Metal Curmudgeons: How bad is Celtic Frost’s Cold Lake?
by MetalMike & Sargon the Terrible
It's been awhile since Sargon and I last turned our collective depth of experience to one of the polarizing topics in Heavy Metal. Last time we debated which was better; the "golden age" of Heavy Metal (the 80s) or today. This time we turn our attention to Celtic Frost's third album, Cold Lake, an album most metal fans dislike for a variety of reasons. We are no different, but coming from different backgrounds, it was interesting to explore WHY we both didn't like it. We hope you find the following exchange interesting as well.
Mike: Cold Lake is the third full-length album from seminal Swiss band Celtic Frost, released in 1988. It followed the classic To Mega Therion and the increasingly avant-garde Into the Pandemonium and took fans completely by surprise. If you haven't heard this record, then one look at the back cover should be enough to tell you things were not as they should be. Where To Mega Therion featured the members of Frost in black leather looking menacing (except Dominic Steiner, who looks uncomfortable but still kinda cool) on the back cover, Cold Lake finds them dressed in acid-washed jeans, spandex (yes, spandex) and sporting frizzy, permed hair. WTF? Things don't get any less disconcerting when you hear the intro track. "Human" features hip-hop rhythms and pseudo-rapping vocal lines and, yes, you read that right. If things got back on track, you could almost say "OK, Celtic Frost refuse to be pigeonholed, I don't like what they are doing but it IS different." But they don't get back on track, not even close. Songs titled "Seduce Me Tonight" and "Petty Obsession" feature some truly bland riffs and Tom G. Warrior struggling to write "popular" lyrics with the end result being a clumsy attempt to mimic Hanoi Rocks. "Cherry Orchards" isn't awful despite being an utterly throwaway song and you can almost hear the echoes of the old Celtic Frost on "Juices Like Wine" when Tom actually snarls a little and his guitar solo is almost chaotic. Then we're back into the sleaze/glam shit with "Downtown Hanoi" and the pitiful "Dance Sleazy" (I can't believe that is actually a song title attributed to Celtic Frost). The clear production only serves to expose Warrior's shortcomings as both a singer and guitarist. I don't mean to disrespect the man, but a dark, murky and evil atmosphere works far better with his particular musical talents. The rest of the band lamely flogs their instruments throughout the album without an iota of passion for the material, probably because they realized early on how awful it was.
There are many theories as to why Cold Lake exists depending on who is telling the story, but at the end of the day it represents a huge error in judgment for Celtic Frost. In no way, shape or form should this album have been allowed to be associated with the name, even if this was Tom saying, "I have a sleaze rock album that I need to put out." Come up with another band name and put a sticker on it saying, "Celtic Frost's Tom G. Warrior's sleaze rock album!" or something. As it is, Cold Lake is a pile of shit Celtic Frost stepped in and no amount of scraping or the passage of time will ever get it off their collective boots.
Sargon: Well, you really have to place the album in context, and I think it's kind of redundant to flog it too much. I mean, even Tom (Tom G Warrior) Fischer says this album sucks. Celtic Frost had essentially disbanded in ?87 after a disappointing tour in support of Into the Pandemonium – an album that was already pushing the boundaries with weird industrial sounds and silly cover songs. When it reformed in 1988, it was with a whole new lineup, and pretty obviously just for the money. Fischer had minimal interest in the project and it was largely done at the insistence of guitarist Oliver Amberg, who seems to have done most of the songwriting. The guy saw a chance to maybe get a hit single and had the support of Noise Records to do so.
You have to remember that Frost may have a legendary reputation now, but back then they were very much an underground band, and I am sure nobody was making much money off them. In ?88 metal was building more of a fan base, but there was still no radio airplay, and the availability of albums was iffy. Glam was, however, a big deal then. Bands like Motley Crue, Dokken, and Poison were making waves and a lot of money. I think it's likely Amberg saw a chance to write some more straight-ahead songs and trade on Noise's support for the Celtic Frost name and try to get a hit record. Even one big hit single can be enough to set someone up quite well. Remember that Noise actually put a lot of promotion behind this album, with a ton of ads and a new distribution deal that put copies in every Musicland and Sam Goody in the US.
