Celtic Frost’s Into The Pandemonium: the madness and the magic of metal’s most visionary album

(Image credit: Noise/BMG)

It took six months to write, four months to record, was peppered with constant arguments between the band and… well, almost everybody. But it “changed everything” for Celtic Frost.

Thomas Gabriel Fischer, aka Tom G. Warrior, was the spine and nerve centre of this bizarre cult underground metal experiment during their turbulent two-decade ride through a sea of musical peaks and music business troughs.

Fischer ecalls the grim the story behind the making of their most feted album, Into The Pandemonium, with mixed feelings. Though he is in no doubt what so ever about the crucial nature of the record itself.

“We were sure we had gone too far with our experiments,” explains the guitarist and singer. “We’d didn’t know where we were going. But this was the album that single handedly made Celtic Frost. It’s the band’s most important release.”

The Frosties, as they were known affectionately to their fans, were formed in 1984. They evolved from Fischer’s previous band, Hellhammer. Joining Fischer were bassist/vocalist Martin Eric Ain (Fischer’s long time accomplice and sometime antagonist, who sadly died in 2017) and drummer Stephen Priestly. They recorded the band’s debut album, Morbid Tales, which was released by influential German metal label Noise in late 1984. 

Priestly, though, didn’t last long and was replaced by American Reed St. Mark for 1985’s mini album Emperor’s Return. There was a brief disturbance in this Celtic Frost line-up – which took them through, arguably, their most creative period – when Ain was briefly displaced by Dominic Steiner. Fortunately, for him, Ain returned for the To Mega Therion album later that year, and the subsequent Tragic Serenades EP [1986]. But it was with Into The Pandemonium that the trio stepped away from the death metal caucus, taking both themselves and the genre into turbulent and unchartered waters.

Think about it. Here are one of the most celebrated extreme metal bands of the era dabbling in electronica [One In Their Pride], recording one song with a female vocalist signing in French, backed by a cello, viola and violin [Tristesses De La Lune] and covering Mexican Radio by early 80s oddball Los Angeles new wave crew Wall Of Voodoo. Hardly consistent with your average metal fair in 1987, the year this remarkable album was released.

“You have to understand that we were always an extreme band,” recalls Fischer. “In fact, when Noise Records signed us they said, ‘We want the most extreme band in the world, and you guys are it.’ What they didn’t realise was how extreme we really were. Martin and I had so many influences that we were determined to incorporate into our music. In fact, from the start we had a game plan for the band. Celtic Frost [who were originally going to be called Celtic Fire] would do three albums, and that’s it. We had the basis worked out for all of them – even some song titles! – lyrical ideas and artwork concepts. That’s how far-reaching we were.

(Image credit: Fred Baumgart)

“The other thing you must understand is that when we began to work on ‘Into The Pandemonium’, we were still just kids, and it had been less than two years since Hellhammer had split up. That band was very dismal and ultra heavy, but so far removed from our vision for Frost. So, things had happened really fast.”

From the very beginning of the writing sessions for the album, the band locked horns with their label.

“They wanted us to play safe. What they were after was a Slayer or an Exodus album. Just another thrash metal record. No way could we do that. We always took chances, and always will. The day that we compromise on what we do is the day we completely give up. We have to take risks – it’s what drives us. At the time, Metallica were still a little way from becoming mainstream, Korn didn’t exist – and thrash was a very young concept. Any band trying to make their way in this area of music was expected to be obvious, and to conform. We went against everything. We wanted to do an album that brought in goth, dance, electronica, as well as our metal influences. For Noise that was rather frightening.”

Far from having their fears assuaged when Celtic Frost finished writing the record, Noise were, if anything, even more horrified.

“They heard what we were trying to do, and freaked out. The arguments got so bad that in the end the financial and mental pressure on the band led to us splitting up. It got that horrible. Now I can perhaps appreciate their viewpoint a little more, because we were really going for something so different it was scary. At the time, though… it was war!”

The band didn’t want to self produce the album, believing that their inexperience would go against them. The boldness of the concept called for a producer who understood both their philosophy and could bring it to fruition in the studio. They drew up a short list of potential producers, including Rick Rubin (“before he became a household name”), and Michael Wagener (“who’d had a lot of commercial success – we liked the sounds he got”), but every advance met with a brick wall.

“Noise told us that everyone they’d approached had either turned it down, or wasn’t available. I still don’t know if that really was the case, but we ended up producing the record ourselves, which wasn’t what we wanted at all. We got in Arabian musicians, an orchestra, an opera singer… and they were being directed by three kids with precious little experience. Not ideal at all.”

The whole recording process took nearly four months, and the already strained relations between the band and label were deteriorating to the point of no return.

