987). The exact moment of divergence from ancestors depends on the speaker’s level of metal puritanism and their favorite albums are from that era, and can sometimes seem a trivial dichotomy. Moot though it may be, my pick for the first discernible piece of death/black metal music is also, more importantly, the moment at which metal realizes it can be more than just warmed-over rock music.

Tom Warrior and co will forever be canonised in the metal pantheon for the early Hellhammer and Celtic Frost releases, which collectively shaped the sound of metal in a way that is only really matched by Slayer (who were probably influenced by Hellhammer in their change of sound between Show no Mercy and Haunting the Chapel). The first couple of Hellhammer demos however were only really third rate crust punk/Venom rip off played by three young guys who didn’t really know what they were doing. With the third demo and the introduction of Martin Ain to the writing team though, Hellhammer began introducing ideas that weren’t immediately noticed or appreciated by the rest of the world, prompting the band to less than twelve months later reconstitute itself as Celtic Frost and spend most of the next three decades trying to bury the Hellhammer name and the material associated with it.

Many of the tracks on Satanic Rites are in much the same vein as the first two demos, although better played and with greater surety about the morbid chromatic rock riffs. However, with “Buried and Forgotten,” and to a slightly lesser extent “Triumph of Death,” there is a real ‘eureka’ moment. Verse-chorus-verse, single groove writing gives way to longer structures that piece together like musical jigsaw puzzles, reminiscent of the best moments of Black Sabbath made more twisted and involving. The grimmer, more elemental, less blues-rocky riffs of Hellhammer also hint at emergent melodic shapes, whose detail unfurls piecemeal over the course of the track.

“Buried and Forgotten” for a little over two and half minutes builds one riff atop another towards an emotional plateau, each one referencing some element (however small) of the one that preceded it. The rest of the track then recombines and repeats all the material amassed over the course of the opening part, changing the order of and implied relationship between riffs. All except one slightly dodgy contrasting riff towards the end (which stands out by a mile), is built out of the same basic pool of ideas, and so each can be moved about and fit back together again as they are and create a neat, logical song structure.

This streamlined song-writing mentality also filters down quite brilliantly into the track “Messiah,” which is probably the most well-known, heavily covered Hellhammer song, and a borderline genius exercise in metal song-writing fundamentalism. Effectively the entire song is crafted out of one interval (the space between two notes, denoting their relationship to each other): a minor 2nd (or semitone), the smallest interval in regular Western music. Everything from the ponderous two-note verse riff, to the creeping chorus motif of four descending consecutive semitones, to the brief bridge section made up of the same rumbling low E that drives the verse and a major 7th above that (which, deceptively, is just an inversion of a minor 2nd, and so basically the same note relationship as nearly everything that has come before it in the song).

All of a sudden the focus shifted from form (and the resulting dramatic arc it creates) as something that comes from solely juxtaposing contrasting elements, to something that can grow out of only a tiny number of ideas, and through clever variation and development can became something much more journey-like. This makes this music unlike rock, jazz and more recent false-metal, and more like a Beethoven symphony or a Bach fugue. Needless to say, I’m not suggesting for a moment that Hellhammer is equal to the work of Bach. What I am saying however is that both classical music and the more inspired moments of this demo proceed from a similar sort of underlying sense of elegance in developing things methodically out of smaller details into bigger, consistent ideas.

The version of “Triumph of Death” on this demo is inferior to the one on Apocalyptic Raids (which has, surely, one of the greatest metal vocal performances anywhere, ever) and as far as Celtic Frost/Hellhamer goes my favourite work is probably To Mega Therion. Still, it’s hard to understate just how important this demo and the ideas it set in motion are to all of the metal that has followed it. Underground metal not only became scarier, heavier and less po-faced after Hellhammer, but from this demo (and the Celtic Frost/Hellhammer works that followed it) metal inherited a paradigm that enabled the construction of more complex, distinctive songs and would come to define underground metal.



