The lyrics of Tom Gabriel Fischer
The following interview with Tom Gabriel Fischer exclusively discusses the lyrics of songs from CELTIC FROST’s “Monotheist” and TRIPTYKON’s “Eparistera Daimones” and “Melana Chasmata” albums. It was originally published in issue #1 of the fanzine MALEDICTIONS, but unfortunately only in French. Editors Lea Solimeno and Camille Clerc kindly provided us with an English version of it, so that many more people will have the opportunity to read this highly interesting conversation. We hope you’ll enjoy it!
Your lyrics are of an alienating beauty, especially ‘A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh’… I mention this song first because it is a cornerstone of the legendary CELTIC FROST. With this piece, there is no more Hell or Heaven, only death exists. “Only Death is real”, a sentence that you often repeat. Death as a total and impenetrable nothingness. And it seems that the human being suffers from his too acute conscience of the tragic truths of existence, and its unfathomable voids. “And I am dying in this living human shell. I am a dying god coming into human flesh…” Can we die from the duality that remains within us? From being too lucid of this world, such as Hamlet? What can you say about all this?
“Only death is real” is a sentence Martin Eric Ain and I coined during the final days of HELLHAMMER. We had been born into a world, during the Cold War, dominated by two superpowers who held each other at bay merely by the threat of global nuclear war. We knew that every single day, this fragile balance could be disrupted and any existence as we knew it could end. End apocalyptically. We grew up as young individuals who were constantly aware that any dreams we had for our lives were constantly in the shadow of such realities, and that such dreams could at any given time be obliterated by death and destruction. That is one, important, component of the topic as we saw it. The other is a far more personal perception. When it comes to myself, I don’t see death as an all-encompassing negativity tragedy. I do of course perceive it as such applied to third parties, namely if somebody very close to me dies – as has happened quite a few times during the past two decades. But as far as applicable to my own destiny, I perceive death as a release, as a liberation from the world as we human beings have created it on this planet. A world full of destruction, death, betrayal, injustice, war, and ignorance towards nature and our fellow sentient beings that also inhabit this world. This is not a place I wish to reside in forever, and I thus perceive death as deliverance, as the ultimate freedom from the above reality.”
Your music is more than a brutal impulse of despair. It also gives the strength, in my eyes, to face one’s own troubles and this works as a catharsis. “As you perish I shall live. You shall drown in my contempt.” There always seems to be this duality that comes up, and which, this time in ‘The Prolonging’, appears a little brighter. A 19-minute piece, it is a long struggle that TRIPTYKON depicts in its cold and colossally heavy musicality, it is a fight against the alienation of oneself, but also of your relationship to alterity. When I told you how much this piece touched me, you told me about how deeply connected it is to your intimacy. What is your emotional connection to this piece? There is a beautiful polyphony, it is like voices fighting each other, with this duality of light and shadow, and it is absolutely magnificent.
“It is very interesting to me that ‘The Prolonging’ provokes such thoughts in you. But that is the very purpose of music, or of art in general: it is supposed to provoke and evoke deeply personal emotions in the listener or spectator. It is art’s fulfilment, and, in my humble opinion, any attempt to excessively explain it only serves to destroy this most amazing power art is capable of. Which of course contradicts what I am supposed to do in the answer to this question – namely describe what gave rise to the creation of this song inside of me. But since you already described what it means for you, I will add my personal feelings about it. ‘The Prolonging’ began as a compendium of private thoughts I had while CELTIC FROST was in the process of self-destruction in late 2007 and early 2008. CELTIC FROST, a band I had always hope stood for higher ideals, succumbed to the most base of human flaws: intrigues, egotism, narcissism, jealousy. CELTIC FROST was far more than “just a group” to me, it was my Lebenswerk, my life’s work and content. Losing this group, not least after we had just completed its artistic resurrection after one and a half decades, was an incredibly painful and disappointing experience to me. I was booked to help produce an album for Norwegian band 1349 at the time, and so I found myself far away from home in a remote studio two hours north of Oslo, in the middle of a forest in winter. And at night, when the recording sessions with 1349 ended, I would be left sitting there with my conflicted emotions about what was taking place back home in Zurich. So I began writing these thoughts down, and they eventually began to resemble something like a mass, a litany of prayers, without me even pursuing this format. And you are right, it really did become a duality of light and shadow, of being captive and yet liberating oneself at the same time. This was the conception of ‘The Prolonging’, and as I returned home and CELTIC FROST had ended for good, I also began to create the music for these words. By then, I could feel that the music, too, would be far closer to a mass than to a conventional Metal song.”
