Martin Eric Ain, co-founding bassist of extreme metal legends Celtic Frost and Hellhammer, has died at the age of 50. Over the next several days Decibel will do our best to honor his memory and attempt to put his music contributions in perspective. But today, we pay tribute to Ain by running our 2006 Hall of Fame induction of Celtic Frost’s 1984 earth shattering debut Morbid Tales in full.
Procreation of the Wicked
The Making of Celtic Frost’s Morbid Tales
by J. Bennett
Of all the classic albums inducted into Decibel’s Hall of Fame thus far, none has had a greater influence on the death metal and black metal that succeeded it than Celtic Frost’s Morbid Tales. Recorded and mixed in a single week in October 1984 at Caet Studio in West Berlin, Germany, during the waning years of the Cold War, the album was the work of vocalist/guitarist Tom Gabriel Fischer (a.k.a. Tom G. Warrior), bassist Martin Eric Stricker (a.k.a. Martin Eric Ain) and session drummer Stephen Priestly, all three of whom had done time in the Swiss proto-black/death outfit Hellhammer. Within days of Hellhammer’s self-induced demise, Warrior and Ain formed Celtic Frost and immediately plotted the musical and aesthetic trajectory for the fledgling band’s first three albums. Produced by Horst Müller (who had also engineered Hellhammer’s Apocalyptic Raids EP), Frost’s debut featured such merciless classics as “Procreation (of the Wicked)” (later covered by both Sepultura and Enslaved), “Into the Crypts of Rays” (later covered by Marduk, the song detailed the sordid exploits of serial child murderer/rapist Gilles de Rais, who also fought alongside Joan of Arc in the Hundred Years’ War), and “Nocturnal Fear” (a Lovecraftian night-terror later covered by Dimmu Borgir, the song’s lyrics were perhaps influential on the likes of future Swedish goth-mongers Tiamat and Morbid Angel guitarist George Emmanuel III). With the Celtic Frost power-axis of Warrior and Ain reunited and storming stages with a combination of new and vintage extremities, we figure it’s about fucking time we gave Morbid Tales some props.
How did you make the transition from Hellhammer to Celtic Frost?
Martin Ain: When Hellhammer started out, it was pretty much a local project with people who had just started to play their instruments. It wasn’t a real band with skilled musicians. When I joined for the Satanic Rites demo, I was 15, and the lineup was always changing. It’s not like we were known for our skilled musicianship or accomplished songwriting, but we were working hard. We were working like five days a week on our music, rehearsing our asses off to get to a point where we could master our instruments and get out of them what we wanted to. 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, when thrash metal became popular through tape-trading, which was an underground thing. 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.
The other reason was that the black metal scene was rising at that time with Venom’s Welcome to Hell and Black Metal, and there were a lot of diehard fanatics jumping on the bandwagon who didn’t have a clue about Satanism, but they were completely dedicated. They were you know, “totally evil,” so that was something that bothered us. And other bands that were using the term “Satan” or had evil-sounding album titles because that’s what was selling at the time, like Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil, for example. They were about as Satanic as Stryper was Christian. It just seemed like an American showbiz thing to us. So we disbanded Hellhammer and formed Celtic Frost.
Stephen Priestly: It couldn’t go any further with Hellhammer, music-wise. To be honest, none of us could really play an instrument. [Laughs] That’s the truth. Martin and I had a band before called Schizo, and we didn’t have any instruments at all. We were just like a poser band, looking as hard and as aggressive as possible. We made pictures before we could even play instruments. I only started playing drums about a year before we recorded Morbid Tales. On “Into the Crypts of Rays,” I had the double-bass thing, and I worked my ass off to be able to do that. As you can hear at the end, I have some problems at the end with the timing, and that’s just because I couldn’t play at all back then. Even Tom, he had a wah-wah pedal, and that was the way he made his guitar solos. We couldn’t really play—it was more about the image. I was 17, just a kid, and back then, I was more into music like Journey and Boston and stuff like that—even though I liked Venom and all this New Wave of British Heavy Metal stuff a lot. And as you can hear on the record, it was definitely influenced by bands like Venom and Cirith Ungol. Tom went to London and came back with some records, some of that British heavy metal stuff, including the very first Def Leppard seven-inch and the very first Venom single—and said he wanted to do something like that, but even heavier. He wanted it to be the most brutal stuff people had ever heard. When he played me the first demos from Celtic Frost, I was blown away, so we made the first songs, like “Into the Crypts of Rays” and stuff like that. The amazing thing was that Martin and Tom had the vision for the first three records already in their minds. They knew exactly what they wanted to do, and to be honest, I was just a drummer—even on the record sleeve, it says “session drummer.” I couldn’t do anything to put myself into it, because it was their vision.
