Tom Gabriel Warrior is an extreme metal icon. Renaissance man, obdurate contrarian and founder of cult legends Hellhammer and the much-revered Celtic Frost, his unique and visionary career has been vastly influential. Although many mourned Celtic Frost’s implosion in 2008, Tom bounced back with Triptykon, a project every bit as fearless and fearsome as anything he’d done before. The band’s 2010 debut album, Eparistera Daimones, won widespread praise for its audacious, uncompromising style and the follow-up Melana Chasmata plunges into even more desolate territory. Like everything in Tom’s life, however, it comes at a cost. Few musicians can claim to pour their heart and soul into everything they do; fewer still go beyond this point to a place where the boundaries between art and life dissolve completely. Tom is one of those people.
“I constantly have enough of the world and have been close to suicide more than once in my life,” he confesses. “Suicide is the most personal decision one can make. The fact that I’m still here is because my girlfriend pleaded with me not to take the ultimate step. The chances of her succeeding were minute, but after her pleading for days, it broke my heart. It’s impossible to describe in words what happened, but the reason I decided to attempt to stick around was her pleading. I have a beautiful time with her, but that doesn’t negate everything that has led to this point. It’s a daily challenge to stick around and I don’t know whether it’ll be months or years.”
Prompted to elaborate on what drove him to this point, Tom remains reluctant.
“Nothing in my life now resembles what it was three years ago,” he intones darkly. “There were a number of things which took place; it’s not just one single issue. I had no influence on it and it was and still is extremely difficult to deal with. It’s nothing new in my life, but it’s not something I welcome. But it happened and I had to deal with it, and for a long time I wasn’t even sure if I would finish this album because everything became secondary. The album and the band weren’t the most important thing I had to deal with in my life at the time. I’m hesitant to go into more detail because, as I’ve said many times before, it would resemble reality TV shows or Britney Spears where they promote albums with personal tragedy, which I think is very cheap. Stuff happens, but to smear it across the press is embarrassing. Everybody has problems in their lives and people understand that, but there’s a certain point where it’s embarrassing and I want to stay away from that.”
An astute listener may, however, be afforded some insight into the mind of the man by paying close attention to his work. Whereas previous album Eparistera Daimones was fuelled by rage, Melana Chasmata is driven by a much more personal array of demons.
“It’s intimate and private because it’s real,” agrees Tom. “The first album was driven by anger, by pain, and by frustration, even to some extent by hatred, due to the closeness of the production, to the demise of Celtic Frost and the way that happened. Once that was dealt with, the door was open for Triptykon to deal with more private, intimate feelings, and they have become more intense. The older I’ve become, the more personal and intimate my lyrics have become, and because of things that happened to all of us, I think the new album is the most intimate and revealing of all.”
Talk of getting older reminds us that Tom turned 50 last year. Rather than see it as one step closer to retirement, in his maturity he has uncovered a new-found strength and sense of purpose.
“Birthdays are boring,” he snorts. “After 50, they’re run of the mill and I did exactly nothing for my 50th. My 40th, although a number like any other, was an important mental transition. It was strange and it took some time to get used to, but now I’ve reached 50, it’s made me very confident. I even derive some perverted pleasure from being 50 and still playing extreme metal. In all honesty, if someone said I could trade, I wouldn’t want to be young again, because I didn’t have this confidence and experience when I was younger.”
One of the most enduring relationships in Tom’s often turbulent life has been with surrealist painter and sculptor H.R. Giger, best known for creating the Alien of the eponymous movie series. Within Giger’s hellish biomechanical dreamscapes Tom found the perfect visual expression of his own dark and sometimes disturbing music. Beginning with Celtic Frost’s 1985 effort To Mega Therion, Giger’s artwork has adorned the sleeves of three of Tom’s releases, including both Triptykon albums.
