Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, then it won’t have escaped your notice that Celtic Frost’s seminal discography is, at last, being reissued. The core albums of Morbid Tales, To Mega Therion, Into The Pandemonium and Vanity / Nemesis were previously reissued by Noise Records at the very end of last century; this time, the reissues are far more elaborate. The albums have been fully remastered and lavishly repackaged. Tom Gabriel Fischer has been heavily involved in the reissues since their inception but, as is now well documented, has since removed his endorsement from the project. He explains all to ZT’s Calum Harvie.

It’s been 18 years since the Celtic Frost discography was reissued. How did this new project come about?

That’s a funny story because it was initiated by BMG, completely unrelated to anything we would have had on our minds. But the fact is Martin [Ain] and I, and later me and my manager, we have tried for many, many years to get such a reissue project off the ground and over the years we approached the respective holders of the rights – initially Universal – with proposals of how to do it, since we have our own record label which is in partnership with Century Media / Sony. We always proposed that instead of these rights just rotting away in a basement archive, and instead of these these albums not generating any money for the rights holders and not generating any music for us, we suggested that we would release them, do all the work ourselves through Prowling Death records. We would do elaborate, lavish reissues, they wouldn’t have to lift a finger and we would basically do this for them and they would earn some money. And all these proposals were turned down over the years. They would rather not release anything rather than give away even a fraction of the rights. And then, out of the blue last year, I found out that they were actually working on the reissues. So, there you go.

You were famously signed to Noise Records, yet it’s BMG who are handling these reissues.

Noise records in the ’80s issued what is basically a standard record deal, if you are stupid enough as a musician to sign a record deal. And we were stupid and inexperienced enough at the time, meaning you sign away your rights forever. So the rights were with Noise Records, and then Noise folded at the end of the ’90s, early 2000s, Sanctuary Records purchased these rights. Then Sanctuary folded and the catalogue was purchased by Universal, and then as I understood it, the competition authorities in Germany said that Universal had amassed too many rights, and that they had to get rid of some of those. BMG Rights Management in London purchased some of Universal’s rights, which included the Celtic Frost rights and the other Noise rights. So this is the long path of why the rights are now with BMG.

It seems crazy, from an outsider’s perspective, that you don’t own the rights to your own music! 

Look, I’m not lamenting, I’m just telling you the story. I’ve been doing this for 35 years, I know the realities of the industry, nobody forces anybody to be a part of the industry, including me. Lawyers are involved of course. If you’re stupid enough to sign a record deal – which I would never do anymore, but in 1983 I didn’t know any better – then you have to deal for the rest of your life with whoever owns these rights now. At the time in 1983, there was no access in Switzerland to either other bands that had international experience or international music industry lawyers. We were over the moon being offered a record deal; of course we signed it. We would have signed in blindly. We didn’t understand any of these clauses. We were Hellhammer, we wanted to make heavy music. And now…we’re dealing with the fall out from this. Us, and a million other bands.

Presumably buying back the rights to your own music is out of the question?

Ha! Well, if my uncle was Elon Musk then maybe I would, but that’s not the case.

What was your reaction when you learned that BMG were planning to reissue your catalogue?

“I think [manager] Antje Lange heard about it and informed me. We discussed about it on the phone and I told her I would like to be involved in this. I knew that I had absolutely no legal right to be involved, absurdly since it’s all my music and lyrics, but I asked her to approach them and say I would like to be involved. And they were, of course, delighted, as having a member of Celtic Frost involved officially is a very good thing for PR for the reissues, as then you can say it’s official and legitimate. And I have to say, from the beginning, BMG were very cooperative, very professional and very welcoming. In spite of what happened at the end, I can’t say anything bad about BMG. What happened at the end is simply legal reality and me, as an artist, I hate to see that. But as a music industry professional for most of my life, I know exactly that this is reality. But full credit to BMG, they worked fantastically, they gave me full control over the reissues. And I would have finished the project if we hadn’t run into this legal issue at the end. But they really let me do the reissues as I saw fit, and it’s a real shame that I couldn’t finish the project.

What sets these reissues apart?