Tom Warrior: To this day, people say that Celtic Frost was just Hellhammer renamed, but this is not true. Every detail about Celtic Frost was different. Martin and I were so shocked at how the Hellhammer EP came out and, given our ambitions to become better musicians, we knew there was a lack of quality in the vehicle called Hellhammer. The night we formed Celtic Frost, we approached everything differently than the band Hellhammer had done, and we set out to form a new band in accordance with these targets we had set. So it was much more complex than two guys just changing the band name. We really wanted to form a different band. Hellhammer was all about extremity; Celtic Frost only had extremity as a basis. Our ambitions had outrun Hellhammer—we wanted to be able to do whatever came into our minds. We wrote down all the things we hated about Hellhammer and changed everything around.
The approach of Hellhammer and early Celtic Frost was similar to that of punk rock. Were you listening to much punk music at the time?
Warrior: I loathed those bands, to be quite honest. There was only a very small group of punk bands that I had respect for at the time—for example, Discharge, which to me, was a revolution, much like Venom. When I heard the first two Discharge records, I was blown away. I was just starting to play an instrument and I had no idea that you could go so far. Discharge totally opened my eyes. And to me, they were unlike other punk bands—they sounded more like metal. But I’m a music lover, and at that time, punk was extremely raw as far as songwriting was concerned, and I always missed the music component in punk. Metal at least had a melody and a song structure—a lot of the punk at that time didn’t have any melody. Although early Celtic Frost has been compared to punk many times, I personally was not into punk at all.
How did you choose your stage name?
Ain: Yes, my real name is not Martin Eric Ain; it’s Martin Eric Stricker. In Hellhammer, I wasn’t only Martin Eric Ain; I was also “Slayed Necros.” Tom was not only “Tom G. Warrior”; he was “Satanic Slaughter.” We dropped those names because we started to think of them as ludicrous, but to pick up such a name in the first place was of course trying to become a different personality than we were in daily life. The name Martin Eric Stricker was defined and chosen by my parents, my family, and this was exactly what I was trying to get away from. At the time, I was starting to read about occultism, religion, philosophy and systems of practical magic, like the Golden Dawn as taught by Aleister Crowley. I also came across Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism that deals with how to decipher the Bible through numerology. And of course, the Hebrew alphabet is different than the Western alphabet; every letter can be a word in itself, or can change its meaning, but every letter has a number to it. So the way the letters are used, they have different numbers and different meanings. This was used to make sense out of the word of God, the Torah, and the Pentateuch, the word of God given to Moses. I realized that the numerological meaning to “Ain” was zero—it didn’t have a clearly defined meaning, and zero could mean everything as a whole, as a circle, or as something that has been accomplished, but at the same time it could also mean that something has been nullified—and I really liked that, because you couldn’t put a proper meaning to it. It was exactly what I was looking for—something that I could put myself into and make into my own, rather than a name predefined by somebody else.
Warrior: The night Steve Warrior and I formed Hellhammer, we were on one of our typical nightly hikes through the forest in the farmlands surrounding the city of Zurich. We used to spend all night hiking the forest together hatching out plans. We already knew we were going to call the band Hellhammer, and we wanted to have radical names. We were basically kids, so we didn’t have much self-confidence because we hadn’t achieved anything yet in our lives. We felt embarrassed about our last names; we thought we couldn’t possibly play radical music with household Swiss names. Bands like Venom had adopted radical stage names, so we thought we had to do that to in order to be fully radical. Steve Warrior’s English teacher’s name was actually Warrior, and we thought it was such a great last name that we both adopted it.
What do you remember most about the recording sessions for Morbid Tales?
Priestly: We had no money at all. We were driving from Switzerland to Berlin in a green, loaned VW bus with all our stuff in it—the drum kit, the Marshall stacks, the whole thing. I guess it was Martin, Tom, me and Rick “Lights,” the driver. Back then, East Germany was still the DDR [Deutsche Demokratische Republik], and you had to drive through the Wall to get to Berlin, which was a strange feeling. When we got there, we recorded and mixed the whole album within a week. I remember that the studio was very small, with very cheap equipment and the record company was a pain in the ass. They would come down, like, “What sound is that? You can’t do that like that.” As you know, we had this horror song on the album called “Danse Macabre,” and they said, “No way—you can’t do that! It’s not a song!” But that was actually the most fun song to do on the whole record. [Laughs] That’s about all I remember. As you know, it was a long time ago. The whole thing happened so fast. They made the Hellhammer record with Bruce Day on drums and within half a year, we recorded the first Celtic Frost record.