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Tom Gabriel Fischer – Only Death is Real: An Illustrated History of Hellhammer and Early Celtic Frost 1981-1985

As death approaches, documentation increases. As a circle closes, individuals are given an oppurtunity to reflect on, track and document the meandering course that a society, individual or movement took and assess and re-evaluate this course to determine both its moments of strength and those of weakness. One consequence of this tracking and documentation is that the diligent and astute student of life is provided with an opportunity to discover those behavioural patterns that have been forged in the fires of history and are therefore conducive to success. The intelligent will reflect upon these lessons and apply them to their own worldview, life, ideology or movement and increase the quality, although not necessarily quantity of those lives. Therefore, we serious Hessians take the outpouring of heavy metal documentation rather serious, as it contains for the discerning, the lessons upon which the ideological, and perhaps spiritual foundation of a new spring, a new dawn and a new beginning for our culture may rest.

Heavy metal documentation has progressively reached new heights in this age of mass media as rabid fans, bands, and sociologists alike are taking it upon themselves to exploit available media outlets in order to document the rise and fall of extreme metal, an alienated cultural phenomenon, that unsurprisingly late is being treated with respect outside of the insular metal community. Along with the ideological documentation of Black Metal in the excellent documentary, Until the Light Takes Us, and the chronological presentation and thus preservation of the history of Swedish Death Metal in Daniel Ekeroth’s book of the same name, Hessians world wide are now being treated to an outpouring of band and album documentation in the form of DVD’s and texts exclusively dealing with important bands such as Asphyx and At the Gates, and seminal albums such as Reign in Blood.

To date, “Only Death is Real” by Tom Gabriel Fischer represents the apex of extreme metal texts. Appropriately prefaced, most notably by Darkthrone’s Nocturno Culto, this near-perfectly laid out, hardcover text book, is full of historical relevance for the aspiring and established Hessian and includes a bounty of interesting photos that shed light on the enigmatic and sometimes adolescently awkward manifestations of both Hellhammer and early Celtic Frost. The strategically arranged photos, intriguing and aptly chosen, are unsurprisingly monochromatic, and this combined with the enclosed paper quality, reveals a sense of aesthetic class and attention to detail becoming of the fastidious and perhaps benevolently pedantic, eccentric and inspiring personality of the authour. Additionally, the book contains a plethora of interviews with previous members of Hellhammer and Celtic Frost, which at various junctures provide strange as well as enlightening anecdotes that augment the history of the band(s), and provide an otherwise unattainable depth to Fischer’s account. Given this, it seems somewhat surprising that this history reads as well as it does, as Fischer’s narrative, although periodically interrupted to include these interviews, remains clear.

As for the historical documentation itself, “Only Death is Real” retains a genuinely human tone that while undeniably revelatory does not diminish the mystical aura that surrounds both Hellhammer and Celtic Frost. In fact, throughout the text one senses an undeniable theme of mythic struggle as Fischer recounts the vast amount of turmoil, characteristically determined by some unforeseen variable, which plagued the establishment and development of both Hellhammer and Celtic Frost. We read with growing interest as the seeming omnipotent forces of dissolution strive to subdue and shackle the steely will of Fischer and his desire to create. Perhaps slightly melodramatic, the testaments of Fischer and others remain inspiring in the face of what Hellhammer and Celtic Frost would undoubtedly accomplish.

“Only Death is Real” is consequently rich in history and provides a level of historical depth perhaps unmatched in extreme metal literature. Developing chronologically from an account of Fischer’s childhood and his musical inspirations, to the establishment of his first band Grave Hill and beyond, readers are also provided with enlightening expositions on a variety of pertinent subjects. Such subjects include but are not limited to, the realities of Hessian life in Switzerland during the early 80’s, the meaning and inspiration for the name Celtic Frost and the conceptual considerations that went into the development of the band, Fischer and Eric Ain’s relationship with the works of H.R. Giger, and the critical and undeniable influence of Martin Eric Ain in the development and maturation of Hellhammer and Celtic Frost.

