By Justin M. Norton
Few people last decades in heavy metal. Many of the musicians who are still playing after three-plus decades are directly linked to a few English gentlemen named Iommi, Dickinson, Halford and Kilmister.
Triptykon frontman Tom Gabriel Fischer is the anomaly. He’s written benchmark heavy metal albums but never been financially rewarded like better-known artists. He’s also endured crushing disappointments that would have compelled many to call it a career: almost universally negative reviews for his first band Hellhammer; greedy record companies and booking agents during the rise of his seminal second band Celtic Frost; the ill-advised album Cold Lake, which alienated many fans, and the breakup of Celtic Frost’s second lineup after the band had finally reached the level of success and acclaim they deserved.
Along with the trials there have been triumphs. Hellhammer and Celtic Frost literally wrote how-to manuals for the second wave of Norwegian black metal. Fischer’s guitar sound has been copied and borrowed by many. Fischer was among the first extreme metal artists to incorporate classical music and female vocals, and to present an extreme metal album as an artistic statement rather than a collection of songs. He’s taken big risks like recording a metal version of the pop song “Mexican Radio.” Extreme music would sound much different if there hadn’t been To Mega Therion or Into The Pandemonium.
After Fischer left Celtic Frost he didn’t want his second act in metal to end. He assembled his third metal band Triptykon, which features former Celtic Frost touring guitarist V. Santura, bassist Vanja Slajh and drummer Norman Lonhard. Triptykon’s Eparistera Daimones has received almost universally positive reviews, and Fischer says he finally has the proper support to write music. “I was aware when I left Celtic Frost I was giving up a major brand name,” he says. “I wouldn’t have done that if there wasn’t a solid reason. I was fully prepared to start again from scratch.”
Fischer spoke to Hellbound from Switzerland recently about his career , his influences, his former band and Triptykon. The interview will be published in two segments. In the first, Fischer discusses his shift from Celtic Frost to Triptykon; V. Santura’s contributions to the new album and his collaboration with artists H.R. Giger and Vincent Castiglia, among other topics.
Justin M. Norton: I spoke to you when Celtic Frost was touring with Type O Negative in 2007 and you had a lot of plans both for Celtic Frost’s next album and a DVD. Were you surprised with how things ended or were there already problems in the band at that time?
Tom Gabriel Fischer: In 2007 there were already a huge amount of problems. I hoped we could overcome these problems. Celtic Frost was my life’s work. It was the most important project in my career. You just don’t throw that away. You try to resolve the problems. I did everything I could think of to avoid the breakup. I didn’t want to let the band go. But it was simply impossible to overcome certain personal issues.
There was a big public response when the band broke up – so many people were happy just to have Celtic Frost back . Did that cross your mind when things were falling apart?
Of course. Celtic Frost was extremely important to me. I didn’t bring it back to see it fall apart. I brought it back to be a working unit. As you said before, I planned on recording many more albums with the band. Celtic Frost was as important to me as the members of our audience.
I didn’t just leave Celtic Frost in the heat of the moment. It took an immeasurable amount of personal problems for me to walk out of my own band. I was the main songwriter in Celtic Frost. We worked for so many years to achieve the status that we only achieved at the very end. It was difficult to let that go on every level.
It does look like your fans have come along for the next album….
It’s overwhelming; the reception the new album has received. I knew that I would have to drop from Celtic Frost’s level and that was ok with me. I’m not afraid of having to work hard. I’ve worked hard my whole life. The response is much bigger than I anticipated.
But Celtic Frost was still at another level. It’s no surprise to me, Triptykon is not Celtic Frost. There’s a 25 year history. The main thing for me is to be able to create and record music and continue to develop the music I played with Celtic Frost.
One thing that’s been a constant during your career has been that every album has changed significantly from the last but Triptykon keeps to the spirit and form of Monotheist. How did you approach the songwriting on this album differently than with Celtic Frost?
I’ve heard all kinds of opinions on that. A lot of people say it’s completely different. Some people say it’s very much like Monotheist. I personally think it’s a development from where I started from Monotheist. It’s like when I wrote Morbid Tales in 1984 and later I wrote To Mega Therion. There are parallels between the two albums but there is also a lot of development.