Warrior: It was a very difficult and liberating time all at once. It was difficult because the only proper record we had, not counting demos, was of course the Hellhammer EP, which had been ripped apart in the media at the time. Hellhammer was nowhere near the myth it is now—the band was loathed by the media and the record company as well. They told us that we could not ever record anything like that again. So we knew we had to prove ourselves once and for all with Celtic Frost, or that would be it. Nobody would give us a third chance. It was already a miracle that they gave us a chance with Celtic Frost after the Hellhammer EP. At the same time, we were aware that we had made a huge jump forward as far as songwriting. We knew this was a completely new project, which filled us with optimism and tons of energy. Above everything was the lack of funding—we had only six days to record and mix the whole album.
Ain: I remember we had about four days to record Apocalyptic Raids, but for Morbid Tales we had an entire week, so we were like, “Wow!” We went to the same studio in Berlin that we had recorded Apocalyptic Raids in, with the same engineer who knew our basic approach to music at that point, which made it easier. We were well-prepared, because we had really analyzed the recording process and the mistakes we had made with Apocalyptic Raids. We already had the first three Celtic albums worked out by that point—what they would be called, what they would be about, even a couple of the songs. We even already knew that we would have the rights to the Giger painting for the cover of To Mega Therion.
What was it like being in Berlin while half the city—and half of Germany—was under Communist rule?
Warrior: We were in West Berlin; there was of course the wall dividing Berlin at the time. In order to get there from Switzerland, you had to drive through what was Communist East Germany, the DDR. It was just like you’ve seen in the Cold War movies—there were guards with machine guns, Russian tanks, barbed wire—and they would take your passport for like 20 minutes and scrutinize them. We had already done that trip by train when we did the Hellhammer EP, but we drove in a van for Morbid Tales. It was a fitting background for what we were doing, I think, because it was very unreal and very serious. In the early ’80s, everybody talked about the possibility of nuclear war between East and West, and we were in that scenario. If war broke out, the part of the earth we were in would be obliterated. We could actually see the Wall from the studio, and if you turned on the radio, you could hear Russian broadcasts. It’s a scenario that’s hard to imagine nowadays, but it was very real and very intimidating at the time. West Berlin was an island in the middle of East Germany, and in that little island is where we recorded this album.
Ain: It was a completely different place than it is right now. At that time, Berlin was a one-of-a-kind place. You couldn’t compare it to anywhere else in the world. We already knew the experience of traveling through Eastern Germany—which was basically a military dictatorship—when we recorded Apocalyptic Raids. Every time I went to Berlin in those days was a unique experience. Everything was open 24 hours, there was a big underground and alternative art and music scene—Einstürzende Neubauten was basically starting their career at that time. And I think some of that stuff sort of inspired us later on for Into the Pandemonium. But of course, the most intense experience we had in Berlin was during the recording of Vanity/Nemesis, because we were actually there when the Wall came down and the Iron Curtain fell in 1989. History was literally happening—you could grasp the feeling in the air. It was an entire nation in euphoria, and the whole world realizing that the Cold War was basically over.
Was it understood from the beginning that Stephen would be a session drummer on the album?
Priestly: Not really. They wanted me to play on the record, and then after the record was finished they wanted to do some touring and stuff like that. Back then, I was more into Boston and Journey, like I said, I didn’t really want to play music like the Morbid Tales stuff. That’s why I quit and then Reed [St. Mark] came. I didn’t tour with them until later on, during the horrible Cold Lake times. [Laughs]
Warrior: We hoped he would join us on a permanent basis, but he didn’t want to. His dream was to do something really commercial, like House of Lords—keyboard-oriented heavy metal. But he was the only option we had at the time, and he was a friend, so he agreed to do the album as a session drummer. We of course hoped that the music and the album, and the possibility to actually record in an international studio and have an international record deal with us, would convince him to join. When we went back to Switzerland after recording, to our astonishment, he said that he wasn’t going to join. So we were left standing there without a drummer after finally having made a mark with something that was at the time better than Hellhammer. It totally ruined everything. We had a huge tour offer for Europe and we had to turn it down because we had no drummer. It took us maybe six or seven months to find a drummer because Switzerland had no heavy metal scene to begin with, and especially no extreme metal scene.