Fans are also provided with a chronologically precise account of the sometimes dizzying array of Hellhammer and early Celtic Frost releases, including exact track listings, facsimile demo and EP sleeves, the intriguing history surrounding the development of each release, and verbatim and oft-times hilariously slanderous copies of reviews of these releases. Obsessive fans can also rejoice as Fischer has included a complete visual account of the evolution of both the Celtic Frost and Helllhammer moniker, including copies of hand drawn rejections completed by band members themselves.

Overall, this history proves itself essential reading for anyone who takes extreme metal seriously. Fans can rejoice as we are provided with a comprehensive history of two bands that became cornerstones in the development of extreme metal. Any Hessian neophyte would do well to take this text seriously as it provides a great introduction to the personalities and music of a band whose clarity of vision, will and capacity to inspire, has left an indelible mark on countless bands and individuals. Perhaps now, in the midst of what appears to be a bourgeoning extreme metal renaissance, fans and musicians would do well to look back, find inspiration in, and relentlessly devour the lessons of our forefathers. In so doing we may overcome the progressive deterioration of extreme metal, usher in a new epoch and raise the flag of Hessiandom to new and unparalleled heights.

Written by TheWaters

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Black Fluxions

In his quest for accuracy and rigour eventually leading to his contributions to Calculus, Sir Isaac Newton borrowed terminology from an area of classical mechanics called Kinematics[1]. The terms fluent and fluxion incorporated eventually came to be known as variable and derivative. Each set of terms has its advantages in describing the object in question, highlighting one or another aspect. Fluxion in particular is quite useful in poetically illustrating an ‘instantaneous rate of change,’ and may serve us outside the realm of pure mathematical abstraction to bring attention to such immediate movement at each point in time. So, while the change from a measure to the next, from an idea to the next are changes in fluents, there can be said to exist fluxions in music which describe movements across a separate dimension —that of the inner experience. But such a transposition into the realm of musical description is only metaphorical, if useful to expand perception, and should be taken as a flexible mental aid.


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A Metalhead’s Journey to the Light

By Cullen Toner

Many have expressed emotions of extreme shock and awe after discovering the explicitly Christian lyrics and aesthetics of my newest album, Deus Vult. How could I, the former singer/songwriter of New Jersey’s most popular Satanic band, find God and religion after 15 years of playing in bands with misanthropic, anti-Christian themes? What would cause a complete 180 degree change in lifestyle, a complete about-face in world view? And why would I recklessly proclaim such a change in heart to a world of black and death metal that would so surely respond in confusion, mockery, and utter malice?

To even consider the answers requires a great deal of courage and intellect, as most in the world of extreme metal have extensively conditioned themselves to the idea that metal, in all of its rebelliousness, is the antithesis to Christianity. But since the spirit of metal is one that has historically challenged authority and convention in a quest for deeper truth, those who truly understand its foundation will not cower from the mere suggestion of radical thought. And to those to I can assure that a long quest for logic and wisdom has unexpectedly led me at the foot of the upright cross. Not only did this provide happiness and fulfillment for the first time, but the foundation for meaning and purpose that many metalheads are currently in a vast search for.

In an attempt to explain as objectively as I can, this is how I came to embrace Christianity as my faith, and what it meant for my relationship with metal music.



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Forces of Satan Stumble

The consensus seems to be that Christ does not belong in metal.  Well, neither does Satan.  Rigid patterns of thought are not conductive to the creation of transcendental metal music.  The failure of NSBM stems from the rigid ideology into which the music was forced like a Procrustean bed.  The two Christian metal bands worth a shit have been covered on this site: Paramaecium and Antestor.  The only NSBM bands that are not terrible are the bands, like Graveland, that preceeded the creation of the subgenre and were only lumped in with the scene later… Gontyna Kry seems to be the sole exception to NSBM sucking.



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Norway’s Wordless Abyss

Studies have shown that listening to instrumental music while writing, studying, doing accounting, or any other productive task can increase stimulation without the distraction that the words of vocals provide.  But for Hessian, Templar, Heathen and other true metalheads instrumental works can be difficult to come by as extreme metal has not dabbled much into the realms of instrumental savagery.  But thanks to the necrophiliac obsession that many have had with Norwegian black metal and its culture, there are a few enjoyable demos and early rehearsals from Norway’s finest that can provide a motivational grim instrumental experience without demanding too much from the attention of the listener.