It seems that self-hatred / hatred of others is so strong that is allows us to transcend ourselves. This seems very clear in TRIPTYKON’s ‘Goetia’: “My heart is black, my heart is dead. Spirits enter into me, let me ascend…” beyond the obvious black magic aspect as indicated in the title itself. In fact, it seems to me that this is deeper than a banal prayer to Satan as in traditional Black Metal bands. Indeed, when I listen to this, when I experience it fully, I feel that it goes far beyond any dogma and scripture already inscribed anywhere, even if it obviously takes root there. There is almost a rewriting and reinvention of the self through this piece. Evil is to be transcended in order to go towards the light, ‘The Prolonging’ appearing at the end of TRIPTYKON’s “Eparistera Daimones”, the evidence of evil in our world has come full circle, and the idea that it is absolutely necessary to accept it and live it fully in order to go beyond it and become fully oneself. Human, so Human. What do you think about it?
“‘Goethia’ has often been mistaken as a “satanic” song, not least as it serves to open TRIPTYKON’s first album with the word “Satan” – a decision we made very consciously, by the way. But the fact of the matter is that the song follows a very long tradition, begun already in the early days of CELTIC FROST, of song lyrics that equalize “good” and “bad”, white and black, the concepts of “heaven” and “hell”, and show how similar all religions and their sub-genres are and operate. That, at the end of the day, they are all figments of human megalomania, human lust for power over others, human greed, human dishonesty, and that they are human excuses to enact misogyny, slavery, enrichment, and limitless brutality. Moreover, it is frequently overlooked that ‘Goethia’ is written in the third person, from the view of a religious protagonist. It is not Tom Gabriel Warrior speaking, it is a desperate, religious fanatic, and the song is thus extremely cynical. An early example for this approach is CELTIC FROST’s ‘Visions Of Mortality’, whose lyrics were written by Martin Eric Ain and which also follows exactly this concept. And there are many more. This is therefore a very different approach than that used in ‘The Prolonging’, which is a far more personal lament. And yet you are correct, again, in stating that it also might be evidence of evil in our world having come full circle. But I personally don’t feel that one should accept it; on the contrary, I feel one needs to oppose it and stand against it, fervently.”
The theme of childbirth / abortion also seems to have a very important place in the landscape of your lyrics. ‘In Shrouds Decayed’ of TRIPTYKON is mesmerizing…: “I’ve conceived you, I’ve destroyed you, you were stillborn inside of me.” Also in ‘Progeny’, the first song on CELTIC FROST’s masterpiece “Monotheist”: “I am you / Stillborn, into this state of being numb / I am the temple and the sacrifice / The shrine, entombed within lies all I am / And you, the womb from whence I came.” What can you tell us, in a broad sense, about this theme?
“Abortion perhaps, but only in the most distant, emblematic connotation of the word. I must admit that the decline and eventual self-destruction of CELTIC FROST in 2007 and 2008 consumed me so much at the time that much of my work was coloured by it, often very drastically so. ‘In Shrouds Decayed’ is yet another song whose lyrics address the emotions I felt inside of me then, and the feelings I had towards the person I held responsible for the destruction of the band. It is probably pathetic and primitive to dedicate so much of TRIPTYKON’s first album to this topic, but I could not conceive a different path to process my rampant emotions. As the main songwriter of CELTIC FROST, I was CELTIC FROST and CELTIC FROST was me, and to have seen this slandered and shattered was an experience that certainly coloured me during the initial days of CELTIC FROST’s successor TRIPTYKON. I think under this light, the content of the lyrics to ‘In Shrouds Decayed’ becomes far more obvious. The lyrics of ‘Progeny’, on the other hand, are an experiment. They were written from the viewpoint of a man-made religion; they are an observation of irrational human conduct in the face of devotion to an imaginary deity.”