What was it like working with Horst Müller?
Warrior: At that time, it was sensational. He had worked with funk bands and all kind of things. His father was a conductor in an orchestra, so he had grown up with serious music. There was at the time a dance/disco band called Supermax that combined disco music with reggae, and they eventually got more serious and became one of the early world music bands. They were quite big at the time—they did platinum albums in Europe—and Horst had worked with them. He had also already engineered the Hellhammer EP. We came in there as little kids, totally radical, and told Horst, “You have no idea what Hellhammer is supposed to sound like; we’re producing this ourselves.” Of course, we had never been in a professional recording studio, and we had never produced anything. And the results went accordingly; even we realized that the production of Hellhammer’s EP was awful. But we realized that Horst had a lot of capability, so when it came time to record Celtic Frost, we called him up and said, “We’ve learned our lesson. We’re not stupid—we want to give you a chance and we want to actually listen to what you proposed during Hellhammer. We want to let you produce the album.” Horst was great—he was at that time very easy to get along with, very professional, very experienced. He had built the studio, so he knew it inside out. It was just a perfect situation.
Priestly: Horst did some backup vocals, too [on “Dethroned Emperor” and “Procreation (of the Wicked)”]. The funniest thing about him was that he was famous in the ’60s and ’70s for working with bands like Can. I didn’t know that back then—I didn’t even know those bands back then—but I found out later on. I guess he was on drugs the whole time, but back then we were so naïve and enthusiastic that we didn’t see that.
Was the intro, “Human,” something you had conceived of before you went into the studio?
Ain: Yes, we had the idea before we went into the studio—we wanted to loop a scream and make it perpetual. We also wanted to use it as an intro for the live shows. A regular human scream would never last that long, so we wanted to loop it and make it sound like a scream from hell, like how you would scream if the pain was everlasting.
Warrior: We had talked about it, but we were basically still laymen, so we had no idea how we could put it together. So we told Horst what we wanted to do, and he proposed how to do it. But as I said, we only had six days to do everything. If one thing had failed, we would’ve gone over budget or had to go home. So, in hindsight, it’s a miracle that tracks like “Human” or “Danse Macabre” came out the way we wanted them to. We couldn’t rehearse some of those parts, you know? I have no idea how we did that in just a few days, especially given our lack of experience. But therein lies one of the strengths of Celtic Frost to this day: Martin and I usually visualize certain pieces of music down to the last detail without even touching an instrument.
Priestly: It’s basically just Martin and Tom yelling and we put on a whole bunch of reverb and distortion. I remember them both in the vocal booth together, and it was fun to watch, because Tom had to sing later on and his voice was already gone.
You had two guest musicians on Morbid Tales—vocalist Hertha Ohling and violinist Oswald Spengler. Did you know them beforehand?
Warrior: We had absolutely no connection at the time. I mean, you have to realize we were absolute nobodies, and we weren’t familiar with Germany, either. We told Horst on the first day that we wanted to record with a female singer and a violinist, and of course he had a lot of connections, so it proved relatively easy for him to get these musicians. But nobody knew what we were gonna do, because it wasn’t really known in metal to use musicians like that—especially not in extreme metal, a fledgling area of metal that hadn’t even been defined yet. So Horst hired these people and we tried to explain to them what we wanted. None of us could write scores, so we just had to describe it. We weren’t even good enough on our instruments to be able to play, in detail, what we wanted them to do. And everything had to happen rather quickly, because we didn’t have a lot of time.
Ain: I think the violinist was related to Horst Müller, and I think we got the female singer through [executive producer] Karl Walterbach; she was either the sister of a girlfriend he once had, or even maybe the girlfriend he had at the time.
Priestly: I guess Hertha was a singer from the Deutsch Opera Choir. The funny thing was that we couldn’t write [musical] notes or anything, so we had to hum the melodies for her. She was a professional musician, and we were standing there like idiots, humming the notes for her. We had to do the same thing for the violin player [Oswald Springer] on “Danse Macabre” and “Nocturnal Fear.” As you probably know, Tom and Martin did that later on almost every record, with a female singer who spoke on the Frost vocals. I guess we were the first band to do that in that genre. And now you see Lacuna Coil and bands like that, with female vocals.