Join me if you will for a vocal-less adventure through some of Norway’s best kept foreboding hidden secrets.



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Introduction to Power Metal, Part II: The First Wave of European Power Metal

[The epic continues!  Read part I of Johan’s journey here and listen for yourself via this playlist]

While working with what was intended to be the second part of a tripartite article series covering the history and general properties of the power metal subgenre, it soon became clear that a sufficiently thorough treatment of the subject would require more space and time than what was originally intended. This insight subsequently led to the conclusion that individual parts needed to be subdivided and portioned out in order to not grow out of proportion. The initial plan to present the material into three consecutive parts has thus been revised.

Another related issue that arose during “research” concerns the historical development of European power metal. As have been noted in previous articles on this site relating to the history of metal music, artistic “movements” or periods of development tend last about five years speaking in generalized terms. This phenomenon can be observed in European power metal as well. After having studied Euro-power metal as a composite phenomenon, a rough sketch outlining the developmental trajectory of said music began to take form:

1984-1989: The first wave of European power metal.

1990-1995: Intermediate period.

1996-2001: The second wave of European power metal.

While not a perfect model, this rough periodic division will be used as a framework for discussion in the articles to follow. The relatively lengthy timespan that has passed since the putatively defined second wave of European power metal will be left out for the moment, primarily (and regrettably) because there hasn’t really occurred much of a development in power metal since the early 2000s. If anyone sits on information that invalidates the above statement, feel free to chip in – this writer would be very pleased to be proven wrong on this front.

Accordingly, the second part of this article series will be mainly devoted to the development and characteristics of the first wave of European power metal and the intermediate period that followed in its wake. Instead of approaching the subject in thoroughly generalized manner, a ???-track compilation will be used as source material to make observations about the historical development and specific traits of first wave Euro-styled power metal. Please not that this collection of tracks is by no means intended as a “best of”-compilation but should rather be viewed of as a springboard for further discussion.



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Introduction to Power Metal, Part I: Origins and Influences

(Join DMU Legend Johan Pettersson for what may be the most expansive analysis of power metal ever presented in the first of a 3 part series.  Listen to the accompanying suggested listening here)

Of all the subgenres and styles that fall within the metal spectrum (hence excluding unmitigated relapses into rock such as death’n’roll, stoner, nu- and indie metal), power metal most definitely counts as the one that has received the highest amount of scorn and ridicule from critics, fans and outsiders alike. (more…)


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A trio of Australian PhD researchers recently shared the results of an ambitious case study on death metal listeners.  The project, titled “Who Enjoys Listening to Violent Music and Why?” (Thompson et al., 2018), aimed to determine if there were personality differences in fans who enjoyed death metal and if lyrical content that involved inducing harm or death to individuals had any effect on the listener’s experience.  Examined were possible differences in emotional stimuli between death metal fans and non fans, genders, and participants who either were or weren’t given a lyric sheet.  The publication indicates findings similar to earlier studies that measured emotional reaction of music and personality bias as stated:

These findings are consistent with evidence that personality mediates preferences for music (Rentfrow & Gosling, 2003; Vuoskoski & Eerola, 2011a, 2011b) and that, conversely, music preferences communicate information about one’s personality (Rentfrow & Gosling, 2006). Rentfrow and Gosling (2003) examined the structure of music preferences, as well as the association between personality and music preferences. They used exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis to reveal that music preferences revolved around four major types of music: Reflective and complex (classical, jazz, blues); intense and rebellious (alternative, rock, heavy metal), upbeat and conventional (country, pop, religious), and energetic and rhythmic (hip-hop, rap, soul, funk, electronic, dance). Preferences were also dependent on personality variables. For example, people who preferred intense and rebellious music – including heavy metal – tended to be open to new experiences, considered themselves to be intelligent and athletic, and showed no signs of neuroticism or disagreeableness.



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