“I discovered Giger when I was a child because my father had Giger’s first two books and a large Giger print framed on the wall,” Tom recalls. “I’d never seen anything like it ,and I was completely impressed by them. This was years before Giger did Alien and won the Oscar. When I later met [Hellhammer/Celtic Frost bassist] Martin Ain, I discovered he had the same passion. Even though Giger is an artist and has nothing directly to do with music, the aura and atmosphere of his imagery was a very strong influence on Hellhammer and Celtic Frost, as unable as we were at the time to translate it into music. Later when we wanted to contact him, we looked in the phone book and to our astonishment he was in there. So we wrote to him in our shaky teenage handwriting trying to explain that in our own tiny little way we were trying to express the same things that he as a genius expressed. To my surprise, some weeks later the phone rang and my insane mother answered it and came to me saying, ‘There’s a guy on the phone called Giger’. We talked on the phone quite a lot, but it was years later before I met him.
“When Triptykon started, I approached him with the idea of collaboration on an image I had previously thought would be perfect for Celtic Frost. That became the cover of the first Triptykon album. To start Triptykon with Giger as my mentor, and with his blessing, was hugely symbolic for me. I’ve been led to believe he loves that album, even though he’s an ardent jazz admirer [this interview happened prior to Giger’s death on May 12]. My life is tied to his and in a much smaller way his to mine. I feel honoured that he has granted me so much.”
Themes running through Triptykon’s work and echoed in Giger’s morbid, mesmerising masterpieces – transmutation, warped eroticism, misanthropy and many more – are a direct reflection of Tom’s worldview. Beginning with a dysfunctional upbringing – as documented in his 2000 autobiography Are You Morbid? – Tom has endured more than his fair share of struggles, prompting the question: how does he focus on just the music?
“Melana Chasmata was one of the most difficult albums, if not the most difficult, I’ve ever worked on,” he explains. “Everything you might imagine. Difficult production in the studio, a difficult mix, issues in our private lives… three of the members had very drastic events occur in their lives and I’m one of those members. Serious events which in my case necessitated taking one-and-a-half years off from the production of the album, which is why it came out so late. But I’m glad it’s done and out there because it closes a chapter that I’m very glad is closed, it was time for it to end.”
Which brings us back to the single most significant theme of all: closure, and ultimately, death. From Hellhammer onward, Tom Gabriel Warrior has laboured under the banner ‘only death is real’. Of course, it’s easy to talk about death – even mock it – especially when it appears to be a long way off. In Tom’s experience, however, death is an ever-present part of life that simply cannot be ignored.
“I can honestly say I have no fear of death,” he states matter-of-factly, “and I’m not saying that to be macho. I’ve had many direct experiences with death, and I’m very aware of what it entails. Once you’ve lived through certain experiences and have nothing to lose, death doesn’t seem so bad. There was a time when I was very young when I thought I wanted to have a better life and live as long as possible. In the meantime, I have lived, and I don’t perceive life as incentive enough to hang around. Death is very much part of my thinking and I’m not clinging to life: quite the opposite.”
BOOKS THAT KILL!
A VORACIOUS READER AND RABID BOOK COLLECTOR, TOM RECOMMENDS FIVE TOP TOMES.
BY KLAUS KINSKI, 1991
“One of the most intense autobiographies ever written, and a book I have read uncounted times. Kinski was of course a highly controversial character (even before recent allegations by his daughter Pola), and the extent of this book’s truthfulness is debatable. But this is a book like no other. Unfortunately, the English translation is abbreviated and far less drastic.”
BY H.R. GIGER, 1977
“As iconic as a book can be. Giger’s masterpiece, then and for all times. This is a statement of massive proportions, and an intense visual feast due to its format.”
BY STEFAN INEICHEN, 2009
“An implausibly comprehensive and riveting compilation of architecture and individual human stories during World War II in the city I call my home. Incredibly well researched.”
DEATH (AN ANTHOLOGY OF ANCIENT TEXTS, SONGS, PRAYERS, AND STORIES)
EDITED BY DAVID MELTZER, 1984
“An extraordinary compilation of poignant and sometimes distressing works.”
BY DAVE LEWIS, 2011
“A detailed account of Led Zeppelin’s last tour before John Bonham’s death. I attended this tour as a teenager in Zurich on June 29, 1980. The concert was fantastic and later became legendary due to a bootleg. Bonham would be dead less than three months later.”
This was published in Metal Hammer issue 257
Tryptikon play the Ronnie James Dio Stage at the Bloodstock Open Air Festival on August 8
Read a review Melana Chasmata, the current Triptykon album, here