The problem, of course, is that this was a total 180 from CF's previous output. The guitar sound is not a thousand miles removed from what it had been, if a lot weaker, but Fischer's vocals were still not clean enough to work on a radio single. The songs were just a bunch of derivative-sounding nonsense with some quite vapid lyrics, and it all just seemed to be coming from a totally different place than stuff like To Mega Therion. I don't think it's even that bad an album, it's just not any good – a dull sleaze rock disc without much to recommend it. It was neither fish nor fowl – not metal enough for the band's old fans, and far from accessible enough to make any kind of impact on the mainstream. You end up just wondering who the heck it was meant to appeal to, because it ended up appealing to no one.
Mike: I see where you are going, and I would have to agree that, under different circumstances, Cold Lake wouldn't be as widely reviled as it is today. For instance, had it been put out by a band called "Lipstikk Boyz" or something equally inane, no one would have paid much attention. That said, it WAS put out by Celtic Frost and at the microphone is none other than Tom G. Warrior. I don't care that he wasn't much interested in the project or that Oliver Amberg was writing the songs. Here is a guy that stepped away from Hellhammer when he realized he'd never be able to do the things he wanted with the talent and musicians around him. He also stepped back from Celtic Frost when the tour in '87 didn't live up to his musical expectations. This is a man who, based on past history, seemed to know when something wasn't working, so what prompted him to participate in Cold Lake, however unwillingly? What stopped him from saying, "no, just no"?
I also agree that bands like Motley Crue, Dokken and Poison were making money hand over fist but your theory of metal not getting any airplay and albums being hard to find is just not true, not on the east coast, anyway. Anthrax's State of Euphoria sold over 500,000 units and hit #30 on the Billboard charts, Megadeth's So Far, So Good...So What? went platinum and Iron Maiden's Seventh Son of a Seventh Son was a #1 album in the U.K. all in the same year Cold Lake was released, so money was there to be made playing metal.
It's clear that Noise Record's boss Karl Walterbach, who was probably the only one actually making money off Celtic Frost, had dollar signs in his eyes and probably did as much to get something, anything, in the market with the Frost name on it because by 1988, they were legendary in the metal community. Sure, their albums weren't as easy to find as an Iron Maiden album, but it was far from impossible to locate a copy, even if you had to mail-order it. Cold Lake deserves to be flogged BECAUSE Warrior didn't step away. Even if Walterbach used the name Celtic Frost with a completely new lineup, Tom could have stood back and maintained that no matter what name was on the sleeve, it wasn't really Celtic Frost. His very presence on Cold Lake added to the deceit that it was going to contain anything fans would want to hear and not just be another in a long line of faceless glam/sleaze rock releases.
Sargon: Well, yes, the big bands were making a lot of money, but you have to remember they were very much the exception to the rule. Celtic Frost were highly underground, and while I can't find sales figures, I would guess that Into the Pandemonium probably sold fewer than 20,000 copies. I remember a Combat exec stating that 20K was a really good sales number for an underground band at that time. The tour had not been a success, and that's really where bands make their money, so I have to think that the members were in a bad place, financially. Hellhammer had never made money and, furthermore, had been the butt of jokes and the object of derision – that was the real reason Fischer folded it and formed Celtic Frost, he was tired of being a punchline, but it was not an easy stigma to shake off.
Plus, he had pretty obviously been getting tired of the musical limits of the band. Into the Pandemonium was a highly experimental album, with goth and industrial influences, plus weird covers like "Mexican Radio" - I mean, it was not just To Mega Therion II, it was pushing out into some really different directions, especially in the metal scene of the time, which was much more conservative than it is now.
