Forgotten Hard Rock Albums: Celtic Frost's "Cold Lake"
Celtic Frost - "Cold Lake" (Noise Records, 1988)
The saga of Cold Lake, the fourth studio album by Celtic Frost, remains one of the strangest stories in heavy music history. This seminal Swiss extreme metal band, fronted by the legendary Thomas Gabriel Fischer (aka "Tom G. Warrior," formerly "Satanic Slaughter") was known for taking bold artistic leaps with each new album. From the primitive, grinding death-grunts of their Morbid Tales debut to the richly orchestrated, goth-rock tinges of Into the Pandemonium, Celtic Frost was clearly not afraid to take risks, and underground metal devotees eagerly awaited each new Frost release to see what kind of avant-garde curve ball the band would throw at them next.
Therefore, when these Satanic foot soldiers went through their most extreme sonic metamorphosis yet on 1988's Cold Lake, it almost made sense at first...even though it turned out to be a tragic miscalculation.
It certainly seemed odd that while other thrash and extreme metal acts were signing major-label deals, getting played on MTV and achieving previously-unknown mainstream success, Celtic Frost suddenly decided to try their hand at the sleaze metal sound that was popular in America at the time. Unsurprisingly, their fan base responded to this new direction (and its accompanying new look/image) with a universal "What the f***?"
To be fair, Cold Lake was the end result of several years of turmoil in the Celtic Frost camp. Thomas Fischer had actually dissolved the band at the end of the Into The Pandemonium tour, as he was burned out from the stress of being Celtic Frost's sole songwriter and composer. However, he still owed Noise Records several more albums to complete Frost's contract, so he rebuilt the band with an all new lineup that included guitarist Oliver Amberg, bassist Curt Victor Bryant, and drummer Stephen Priestley. Amberg was also a songwriter, and Fischer was glad to have someone else in the band to share that work load with him. Thomas later admitted that while he had entertained thoughts of taking Celtic Frost in a slightly more mainstream direction on Cold Lake, he went "too far" and lost control of the project -- particularly when it came to the band's infamous, glam-oriented new image of teased hair, ripped t-shirts, and acid washed jeans. A large portion of Frost's original fan base probably wrote them off as soon as they saw Cold Lake's back cover photo, without ever hearing a note of the album!
"Cherry Orchards" video:
In the 30 years since its release, fans and detractors alike have argued over the merits of Cold Lake. Some claim that it's actually Celtic Frost's best album, while others say it's an abomination that should never have been released at all (I'm pretty sure that Tom Fischer counts himself in that second group). Frost might have looked like the world's ugliest glam-rock band on Cold Lake but most of the songs on it are actually pretty basic, stripped-down heavy metal with hints of thrash. That wouldn't be such a bad thing, except that they're also very flat sounding, and played without much intensity or passion. As Fischer croaks out the lyrics to ridiculous stuff like "Seduce Me Tonight" or "Juices Like WIne," you can practically hear him saying, "Please help me. I've made a huge mistake."
"Cherry Orchards" got some video play on MTV back in the day and is one of the better tracks on Cold Lake. The spoken-word bits by a breathy-voiced female sound silly as hell, but this song might actually have been a decent B-side for someone like L.A. Guns. The crunchy "Once They Were Eagles" is another highlight, as is the chugging "Downtown Hanoi." Even the terribly-titled "Dance Sleazy" is actually a pretty catchy song. The album ends with a faux-live cover of Wall of Voodoo's new-wave chestnut "Mexican Radio" (it's actually a studio recording, with fake crowd noise stripped in) which pretty much sums up the WTF vibe of the entire project.
In a nutshell, Cold Lake sounds like it was a rush job, performed by a "band" of musicians who were thrown together on short notice and never given a chance to "gel." The result was an album that was D.O.A. as soon as it hit stores.
Instead of opening Celtic Frost up to a mainstream audience, Cold Lake effectively killed them. Fischer fired Oliver Amberg at the end of the Cold Lake tour and went into damage control mode for Frost's next album. 1990's Vanity/Nemesis tried to steer the ship back to more extreme territory -- but it was too late. Celtic Frost's name was officially "mud" to the headbanger community. Vanity/Nemesis sold poorly and the band split up.
During the 1990s, the legacy of Celtic Frost's early ultra-Satanic material lived on in the dozens of black metal bands that were sprouting up across Scandinavia, some of whom notoriously tried to out-do each other with increasingly lo-fi "more-evil-than-thou" music and by committing anti-social acts like church arsons and murders. Fischer was understandably less than thrilled to be associated with these bands, describing them to an interviewer as "children" and "brutes."
Tom Fischer returned to music with the industrial-tinged metal band Apollyon Sun, whose lone album Sub was released in 2000. He briefly reunited Celtic Frost for one album, the well received Monotheist (2006) but then announced that he was disbanding C.F. "for good" in 2008.
While the rest of Celtic Frost's catalog has been re-issued several times over the past two decades, Cold Lake remains locked away in Noise Records' vaults at Fischer's insistence. Used copies of the CD are now hard to find collector's items which command premium prices on the second hand market.
Fischer currently fronts a new band called Tryptikon, which has released two studio albums and an EP to date. He says Tryptikon's intention is to "sound as close to Celtic Frost as humanly possible." I have yet to hear them, but I doubt that their sonic palette includes any traces of the Cold Lake era.
© 2018 Keith Abt