“Morning comes as a surprise to the solitary heart, this world within my mind, did I ever exist? I wish my touch could mend your bleeding wounds and mark my existence in your time, I fight the impending lure of belated sleep for fear of waking up and you are gone…” (from TRIPTYKON’s ‘My Pain’)… “This is pain, a wall of tears; my tears are my truest friends […] Oh God, why have you forsaken me?” (from CELTIC FROST’s ‘Ground’)… “I hate to love as it is pain.” (from CELTIC FROST’s ‘Drown In Ashes’)… The theme of abandonment is recurrent and conveyed with such sincerity, and violence too: “I’m your shit, your verbal smut, your twisted world recapped” in ‘Ground’… A range of emotions from gentle love in ‘My Pain’ to resignation and raw hatred in ‘Ground’, the cursors are always so extreme in passionate emotions. What do you think?
“You are entirely right with this assessment. The lyrics and music for these three songs, ‘My Pain’, ‘Ground’ and ‘Drown In Ashes’, were written after my separation and subsequent divorce from my wife of 16 years. In contrast to many other songs by CELTIC FROST and TRIPTYKON, the emotions behind these three songs are very “earthly” and immediate, and they are simply a reflection of the pain, helplessness and desperation I felt in the aftermath. These songs are very honest, and this made particularly ‘Drown In Ashes’ very difficult for me to record in the studio in 2005.”
CELTIC FROST’s ‘Os Abysmi Vel Daath’ is deeply intimidating. “I deny my own desire, lying one among the liars, I deny my own desire.” Beyond the fact that it evokes the hypocrisy of Christianity in its rejection of the body, this time we find this duality but filled with hatred and disdain for those who do not assume who they really are: “Among the liars”. We fight against ourselves and against our relationship to morality. What do you think about it? Besides, what can you tell us about morality?
“Martin Eric Ain, who wrote the majority of the lyrics to ‘Os Abysmi Vel Daath’ while I wrote a minor part, said about the song in October 2005: “Aleister Crowley’s “Liber OS ABYSMI vel DAATH sub figura CDLXXIV”, is, according to Crowley, “the Gate of the Secret of the Universe” and from thereon suggests that following the instructions one should, through the study of Kant, Hume, Spencer, Huxley, Crowley, Hegel, the Buddhist Suttas, and by the use of reason, consider the origin of the world, the origin of evil, infinity, the absolute, the ego and the non-ego, freewill, destiny and so on. Although being based on ordinary scholarship, it should rather be regarded as suggestive than anything else. Which is exactly what Tom and I did. We used it to lyrically enter the abyss on a rather intellectual level! By the way, “Daath” is the dark Sephirot in the qabalistic Tee of Life. The hidden Sephira. “Daath” means Knowledge. Knowledge without understanding.” As for morality, it is a deeply essential but often precarious commodity. We are human, after all, and that is by no means meant apologetically. I personally hold morality as one of the highest ideals, but I must also admit that I have failed it at certain moments of my life. I found this defensible at the time, but now, looking back, I cannot see any merit in it, and I find it vastly inexcusable.”
I think of TRIPTYKON’s ‘Myopic Empire’, with this very sweet passage: “And in all incessant bitterness, a lack of comprehension. Intoxicated by my suffering, thou should suffer too.” To share the suffering, when it is inaudible, when it appears softly in the manner of this angelic voice that pronounces these words. Can you tell us about your relationship to the Gothic, which appears (among others) in this piece?
“Well, the Gothic is an element present in much of my work. Every since I began collaborating with Martin Eric Ain in 1983, the aural and visual aesthetics of Gothic in all its forms deeply appealed to us and felt a deep kinship to how we ourselves perceived live and creativity. It dominates a large part of my compositions, not least also a major unreleased album completed in 2019, called “The Spell”. We were of course also very lucky to begin our friendship and creative relationship at a time when the Gothic element was present in an extremely innovative manner in a significant part of the music scene, in the form of early 1980s New Wave, for example. Incidentally, ‘Myopic Empire’ was my attempt to come to terms with the end of my creative relationship with Martin, the very person with who I had shared so much artistic perception.”
I think about TRIPTYKON’s ‘A Thousand Lies’ with these lyrics: “Everything you touch […] dies.” Can you tell us about the meaning of this track?
“Once again, I’m afraid, this song reflects my sense of needless loss, of anger, of frustration and of pain after the collapse of CELTIC FROST. It is thus a song about the last drummer of CELTIC FROST. And while songs like ‘The Prolonging’ pursue a far more poetic and philosophical approach of the same topic, ‘A Thousand Lies’ represents the other side, pure anger and hatred.”
