Of all the reunions and special shows this summer one of the most unexpected had to be Tom Gabriel Fischer’s Triumph Of Death. Triumph Of Death is Fischer’s tribute to his legendary early band Hellhammer, a group largely responsible for seeding the second wave of black metal. If you want to know why it’s unlikely check out our exhaustive Hall Of Fame feature on the making of Apocalyptic Raids, which recounts the tremendously difficult circumstances surrounding the band and the insults and rejection they faced for taking radical new direction (the feature also includes one of the last interviews Martin Ain gave about his music before he passed away in 2017).
For decades Fischer and his former bandmates barely spoke of Hellhammer. Nonetheless, the music continued to find an audience and decades down the road was far more influential and lasting than any of the bands praised while Hellhammer was rejected. Fischer eventually rediscovered how much he loved the music and became fixated on finding a way to play it again respectfully. He talked to Decibel about how it happened and what’s next.
When did the idea of Triumph Of Death come together?
I think the roots of the project were the reunion of Celtic Frost. It allowed Martin and I to collaborate again after a 16-year break. It also enabled us to catch up on so many things that needed to be discussed as well as some nostalgia. A huge part of this was Hellhammer. Endless discussions happened for years after the reunion. We’d have a drink and we normalized certain things that were difficult in the past. One of the unburied skeletons was Hellhammer.
For many members, including me, Hellhammer was connected to very difficult times in our youth. But we reminisced about old stories and listened to old songs. That was the platform to deal with the music without so much weight, just on musical merits. We began to talk about playing some Hellhammer in the reformed Celtic Frost and tried it in 2005. We were a bit frustrated because the drummer we had at the time didn’t play them correctly. We tried “Maniac” and “Messiah” but they didn’t sound right. We had plenty of Celtic Frost and didn’t need to play these songs. In 2012 or 13 when I was working on the second Triptykon album I decided I would work on (Hellhammer material) with a dedicated band. I asked the co-producer of the second Triptykon album, Michael Zech (Secrets Of The Moon, Odem Arcarum) to be a part of it. He said yes immediately. Year by year, it became more of an actual band.
Before Martin passed was there any talk of him joining the project?
Martin and I talked regularly after I left Celtic Frost about all kinds of things. I mentioned I was doing the Triumph Of Death project. I wanted to know if he had any reservations and he didn’t. That’s about as far as it went. He died in 2017 and it still took a year and a half for it to come to the stage. If Martin was still alive we definitely would have asked him to be a guest on a few of the songs from when he became a part of Hellhammer. I’m quite sure he would have said yes because he was fond of these old times. I’m fairly sure he would have appeared on stage as a guest. Unfortunately, it’s no longer possible but he had no reservations.
Was his passing an impetus to get this together? Did it emphasize the fragility of life?
The project was in already in its gestation. But Martin was four years younger than me and I always thought that one day he would take care of the legacy we created. It rocked my world when he died before me. I never expected this to happen. I had some health problems and I thought I’d buy the farm before him and he could be the custodian of what we created. As it turns out, I’m it. It brought to my attention, once again, the fragility of life and that it could end tomorrow. I had this in my head for a long time and had to do it. Mia (Wallace, bass) said let’s not wait another ten years, let’s do it now. Mia was a huge fan of Martin and was as rocked by his death as I was. So maybe it was one of the reasons we decided to do it now.
How do you find the right people like Mia to play some of the most sacred music in your life? You can’t just hire someone who is a good musician. Hellhammer is about the feel.
Exactly. It’s hardly ever about technical finesse. I always select musicians according to feel. I play according to emotions and feel and look for musicians that are like that and are also professional on stage. I knew there would be some critical voices that would say I was doing this for money or credibility. That made it more important to select people I trust blindly. They needed to love Hellhammer and understand Hellhammer’s music. I can trust these people and know they are in the band for the right motives. They aren’t hired guns. They are friends and each person was asked to join for a specific reason. You can’t do this for money or industry reasons. Hellhammer was a band of friends and a band of friends is needed to pay tribute.
The Hellhammer music came from severe angst, almost rage. What is it like to revisit these songs in adulthood knowing where they came from?
It’s extremely positive and sad at the same time. These songs are punkish and are about anarchy and rebellion and finding your place in the world and rebelling against the state of world. There was huge youth unrest in Switzerland at the time. The anarchy and power in the music have immense positive energy and were about young people forging their own world. But I’m 56 now and even if you play the songs close to the originals it is impossible to resurrect the feeling. From 1982 to 1984 we gathered in this mildewy stinky rehearsal room with halfhearted equipment and it was the greatest feeling in the world. It was a feeling of belonging and charting new turf musically. But now metal is decades old and I am decades-old (laughs). While it’s still fun it’s not the same.
There is also the reality you a much better musician now and are surrounded by accomplished musicians. Has that allowed you to give these minimalist compositions new life?
I don’t want to tamper with the songs. They are sacred. Even if I was playing with the lineup of King Crimson I would force them to play the songs as primitive as possible. Of course, I have capable musicians so I know I can rely on them musically speaking. We took great care during the rehearsals to play the songs authentically. We don’t change arrangments. A guitar player who is 1,000 times better would still play these primitive riffs I wrote when I was 18.
Does anything get left out of the set? Are there songs you always play?
We perform a lot of the music but we don’t perform “Satanic Rites.” The lyrics are unbearable to me now. At the time, partly because we were Venom copyists and also because of the circumstances of my youth, the lyrics were radical. At my age now I can see there is a lot of hatred against my mother in the song because of her drift into insanity and the youth she bestowed upon me. There was no escape. By the time I was a teenager, there was a rage against this person and those circumstances. I don’t want to bring the lyrics as an adult in front of teenagers that make up a large portion of the audience. They have no idea of the context. I don’t want to promote them. We decided to drop it even though it’s a classic. “Massacra” remains one of my favorites and “Triumph Of Death” is a song that I absolutely love.
Looking forward will you keep Triumph Of Death to special appearances or do a proper tour?
We have a fantastic time on stage. We have bonded as people and it’s so much fun to play these songs. The reactions have been great. We are already being asked for concerts next year. We’d like to take it to South America. We’ll play as long as people want to see this. We are going to record some of these festivals and release it in the near future. I’d hate to let this band eventually die because I’m enjoying it so much. We have even talked about playing Morbid Tales in its entirety.
I imagine you must be amazed by the longevity of Hellhammer’s music.
I never expected this. Hellhammer was shunned. When I came back to Europe in the mid-90s after living in America I discovered Hellhammer had become some kind of myth. I never take anything for granted. That I’m here playing this in 2019 blows my mind.