Book review – Only Death is Real: An Illustrated History of Hellhammer and Early Celtic Frost 1981–1985

Tom Gabriel Fischer with Martin Eric Ain: Only Death is Real: An Illustrated History of Hellhammer and Early Celtic Frost 1981–1985
 
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By Rob Hughes

This lavishly illustrated 288-page epitaph for Hellhammer, one of metal’s heaviest, most controversial acts, sits like a memorial slab on the coffee table—as beautiful as Hellhammer’s music was unkempt. It’s an astonishing book, both in its subject matter and its presentation. Looking stern as a book of scripture, it’s the antithesis of the standard trade paperback rock tome.

Author Tom Gabriel “Satanic Slaughter” Fischer narrates the tale, fleshed out by contributions from bassist Martin Eric “Slayed Necros” Ain and drummer Bruce “Denial Fiend” Day, amongst others. The story, of course, doesn’t follow the classic rags-to-riches arc. Artistic growth and vindication are the main themes, as Fischer and his motley recruits progress from Hellhammer’s naive inception to the release of Celtic Frost’s triumphant Morbid Tales.

Fischer chronicles his beyond-humble beginnings in the Swiss village of Nürensdorf in painful detail. At school, the future satanic death metal hero was a pee-reeking outcast cultivating a fantasy life to cope with a dismal existence with his insane, cat-hoarding mother. In one picture, he’s skateboarding wearing a velour shirt, fully kitted out in knee and elbow pads—the poor kid’s an open sore. Later pictures show him as a Crispin Glover-like figure going through the motions of attaining a normal profession during his machinist apprenticeship. Fortunately for the metal world, this was not to be.

As teenage metalheads inspired by Venom and obsessed with surpassing their idols, Hellhammer released demos and an EP while still learning to play, and, through their diligent photo-documentation of every lineup, somehow managed to perfect (maybe even invent) black metal iconography. The stark black-and-white images are classic stuff. Their quality varies, which is understandable given their sometimes sketchy origins, but every photo is reproduced in its best possible quality. The original pictures from Apocalyptic Raids and Morbid Tales will be familiar to most diehards, but there’s plenty of other swords-and-axes, shields-and-helmets action where that came from. However much this band struggled to string more than four chords together, they were very much in command of their visuals and their commitment to metal as spectacle.

Laughed at by critics, for whom Mercyful Fate and Metallica were the gold standard for extremity with chops—“raw, primitive BM” wasn’t a thing yet—Hellhammer generated a pile of humiliating reviews, extensively quoted here, as well as stacks of fan mail. Fischer, the man in the middle of this conundrum, has long been uneasy with his past. In the book’s introduction he confesses that he’s tried to block the era from his memory, but is now coming to terms with his band’s legacy. “It was perfectly fair and overdue that we look at Hellhammer realistically and in a manner sufficiently dignified to do justice to the work of a number of very unique people who shared the same vision at a very unique point in time.”

The book ends with an appendix that compiles some amazing Hellhammer and Celtic Frost paraphernalia, including newsletters, demo packaging, logos, and design concepts. The vast amount of visual material makes Only Death is Real an interesting hybrid of rock bio and art book. Although it’s been released well after Peter Beste’s True Norwegian Black Metal, it functions as a kind of prequel.

Like many pioneers, Hellhammer took their lumps from everyone, including its own members. They were hobbled by geography and underdeveloped talent, but they built a great mystique around themselves as they toiled to spread their malodorous gospel, only to be sent back to the drawing board after every recording session and demo release. This unlikely but glorious book celebrates their restless existence and enduring influence. It all goes to prove that history—this little slice of history, anyway—is written by the victors.

(Bazillion Points)

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Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.