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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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. Despite being located at the bottom of the pecking order, the power metal “movement” has stubbornly toiled on for over three decades packed to the brim with musical epiphanies and fads alike. Practically declared dead by the early 1990s following the rise of death and black metal, power metal experienced something of a renaissance around the millennium and has remained popular ever since.

While discrepancy between popularity and critical acclaim is hardly a rare phenomenon, the factors behind such divides can differ significantly. When it comes to power metal, there seems to be something inherently embarrassing about it. Not only is power metal often deemed artistically inferior when compared to adjacent subgenres, it is also perceived of as something that should not be taken seriously. For example, there are many stories where even the most seasoned of metalheads express a certain unease about someone overhearing them listening to a power metal record, even though they evidently show interest in the music in secrecy. Moreover, power metal has worked as an entry point for thousands of younger metal fans, who after delving deeper into the genre tend to denounce or conceal their earlier, supposedly misguided enthusiasm. Boasting a background in traditional heavy metal is perfectly legitimate, but for many power metal is definitely a no-no.

A further and perhaps more critical indication of power metal’s poor status within metal culture concerns the ultimate lack of literature dedicated to the subgenre in question. With a few notable exceptions – including an excellent article by a former DMU associate – very little has been written about the history, taxonomy, spirit or musical properties of power metal in a more systematic fashion. This three-part article has been written with the aim providing a rudimentary yet comprehensive introduction to the subject which could in turn open up for discussions about the potential and relevancy of power metal. If we are to believe the predictions presented in a recent publication courtesy of Spotify where power metal occupies the number one positions of “emerging genres” for 2017, such an endeavor should be in pressing demand.



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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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Slayer Adds Second Leg To Farewell Tour

Some time ago, seminal band Slayer — who along with Bathory and Hellhammer created the germinal material and style of death metal — decided to call it a day after thirty-seven years of recording, touring, and generally causing problems. Upon the announcement of their retirement, many nascent and older Slayer fans came out of the woodwork, so the band has added a second leg to its tour.



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Pestilence Attempts Comeback But Forgets What Makes Death Metal Great

Listen to a track from the upcoming Hadeon from longstanding Dutch band Pestilence, one is immediately struck by the similarity to late-1990s Morbid Angel: the riffs are there, albeit a bit impatient and tightly circular, but the whole experience is not. What is missing? To understand this, we must go to the core of what made death metal what it is.

If you wanted to explain to a normal person what death metal is, looking at the core of its spirit, you might haul out Slayer Hell Awaits, Hellhammer Apocalyptic Raids, and Bathory The Return… because these influenced the techniques, composition, and spirit of death metal. From Hellhammer and Slayer, it got its song structure and aesthetics; from Bathory its themes and riff technique.

Death metal took the original idea of metal, formed when Black Sabbath and others began using power chords to make phrasal riffs instead of harmony-oriented open chord riffs, and developed it further. This is different than doing something “new” or “progressing” because it means undertaking the much harder task of developing an idea further at a structural level instead of just changing aesthetics.

With the rise of underground metal, death metal adopted chromatic riffing and made the interplay between riffs form a narrative to each song. This abolished typical rock song structure and, because the guitar served as a melodic instrument instead of a harmonic one, forced vocals, bass and drums into a background role. How well the riffs fit together and portrayed an atmosphere, idea, or sensation defined the quality of the music.

Pestilence came from a solid death metal background with Consuming Impulse but showed a speed metal styled approach on Malleus Maleficarum, and this tension has stayed with the band for its entire career. The speed metal style of verse and chorus built on a singular theme that is present in the music is easier to jam on and use harmony to complement, where death metal rarely explicitly states its theme, only silhouetting it in the interaction between its many riffs. With speed metal, bands can set up a chord progression and develop it in layers of internal commentary like jazz, and this puts vocals back in position number one among the lead instruments.

“Non-Physical Existent” is a two-riff song with both based on the same note progression. It creates its intensity through the clash between a ripping circular high speed riff and a slower chromatic riff that uses odd harmony to distinguish notes in an otherwise linear theme. The song breaks into a solo section over one of the riffs, and has a type of turnaround the drops into the faster riff as a return. But there is no real interplay nor any narrative.

From the riffs themselves, this is a good song, but unfortunately, it is not death metal. Nor will it last because essentially it is a closed-circuit video of itself, a riff commented on by another, without resembling any particular experience or emotion, therefore being a null journey, more like stasis in space while riffs loop. It is better than not bad, but still not of real interest to the death metal fan.


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Sin and Despair in Deathcrush

At the truest heart of metal lies a voice embodied, somewhat childishly, somewhat ineptly, but no less clearly and latent with potential, by Mayhem’s Deathcrush. The re-inversion of all values that metal enacts starts with the embracing of what modernity would see as its sickness unto death. The despair and sin of sickness unto death become vital active elements in the morbid minds of those who would vanquish dogmatic preconceptions in the Sky God Religions and their secular humanist counterparts.  Being, in essence a way of connecting back to itself, the ideological blockages set up by this dead-end society had to be faced head on.  Herein lies the relevance and meaning of the present album.  Despair is converted into pure energy, the rules disavowed, the road of sin is tread fanatically as a method of purification —a negative unity of evil towards the beyond, away from human-ness in its modern form, away from mundanity.  For the burgeoning underground, as seen from Mayhem’s perspective, primacy would placed on being and its dark discovery of self, against the presumption of knowing, and the oppressive, futile impositions from above.  All knowing, all value of music, would come from this ‘being’, from a dark exploration of the soul possessed by a cosmic force of destruction.



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Mayhem Grand Declaration of War

A common theme you hear in critiquing music is the need to separate the art from the artist for the most objective analysis possible.  This all sounds good on paper, but we are all human, and the flaws that imbues in us make our understanding of all concepts skewed by perspective.  The metal path is one of social outcast and self-discovery through a grasp of the larger whole, and as such we are left with the purest essence of form and function, but still we allow our humanness to cloud our judgments inevitably.  We won’t give the time of day to a record made by some stretch-lobed lumbersexual even if he might have accidentally produced the next necessary evolution in metal, and we like it that way.  We have been proven right long enough by lousy records and “evolutions” of our favorite artists but although we may have erected a necessary safeguard for quality control, we need to analyze if it is constructed of statements and proofs of inherent positive musical traits or our own hubris instead.


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