One evening when I was in a very bad place mentally, I wrote to you about the meaning of life and death and you answered me, quickly by the way, and that helped me feel better. You told me that the most important thing in one’s life is to cultivate that fire within, to never let it go out. That, in a way, even if you become blind and feel overwhelmed, the most important thing is this flame inside. What you can you add about this, especially for our readers?
“Well, that is the essence, isn’t it. Any further explanation would just detract from it, I think. Interestingly, if you or any of your readers are creatively inclined, periods of the greatest suffering eventually tend to yield the strongest and most authentic artistic work, be it in music, writing, painting, sculpting, dancing or what have you. The painful and difficult part of that path is of course the process of learning how to convert such darkness and sorrow into something creative, how to condense and eventually control such ravaging emotions and transform this most authentic of feelings into something that others will be able to understand and indentify with. I have discussed this phenomenon in conversations with many creative people, such as HR Giger for example, and I have experienced it myself frequently. We talked about it briefly, in your earlier question about the songs ‘My Pain’, ‘Ground’ and ‘Drown In Ashes’.”
CELTIC FROST’s ‘Totengott’… This piece stands on its own. I must have listened to it a hundred times. This piece is a psychosis, an overcoming and a farce we say to ourselves when the night has fallen and there is no one to protect us from ourselves. Your voice is incredible, and according to a friend who teaches saturated singing, you are on the edge of breaking your voice on this track, so you have great singing skills, because you convey a very strong emotion. This interpretation is astounding. “Unspeakable silence, despairing monologue…” What can you tell us about this piece?
“‘Totengott’ was the very last song written and recorded for the “Monotheist” album, and it is thus the very last song Martin Eric Ain and I ever wrote together. I am therefore glad it is such an unusual creation; it is a fitting bookend to our creative collaboration of 35 years. The voice you hear is actually Martin’s. We had already mixed and finished the album when I wrote the music for ‘Totengott’ at my home, after returning from the final recording sessions in Hannover, Germany, in August of 2005. We eventually came to the conclusion that we were not happy with the mix of the album and decided to remix it at the professional sound studio of a friend of ours in Switzerland. This mix did not satisfy us either, but it was around this time that I gave Martin the new song I had written. He immediately connected to it and told me, he wanted to write lyrics for it and sing it. As we now planned to remix “Monotheist” one more time, we decided to use the opportunity to add this new song to the album. As we met at yet another studio near Zurich, Switzerland, to finally do the definitive mix of “Monotheist”, Martin arrived with the finished lyrics. He had called the song ‘Totengott’, and he went and performed the lead vocals in just one or two takes, spontaneous, extreme and authentic. It’s is probably one of his best contributions to any of our albums. I always felt that ‘Totengott’ is one of the best and most distinctive songs CELTIC FROST have ever recorded, and we are often still using it as an intro when we are performing concerts with TRIPTYKON.”
I saved this question for the end, as it is broader. When I dived into the abyss of your music, this abyss gazed also into me; I was writing a dissertation about the lucidity of melancholy in literature. So I could not help but wonder, which authors did you read; if any inspired you to write certain lyrics? I also would like to know who your favourite authors are.
“I read much literature and fiction when I was younger, during the days of HELLHAMMER and early CELTIC FROST. As I began to grow older, I became far more interested in fact, and while I also read fact in my younger years, it now dominated everything and I hardly ever read fiction anymore. If any of what I had read therefore inspired some of my lyrics, it is a somewhat unusual combination of literature and fact / reference books. Authors that had a profound effect on my are certainly H.P. Lovecraft, Charles Baudelaire, Robert E. Howard, Charles Bukowski or Eugène Ionescu. But also the documentary / historical works of Cornelius Ryan, Dee Brown, Desmond Morris, David Masello or Scott Crossfield. And innumerable others; I live in a house filled to the ceiling with books.”
Now I will stop here. I hope this interview was not inconvenient, as it dwells, in my opinion, into deep and intimate emotions. I am glad you agreed to answer it. I have wanted to dig into all this with you for a long time and I am very happy to be able to do so. I also told you that I wanted to write a critical essay on these three works that you produced with TRIPTYKON and CELTIC FROST and I think that, without doubt, this interview will be a solid root to do so. There you go, thanks to you Tom, for your everlasting kindness and your extraordinary sensitivity, as wells as the musicians who play with you and carry the flame of demented lucidity through time.
“It is me who is thanking you. Once again.”