So, I have to think the disbanding of Celtic Frost at that point was the act of a guy who was pretty despondent. He had pushed to make a really experimental and creatively adventurous album, and then nobody was into it and it didn't pay off, and the tour hadn't been a big hit, and so he was kind of at the bottom. So he broke up the band, but when a single member had the idea to try and make a hit record and the label rep was on board with this, he might have just been like "You know what? Fuck it, I don't even care." I mean, when you have been broke long enough, living the hard life of a touring musician, the prospect of maybe just getting paid can be enough. Plus I have no idea what kind of relationship he had with Amberg, maybe he was just trying to help a friend out, or felt obligated, I don't know.
Oddly, I really think that without Cold Lake, Celtic Frost would have just vanished. For one, it actually sold well. I mean, it apparently sold better than any other previous CF album, and the band actually got paid. I can't find any info on the tour, but the combination of a more commercial sound, label push, and fan outrage actually raised their profile. There was a music video, there were shirts and singles and full-page zine ads – all the stuff CF had never gotten before.
And the fan outrage can't be discounted as a contributing factor. Kind of like the fuss about New Coke, the sellout nature of the album galvanized the underground in universal rage, and so they were ready to embrace the band when they made a return to form. Plus, people who had never heard of CF heard about Cold Lake and wondered what the fuss was about, and some of them went out and bought their old albums. It's true that CF have never made another album as good as To Mega Therion, but Cold Lake and every album after outsold it by a factor of 10 or more. It's true that artistically Cold Lake was a disaster, but commercially it was the best move Fischer ever made, and without it I think Celtic Frost would be little more than a footnote.
Mike: OK, I can't argue the point Fischer may have been at a low point in his life and certainly his career and that could have clouded his judgment. And of course, he wasn't selling hundreds of thousands of copies of anything, Frost was on an indie label after all.
As for "highly underground" I'm less inclined to agree. In my circle, before Cold Lake, we were well aware of all the Frost releases and more than one college radio station was playing "Mexican Radio" when it came out as I recall, so I don't feel it was all that underground. That was part of the reason Cold Lake was such a gut punch. There were a lot of bands on labels like Megaforce, Combat, Shrapnel and others that most likely sold around what To Mega Therion and Into the Pandemonium did, stayed true to their roots and came out fine. We can't possibly know what would have happened had Celtic Frost come up with a To Mega Therion II or something equally powerful instead and blown us all away with it. At the end of the day, however, I think you raise a good point that despite being terrible, Cold Lake DID raise Celtic Frost's profile and we probably gave Vanity/Nemesis a lot more love than it deserved because it wasn't Cold Lake. As Oscar Wilde said, "the only thing worse than being talked about is NOT being talked about."
It seems like we both agree it was a truly awful album but how much scorn it deserves and its place in the Celtic Frost discography and annals of Heavy Metal is open to interpretation.
Sargon: I really just think Fischer's interest in metal was on the wane by then, and if he was just as ready to record a sellout album or break up the band. . . I don't think there were any better options there. I think anything he recorded would have been so far off what people expected it would never have flown. I think, being from Europe, he maybe misapprehended the depth of the metalhead/glam rock divide and how much antipathy there was in the scene in the US. Celtic Frost was well-known in the big cities, but out in the sticks I honestly barely heard a peep about them. Into the Pandemonium got almost zero press, and so Cold Lake was an even bigger divergence from what the band had been about. Even so, I remember people in zines trying to defend it, saying people were being shallow for judging the band on their look.
And it's not even that bad of an album. It's certainly not good, but there were far worse things recorded back then. It was just such a genre reversal it felt like a real betrayal. Like Celtic Frost weren't taking their music or their fans seriously, like it was all just a joke. I certainly think it's a bit much to still be flogging it after all this time. It raised Celtic Frost's profile higher than it had ever been, and they stayed there. There were a lot of bad albums released in the 80s, but not many that we're still mad about. I didn't care that much about them at the time – I only came to appreciate their early albums long after – so Cold Lake made very little impression on me.
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