Warrior: On all Celtic Frost albums, except for the brand-new one, it was extremely difficult to work with classical musicians. At that time, extreme metal was something totally fresh. Heavy metal in general was totally disrespected in classical circles, and all these musicians came into the studio with huge prejudice, looking down their noses at us. And of course [the fact that we were not] experienced musicians at the time made it even more pronounced. Most classical musicians would say, “You cannot do that,” or “I cannot play that” or “You cannot overdub that”—just every possible denial. It was always a huge struggle to get them to do what we wanted to do, but at the end of the day, everybody was always fascinated that it actually worked. And as I said, we were totally untrained. There was even a moment when Horst, who was very open-minded, said, “You cannot do this overdub,” but I was very stubborn about it, so we did it and it came out fantastic.
Who had the idea to do a song about Gilles de Rais [“Into the Crypts of Rays”]?
Ain: I had read this book about the relationship between Gilles de Rais and Joan d’Arc. As you might know, Gilles de Rais was the Marshal of France, basically the military leader of France when they were at war with England during the Hundred Years’ War. I had read stories about Gilles de Rais—I knew he was burned at the stake and that he had raped and killed children—but I didn’t know how much of a mass murderer he was, or that he was basically the role model for the Big Bad Wolf or for Bluebeard. It was really interesting, so I gave that book to Tom, and I think that was his inspiration for “Into the Crypts of Rays.”
Warrior: Even though I wrote the lyrics for that song, we discussed the content in detail, and Martin was actually the one who pointed out the story to me, which totally fascinated me. Researching things like that back then was a huge undertaking, because it was pre-Internet. You really had to be a fanatic to get into all that stuff; you had to raid libraries and go to secondhand bookstores to find it. You couldn’t go to Wikipedia or something like that. And we both loved the irony and the sarcasm in the story of Gilles de Rais, which is why we put it into a song.
What was the lyrical inspiration for the song “Morbid Tales”?
Ain: That song was inspired by one of those pulp-fiction short stories—I can’t recall the name or the author—but it was about Nitocrys, an Egyptian empress who was dabbling in the black arts and witchery. It might’ve been in Weird Tales, which was one of the first publications to release the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, who both were really, really inspirational to the lyrics we did at the time of Morbid Tales and To Mega Therion. Tom and I were both very big Robert E. Howard fans—Kull the [Fabulous] Warrior [King], Conan the Barbarian. And I was a huge H.P. Lovecraft fan—he was my favorite fictional author at that time. I liked the supernatural horror, and I liked the philosophical and religious concepts he made up—this entire universe of gods and demons, the writings of The Necronomicon, and that kind of thing. I really loved his approach and his style. “Nocturnal Fear,” for example, was very much inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and The Necronomicon.
In “Nocturnal Fear,” there’s a reference to the Babylonian goddess Tiamat and Lovecraft’s demon, Azag-thoth, which were later adopted by the Swedish band Tiamat and Morbid Angel guitarist George Emmanuel III (a.k.a. Trey Azagthoth), respectively.
Ain: I know… you have the album Morbid Tales, and the band Morbid Angel. Septultura’s first album was called Morbid Visions; our first album was Morbid Tales, with the song “Visions of Mortality” on it. This album of course became quite influential to a lot of musicians that came after us. Of course, we didn’t know that at the time. We did what we did because we believed in it.
Warrior: “Nocturnal Fear,” to me, is the ultimate expression of the Martin I met two years earlier—the Martin I met at a heavy metal party in a farm village. I sat down to talk to him, and he had all this occult knowledge, and I had all the historical knowledge, and we just bonded and spent nights talking about these topics. I would tell him what I had read, and he would tell me what he had read, and we just had endless material. This song is exactly like Martin at the time—it’s exactly half of Celtic Frost.
What was the lyrical inspiration for “Return to the Eve”?
Warrior: “Return to the Eve” was very much about some of the teenage angst I had due to a very difficult youth, due to a feeling of entrapment, and my only escape being desperate daydreams. I know that sounds pathetically cliché, but that’s what it was. My youth was hell. As a kid, I was totally dependent on a mother who basically drifted into insanity and had me live in circumstances that you would not even believe if I would tell you. My only means of escape was to shape my own world in daydreams and dreams, and a very tiny expression of that is the song “Return to the Eve.”
What about “Visions of Mortality”?
