;Celtic Frost's Cold Lake ranks as metal's most reviled record, an aerosol-addled grasp at accessibility that left an indelible blotch on an innovative group's discography. Other heavy acts have created poodle-rock laughingstocks – Pantera's Metal Magic comes to mind – but these bands didn't incite comparable feelings of betrayal because they released these records before establishing their signature sound. Listeners hadn't yet emotionally invested in their legacies of brutality. Celtic Frost's career had been building momentum, from the primal thrash of its earlier incarnation Hellhammer to 1987's avant-garde pinnacle Into the Pandemonium, making 1988's Cold Lake the anticlimactic fizzle at the end of a tantalizingly long fuse.

;;At the time, Celtic Frost traditionalists loathed the lightweight tunes, and hair-metal's followers, suckers for pretty androgyny, weren't charmed by Fischer's gargoyle visage or gruff fucktalk ("Seduce Me Tonight," "Dance Sleazy.") Today, mainstream listeners remain largely unaware of this debacle. The only widely available evidence of this out-of-print album's existence is the video "Cherry Orchards," a mockingly resilient testament to that era's embarrassing sound and style that remains in regular rotation on VH1 Classic. To hard-rock insiders, though, Cold Lake remains unparalleled as an insular punch line. For example, in the September 2006 Decibel gays-in-metal feature "Rainbow in the Dark," writer Anthony Bartkewicz cites Cold Lake in the opening sentence as a likely catalyst for homophobic slurs.

;;Celtic Frost completed its lengthy reputation-restoration campaign with a triumphant tour in support of last year's aggressively sludgy Monotheist, and the Swiss band's standing as a black/doom/thrash metal pioneer remains unassailable. However, Cold Lake demands revisiting nearly two decades after its ill-fated issuance, not only as a cautionary tale for musicians considering radical makeovers but also as a temporary-insanity acquittal for Tom Gabriel Fischer, the sole core member involved in its creation.

;;Fischer provides illuminating context in Are You Morbid?, his 2000 book that recently returned to print. Dauntingly, in order to retrieve his insights, readers must wade through pages about the group's lascivious exploits, enduring sentences such as "I'm not really into feeling her hair extensions on my genitals." Picturing the group's ghoulish members seducing teenagers brings to mind a scene from 300 in which a decrepit priest runs his diseased tongue over an inert adolescent oracle.

;;Anyway, when not chronicling the "eternal circus of rock & roll sex clichés," Fischer envisions Celtic Frost escaping the "thrash metal ghetto." "We are hungry to add more melody instead of mere heaviness," he writes. "All we want is to be able to appeal to a wider audience." Fischer started harboring these ambitions while recording Into the Pandemonium, which he'd hoped would lure a top producer: "An album containing our energetic musical styles in combination with crystal-clear production would have a tremendous impact."

;;After contentious negotiations with their label, Noise, Celtic Frost ultimately produced Pandemonium itself, and the stress from those sessions – and from the subsequent support-bereft tour – doomed that lineup. Shortly after the group's dissolution, Fischer received a major-label distribution offer attached to name producer Tony Platt, who'd twisted knobs for AC/DC. Unable to recruit his former bandmates, Fischer assembled a new group that featured guitarist Oliver Amberg, formerly of Junk Food, whose "Ratt/Motley Crue brand of music" he dismissed in an earlier chapter.

;;Playing catchy hair-metal apparently infused Fischer with unbridled glee. "The new lineup radiates positivity," he writes, going on to rave about "musical rejuvenation" and feeling "released and innocently happy." His giddiness recalls Stacey Richter's brilliant short story "Goal 666," in which the doom-metal group Lords of Sludge abruptly succumbs to perkiness. "A tide of pent-up joy washed over me," reports the narrator. "We were of the light, bedazzling all. Our fans stared, openmouthed with horror."

;;Celtic Frost's followers stood similarly agape during the Cold Lake sets, which included almost exclusively material from that ill-fated album. Fischer was fortunate to emerge alive: Black-metal fanatics and musicians have killed for much lesser offenses. Varg "Count Grishnackh" Vikernes reportedly murdered Mayhem bandmate Euronymous for wearing an insufficiently evil white sweater. One can imagine the Count stabbing Celtic Frost's members in their acid-washed, leopard-print Cold Lake regalia, thunder punctuating his laughter as he counted his knife thrusts aloud in a Transylvanian accent.

;;Fischer amusingly describes Celtic Frost's groupie-groping debauchery on the "Tragic Serenades" tour as "more tragic than all the serenades," but Cold Lake ranks as the real tragedy, or tragicomedy, of the group's saga, mostly because it's not the sell-out gesture it's purported to be, at least not in terms of being a forfeiture of artistic integrity. Fischer saw Cold Lake as the culmination of Celtic Frost's evolution, rather than a commercially minded compromise of that progress. He finally had everything he'd wanted – crystalline sound, radio-ready hooks, big-time distribution – and he lived to regret receiving that for which he'd wished. Celtic Frost's fall reinforces the folly of experimentalists following pop's siren call; its resurgence demonstrates that no aesthetic dalliance, no matter how ill-fated, renders a group beyond redemption.


More by Andrew Miller


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