“I vividly recall that, when we finished the record, people from the company came down to hear it. I will never forget the looks of horror on their faces. They didn’t understand what we’d done, and saw it as commercial suicide – which I suppose it was. The phrase ‘put the album on ice’ was used by Noise at the time. Now, they couldn’t afford to scrap it, because comparatively too much money had been spent on it. But marketing budgets, for a video and advertising, just disappeared overnight. And our management ended up financing the tour. Noise did try as hard as they could to interfere artistically, but we held firm.There was no way we were gonna change a thing. For years I was bitter and resentful of their attitude, but now I’m not so vengeful. I’ve moved on. I don’t hold any grudges against them.”

After the album’s release in 1987, this writer spent time with the band at Ain’s flat in Zurich. The four of them – American guitarist Ron Marks had been brought in right at the end of the recording process, although he’s not on the sessions – were bemused, befuddled and angry about their situation. They’d just made an album that had transported metal into a fresh dimension and saw their future blocked off by ignorance and prejudice.

“I don’t know if this band can exist for much longer,” a depressed Fischer explained at the time. “We are so proud of what we’ve achieved, but maybe the world isn’t ready for a band who adore Dead Can Dance and Wall Of Voodoo as much as Slayer and Metallica.”

Now, 18 years later, Fischer can feel vindicated as the record’s impact on today’s metal scene becomes increasingly apparent.

“I know we made mistakes on the album – One In Their Pride, for instance, went too far – but Into The Pandemonium makes more sense than it ever has. I am very proud that so many bands have been influenced by what we did back then. You listen to goth metal bands like My Dying Bride, and you can hear how much impact we made.”

Opening the album with a cover of Mexican Radio was also a high risk decision.

“Why did we do it? Because both Martin and I loved that band and that song. Reed fought against us doing it, and it took four takes to get it right. After the third one, I was ready to give up and scrap the whole idea, but we went for one more – and it was exactly how we wanted it. Originally, it was going to be a bonus song, but came out so well we decided to start off the album with it. I think it confused a lot of people who just expected the usual diet of thrash and heaviness from us. That was in there, but we were determined to make a statement from the beginning.”

(Image credit: Peter Schlegel)

The album received almost universal acclaim from the media when it was finally released. But, by the time the band got on the road, they’d faced so many months of acrimonious discussions with Noise that they were tearing themselves apart.

“Everything that surrounded the record was just a nightmare. And it eventually got to us,” says Fischer. “We split up on stage in Dallas in December of 1987. Perhaps if we’d been a little older, wiser heads may have prevailed and we may have gotten through all the troubles. But we were still so young, the whole business destroyed us.”

The band re-grouped for 1988’s controversial Cold Lake album – one despised by Fischer to this day. But, in some respects, so much damage had been done to their vision at that stage, it needed nearly two decades for the band to recover their extraordinarily individual balance. With hindsight, the guitarist can appreciate both the positive and negative outcomes of the album.

“I am so proud of what we did,” he says. “And to some extent it was this combination of innocence and arrogance that drove us to do what we did. The day we lose our innocence will be the day we give up making music. But we did make mistakes in the studio – this is not a perfect album. 

“I can listen back now, and hear where we went wrong. But what matters is the overall atmosphere and vision. If you think back to the albums being made at the time, nobody was pushing as hard as we were. It was insane and it could have been a disaster, but we pulled off something fantastic. Bands with 10 times our budget weren’t making albums that had 10 percent of our innovation.”

Back in 1987, just after the release of Into The Pandemonium, the band weren’t sure if they had any future at all. The record had barely registered sales wise at the time, but Fischer was defiant.

“If this is our last record, I think history will judge us as doing something that will make its mark,” he said back then. “I know in 20 years’ time, people will be talking about this,”

And he was right. 

Published in Metal Hammer #144

Celtic Frost – Into The Pandemonium

Celtic Frost – Into The Pandemonium

Swiss avant garde metal visionaries released their third album, Into The Pandemonium, in 1987. It featured extreme noise, symphonic metal, funeral dirges and even hip hop, and has been cited Dave Grohl as a huge influence.

Malcolm Dome

Malcolm Dome had an illustrious and celebrated career which stretched back to working for Record Mirror magazine in the late 70s and Metal Fury in the early 80s before joining Kerrang! at its launch in 1981. His first book, Encyclopedia Metallica, published in 1981, may have been the inspiration for the name of a certain band formed that same year. Dome is also credited with inventing the term "thrash metal" while writing about the Anthrax song Metal Thrashing Mad in 1984. With the launch of Classic Rock magazine in 1998 he became involved with that title, sister magazine Metal Hammer, and was a contributor to Prog magazine since its inception in 2009. He died in 2021