Warrior: “Visions of Mortality” expressed our view of all the people hiding behind magic or religion or sermons or church brunches on Sunday and claiming they had the better answer for the world when the reality was that they were failing just like everybody else. And yet they all think they have the formula, while abusing certain aspects of religion that they arbitrarily pick out of a larger picture. It’s no different if you go into Satanism or a church mass—it’s always the same. “Visions of Mortality” is a very sarcastic expression of that, and incidentally, it was the last song ever written in Hellhammer; in fact, Martin had written a completely different set of lyrics. That was when we realized we were reaching a musical standard that did not fit into Hellhammer anymore. That song was the catalyst that made us dissolve Hellhammer and form Celtic Frost. We played it for Stephen Priestly, and that’s the song that convinced him to actually give it a shot.
How important was the corpsepaint to the overall concept of Celtic Frost?
Ain: The imagery was just as important as the music. Of course, we weren’t the only band that had makeup at the time—early Slayer had makeup, King Diamond had makeup. The corpsepaint, the black clothes, the leather, the gun belts, using occult imagery—it was all trying to get away from where I came from, which was a stern Catholic family. My mother was a religious teacher—she taught the catechism to kids in school, including me; I was an altar boy as well. I had to go to the Boy Scouts when I was young, too, and I have fond memories it, but one of the things I really disliked was the fact that it was kind of like a paramilitary organization, but with the same organizational structure. You have officers giving orders that you have to fulfill; everybody’s dressed in uniform with symbols of rank, and this is something I really disliked. I realized pretty early on that this is how society structures itself in extreme. So we were trying to structure ourselves in a different way, but also using uniform and imagery. It was really important to have that, to give ourselves a sense of belonging, of being a group or a unit—and of course separating ourselves from the rest at the same time.
Warrior: The corpsepaint was an overblown expression of where we were at a certain point in our career. It’s very much an expression of our rebellion and our then-current state of mind. As you know, our image on each Celtic Frost album is radically different. That’s because we were aging and progressing and changing as people, and were weren’t one of those bands that wanted to hide that. We actually wanted to show we were changing. The corpsepaint was very honest—it was exactly where we were at that time. And we didn’t use it to hide our identity; it was done to underline the kind of people we were. We wanted to enhance the feelings we carried inside. But it was like theatre makeup, which is usually very over-the-top, so that even the people in the last row can recognize what’s going on.
Priestly: We had it on Cold Lake, too, but in a different way. [Laughs] For Morbid Tales, we were just trying to look evil. The corpsepaint that we had back then, I guess only Mercyful Fate had it at that time, so we were one of the first. I guess it was Martin’s idea—he thought it was so aggressive. I didn’t really like it, but I went along with it because I thought it belonged with the music. You can’t really see my face on the album sleeve, though. When I see the Norwegian or Swedish bands that do that now, I understand that it has to be like that.
Where did the cover art come from?
Ain: I designed the heptagram. If you look at the back of Apocalyptic Raids, the heptagram is already in place; that’s the original drawing. We wanted to a full-cover-size version for Morbid Tales, so we went to a graphic artist, a person we knew back in Switzerland, to make it bigger and cleaner. It was of course inspired by the Crowley heptagram, and also by the Crowley tarot. You have the symbol of the swords in tarot, and there was this artist, this lover and friend of Crowley’s who painted this amazing tarot following the way that Crowley taught the tarot. And so the daggers make a pentagram, each one meaning like anger, failure, triumph, success—all things that were shown with daggers. So I combined the heptagram, Crowley’s seal for the whore of Babylon, with the pentagram made by the daggers. And of course in the center is the skull, as a symbol of Memento mori. In the realization of death, we are not eternal. We are destined to fail as beings no matter what we do.
The swords make a pentagram in the upright version, but on the skull you have the pentagram in the inverted version, sort of like yin and yang. In the writing [on the original cover, not the reissue] where Crowley would have put, “Babylon,” I put “Pazuzu,” who is like an ancient Assyrian demon who also surfaces in the Necronomicon, who also comes up in the film The Exorcist. When Father Karras is doing the archaeological dig in Mesopotamia, in modern-day Iraq, he finds this devil head, and there’s a silhouette of the demon Pazuzu, who was actually a demon that was used to ward off even more evil spirits. The way that I experienced Satanism was a liberating experience, so I realized quite early on that the devil is kind of like a scapegoat for Christians in the New Testament. Their god is supposed to be all about good, but how can you explain everything that is evil? You need some other figure. Hence, you get this Prince of Darkness, this counter-figure.
Did you consider yourself a Satanist at the time?