I’m a musician and I write constantly. I always think about the next album. The songwriting was a continued process up to last December. It’s a natural progression. I wanted to develop the music I created on Monotheist. It’s related, but not the same.
A lot of people have tagged this as Tom Fischer’s latest project but if you look at the song credits V. Santura helped put together a lot of material. Can you tell me more about what he added to your songwriting and how your relationship developed from touring guitarist to collaborator?
I realize that my name is the most well-known in the band. But this is a band. I didn’t want to create the Tom Warrior solo project. From the very first day I made it clear that the songwriting was open to everybody. The first person to take me up was V. Santura. He contributed two full songs and we produced the album together. That had an immeasurable influence on the album.
We work very well together. It was an extremely smooth cooperation. We have similar feelings about songwriting, guitar and music. But even the other members that weren’t directly involved in the songwriting helped arrange songs.
It’s a very open band, a very collaborative band. At least at this point there are no ego fights like there were in Celtic Frost. Everything is done in a very friendly, very collaborative manner.
Are you still rehearsing and playing in the same bunker where you worked on Monotheist?
No. I proposed to the other members of Celtic Frost after the breakup that we should continue to use the same bunker. I even offered them the use of my PA systems. I wanted to be constructive. I thought we had already created enough damage. I thought we could learn from it and cooperate on our respective new projects. But they turned me down. So I had to relocate across town to a new bunker.
In hindsight it’s probably better because the old bunker had so many negative memories. I’m quite happy with how things turned out.
Does it give you a chance to work in a place without so much baggage attached?
Exactly. The whole Triptykon project is a fresh start and that’s what was needed.
You’ve talked a lot during the years about your relationship with H.R. Giger. It continues with him providing the cover art (Vlad Tepes, 1978). How did you select this piece for this album or did he recommend something after hearing the music?
This particular painting has been one of my favorites for years. I proposed to Martin (Ain) years ago that this could be the cover of the next Celtic Frost record. Martin was enthusiastic and agreed to it. Celtic Frost never made the album.
When I formed Triptykon I went to Giger and explained to him what we were going to play and what we were going to sound like. He asked me if I had a certain painting in mind. He loved this painting as well and was extremely supportive in letting us have it for the cover.
What is it about the painting that makes it appropriate for your new project?
It’s a prime example of Giger’s craft. The figures are evil and dark and have a menacing appearance. At the same time there’s an immense amount of aesthetics and grace in the painting. As dark as the figures are they are still beautiful. Giger’s Alien figure was a monster but it was a graceful monster. The way Giger manages to combine beauty and horror is amazing. That combination of beauty and darkness is something I’m attempting in my work. But I’m just attempting it and Giger has it down to an art.
You are also working periodically as Giger’s assistant. Did that experience add anything to your new songs or the Triptykon album?
Not that experience, but Giger’s work in general did. He’s long been an inspiration even though he’s not a musician. His paintings have a tremendous influence on my music. I’ve always tried to achieve this aura with my music that he has in his painting. I’m very open as far as creativity is concerned. I don’t need to listen to music, ideas can come from text or a sculpture or painting.
Another addition to the album is Vincent Castiglia, who illustrated the band portrait in his own blood. Did that relationship come about as part of your relationship with Giger?
Loosely. I was first introduced to Vincent by Giger’s American agent Les Baranay. A few years ago he took me to Brooklyn to Vincent’s workshop. I stood in front of these six and seven-foot tall paintings. Seeing the gargantuan size and knowing that this was all done with his blood, it was overwhelming.
Talking to Vincent the first time at the opening was eye opening. We’ve become close friends and discovered numerous parallels in our lives. We feel emotionally related which made it even more special when he agreed to collaborate on this album. There are three artists working on this album if you include the band. It’s a collaboration between friends.
Were you pleased with how the double vinyl album came out?
I am pleased since I’m the one who designed it (laughs). We produced this with our record company (Century Media) but we have control over the final product. The vinyl and the CD are exactly the way we designed it. We didn’t want people sitting behind a desk designing this for us. I’ve always had a clear artistic vision for my albums. In the 1980s when we weren’t so famous we had little control over our work and that was very painful. These days it’s different. It helps to have your own company.
Part 2 of this interview will be posted on Friday, April 9th.