Ain: When I was reading the writings of Anton LaVey, we were approached by a branch—or a grotto, as they call themselves—of the First Church of Satan. I think it was the Dutch grotto. But I had just escaped the clutches of one form of organized religion, so I didn’t want to run right into the clutches of the next one, which seemed to be even more sectarian. And not all of the writings of Anton LaVey seemed to be proper to me. Some of the stuff I wasn’t really certain about. I wasn’t agreeing with everything he had written, and some of the stuff even seemed ludicrous to me at the time. Like for example, in Satanic Rituals, he was using German, and of course German being my first language I realized that a lot of things were misspelled. So here were these supposedly powerful rituals, and he’s using words that have a clearly defined meaning in a completely different way. And with English, he wasn’t doing it like that, so to me, that seemed ludicrous. He was making mistakes. Also, the main theme of Satanism was being an individual—trying to differentiate yourself from the rules or the pressures of a group—so for us, Satan was about rebellion, but we didn’t consider ourselves Satanists.
What were the reviews like when the album came out?
Priestly: Very shitty. I think Kerrang! magazine gave us just one “K” out of five. Some German magazine wrote something about us like we were the shittiest band and we could hardly play our instruments—which was true. [Laughs] Almost all the reviews were really shitty. But Xavier Russell, who later did the Cold Lake videos, was very into the band and he wrote for Sounds, the English magazine, and also Kerrang! and he said he made a mistake on the first record because it was really cult and influenced a lot of bands—but he didn’t realize that until later on.
Ain: I would say they were mixed. We had absolute fantastic, enthusiastic reviews, and at the same time people who were like really putting it down and bashing. Some of that still had to do with our Hellhammer legacy; I remember Kerrang! gave it one “K,” which stood for “compost,” utter dirt, utter shite, and they said, “These are the guys who did Hellhammer, but it’s the same shit.” They couldn’t believe we had the nerve to record another record. Of course, when Into the Pandemonium came out, they reviewed all our old records again and they gave Morbid Tales five “K’s,” officially excusing themselves for not realizing the genius. [Laughs] But generally speaking, it was well-received, and it did sell enough for a record company to release another record for us.
At what point did you start to realize the influence that Morbid Tales had on other bands?
Warrior: A few years ago. When Celtic Frost dissolved at the beginning of ’93, I really wanted a break because the band had been such a rollercoaster ride in every way—musically, personality-wise and industry-wise especially. So I left the music industry entirely and dealt with my Celtic Frost demons by writing the book [Are You Morbid?], and to me, that was the closing of a chapter. I did not think about Celtic Frost anymore. Later on, I came back and formed the electronic-industrial project, Apollyon Sun, and once again, that was a completely different approach on every level. It was only when I began promoting the second Apollyon Sun album in 2000—along with the Celtic Frost book that also came out that year—was it first brought to my attention by so many writers and bands that I met at that time that Celtic Frost had been an influence. At first, I was extremely reluctant to hear that because it simply seemed impossible to me. We started in such a humble manner and on such a shoestring budget—we couldn’t even afford to buy guitar strings or guitar [picks] when we did Morbid Tales—we had nothing. It was simply what was inside of us, and it was on such a small scale that I never expected anybody to ever pick up on that, never mind claim it as an influence. It seemed ludicrous to me. There were bands I looked up to—bands that technically blew us away—who said, “Yeah, we stole your riffs.” I thought this was impossible, and I had this attitude until a short time ago. We played at Wacken this summer, and Mikael [Åkerfeldt] from Opeth said something like this, and I said, “This cannot possibly be,” and I explained to him why I thought that way. So to this day, it’s extremely difficult for me to take that seriously. I’m very close to my roots—I have revisited the Hellhammer rehearsal room frequently over the years—which is why it seems so incredible to me that anybody on this planet, much less bands like Nirvana or Opeth, would claim us as in influence. It just seems implausible.
Priestly: For me, it was quite cool because I could see it from the outside. At the time, I was playing my own stuff with [guitarist] Curt Victor Bryant, who later played on Cold Lake and Vanity/Nemesis, and you could see all those bands like Sepultura, who were into Frost. At first, I didn’t realize they were so heavily into Frost, but then they would talk about us in interviews, so later on, when I was back in the band and [touring] for Cold Lake and Vanity/Nemesis, I’d meet people from the supporting bands who would say that the first record changed their lives. I thought, “Are you nuts? We could hardly play the instruments.” But yeah, it seemed like a really big influence, especially on the Nordic scene. And I have to say that Sepultura did a really good job covering “Procreation (of the Wicked).” I also really appreciate those bands who did that tribute record [1995’s In Memory of Celtic Frost].
Ain: I didn’t realize until maybe the mid ’90s how influential Hellhammer and Celtic Frost were, or how important Morbid Tales had become. At the beginning of the ’90s, I tried to get away from the Celtic Frost thing and find out who I was as a person. While other people my age went to school or lived with their parents and tried to figure out what they wanted to do with their lives, I was working on hard on a career in one of the most difficult businesses in the world. Around the time of Vanity/Nemesis, I realized that that career, for me, was over. I literally spent myself on the music, on everything, and business-wise, it hadn’t come back to me. I wasn’t able to make my living off of it, because we were ripped off just as many other bands were ripped off and still are ripped off nowadays. That’s just the way this business works. Certain businessmen know that music is a young person’s dream, and they take absolute advantage of it. To this day, the rights to Morbid Tales and the songs on there are fully owned by people who will own them until 75 years after we will have died. Noise Records was sold to the Sanctuary Group, and the Sanctuary Group has gone public on the stock market, so there are people owning our creation who don’t even know that they own it. They just look at it as another number on the stock market. This is the way the music business works, which is why I didn’t do anything musically for the last 15 years and why we did it differently this time around.
Are there any cover versions of songs from Morbid Tales that you particularly enjoy?
Warrior: I’ve heard a million—from Anthrax to the two tribute albums that were released—and I hate them all, except for when Sepultura did “Procreation (of the Wicked).” They play it note-by-note, which I generally don’t like, but they made it theirs by putting in an aggression that we didn’t possess at the time. When I heard it, I called Martin and said, “Look, they’re playing it better than we did. They’re blowing our version to bits.” And now, I think that’s the way that song must sound. When we reformed Celtic Frost, that was the benchmark. We thought if we could not play “Procreation (of the Wicked)” that way, we have no business coming back as Celtic Frost.
What’s your favorite track on the album?
Warrior: Probably “Dethroned Emperor”—I like the tempo changes, and I like the slow groove of it. I like slow, heavy music, probably because I grew up with things like Black Sabbath. My favorite is when the riffs are huge and crunchy and they have time to unfold. I don’t subscribe to hectic music, where everything has to be hurried. I like music to be able to breathe. A lot of bands mistake speed for heaviness, and they’re definitely not the same thing. The faster band is less heavy, because you can not possibly play heavy as a drummer when you have to have so many beats per minute. You have no time to actually beat the drums. Slower songs are much more majestic and powerful. My second favorite track is probably “Danse Macabre” because it was very daring for the time, and I totally enjoy the way it came out. I like to compare it to a theatre play done just with sounds.
Priestly: Definitely “Into the Crypts of Rays.” First, I like the lyrics a lot—they’re really good. And I always loved to play that song live, because the crowd goes mad. “Return to the Eve” was always a good one, too, because on the Cold Lake tour, Tom would say “Return to the Steve” because I was back in the band. [Laughs]
Ain: I think “Procreation (of the Wicked)” and “Dethroned Emperor” are my two favorites. “Procreation” has such an organic feel to it; it’s genuinely heavy and primitive. It was sort of like if Robert Johnson lived in our time and played heavy metal, this is what he would’ve come up with. It just seems really timeless, and I also like the lyrics. I think they’re some of the best lyrics we’ve written. “Dethroned Emperor” is one of Tom’s genius strokes, with these kind of fantasy lyrics. You can obviously interpret it as us trying to reclaim our throne, like we’re trying to do right now—maybe that’s why it’s one of my favorites right now. It’s a metaphor I can relate to especially nowadays.
In retrospect, is there anything you’d change about Morbid Tales?
Priestly: No, not at all—because we were exactly like that at that time. That’s what I really like about it. I was 17 or 18 when we did that, and it’s still a part of my life. The only thing I would change would maybe be not quitting the band. [Laughs]
Ain: It was only released as mini-album in Europe first—I wish it would have been released as a full album. That’s maybe the only thing I’d do different. And I’d make certain that the lyric sheet was included in every album—that was really important to us, and it was only included in the first edition. It wasn’t even included in the first CD version. But as far as the music and the recording, I wouldn’t change anything.
Warrior: No. Morbid Tales is a milestone for us personally—even without all the people who claim it as an influence. For example, the guitar sound on that album is something we tried to reach again, and we never were able to until the new album, 20 years later. In many other ways, it became an icon for us in our career. The spontaneity, energy, authenticity and desperation of the album—we knew if we failed, we would be out of the music industry for good—all these things are captured, which makes it a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
This Hall of Fame feature originally appeared in an abridged form in Decibel’s February 2007 issue.