“We remastered everything, including all the bonus tracks. I also submitted a lost mix of the song ‘Visual Agression’ from the 1985 period of the band, something which had been lost but we managed to track it down. I also furnished them with a ton of rehearsal tracks from the Morbid Tales period, of which we selected the best ones. I did this along with V. Santura of Triptykon at his studio – he’s a fantastic engineer, of course. We were very respectful with this material, we didn’t push it to the wall, we didn’t change anything. What we did was take the sound and get the most out of it with today’s technology. We also fixed some of the problems arising from the age of the tapes. I personally believe that the remasters of the tracks are the best versions that have ever existed.

I furnished also tonnes of memorabilia and photos from my archive that I have amassed. And I also gave them liner notes that Noise had discarded in the ’80s because they thought they weren’t worthy. I dug those up again, and then of course I wrote new liner notes. Plus I furnished them with a multi-page concept of the reissues from the remastering, layout, additional tracks – every detail right up to the promotion of the albums. They didn’t really have to do anything. Because we’d wanted to do this for many years, I had a PDF booklet on my computer about of the albums and they were able to proceed using this.

So where did problems arise? I understand it revolves around the new liner notes you wrote for the reissues, in particular Into The Pandemonium, and what was said therein about your experiences of Noise Records?

I submitted the liner notes late last summer, I think, and I was frankly surprised that I didn’t hear anything about them. Because, yes, I was very frank. You know the way I write – I was very classy, but I didn’t shy away from what actually happened. There were no insults or curse words, nothing primitive. But if you write about an album like Into The Pandemonium that was severely affected every single day over four months of recording by the actions of the record company, then of course you write about that. Because, otherwise the album would have been completely different. And it also changed the course of the band, lastingly and destructively. But in January this year, they submitted the entire reissues to their legal department – that’s where the red flags were raised. They said that the former owners of Noise Records might get upset with them, sue them and so on. And at that time I wasn’t aware how much the founder of Noise was involved with this project behind the scenes. I’m sure that played into this. And the record company – you know how they work – they wanted to have a sure fire thing and not play a dangerous game.

I did my best to do these reissues justice, and Martin was informed and involved in every step of the process. But I was of course not prepared to be censored at 53 years of age. After 35 years of doing extreme music, there’s no way anybody censors me. There’s simply no way. So I withdrew my liner notes. But other than that, I only have the most positive words for BMG. The situation of them owning the rights is due to us little idiots signing them away in 1983 because we didn’t know better. And they [BMG] opened the door for me, they let me work in detail on these reissues and accepted every detail I proposed. The only thing we differed on was me saying I want my liner notes in there, and them saying they’re afraid they can’t do that because they might be sued. And I understand that.

Looking back, where do you think it started to wrong for you in your relationship with Noise Records?

The differences between the band’s view and the label’s view began, I would say, after Morbid Tales was released in late 1984. That’s when the first clouds emerged. We were young and enthusiastic and we just wanted to make great music. We idolised Noise Records the time. They were our saviours and were the only people who understood us after being ridiculed in Hellhammer for years. But then we started to have differing views, and we thought that some of his ideas, in our opinion, were very short sighted. He didn’t think strategically or artistically. Of course, it’s word against word, view against view, what can you do? Of course there was going to be conflict. And we became more radical with every album and when we wanted to do Into The Pandemonium and wanted to abandon any restrictions or borders, then conflict was pre-programmed.

Noise Records really didn’t get on board with what you hoped to achieve with Into The Pandemonium, did they?

We had a listening session at the studio and the owner told us, literally in front of witnesses, that we should an album like Exodus or Slayer! There were so many things. Once we finished the recordings they changed songs behind our backs and so on. And now on the Noise Records Facebook page they’re celebrating Into The Pandemonium because it was 30 years ago that it came out. Today there’s different people behind the name Noise, but it makes me puke to read that because, if you know the real story, they hated that fucking album. But now they’re celebrating that album, because it made them money. It became our breakthrough album despite all the obstacles that were thrown into its path. It fell far short of what we could have done if he had the support of a record company.

It explains why later that year we finally took legal counsel, even though we hardly had any money, to give us back our artistic freedom. Every single cent that ever came in to Celtic Frost, and it wasn’t very much because the record label had very unfavourable contracts for us. But we put every single cent into legal efforts to get away from Noise Records after they sabotaged what was our most ambitious album – the album that meant everything to us. They kept sabotaging it, cancelling the tour, cancelling video clips, because we didn’t do what they said. They altered the production, changed tracks, discarded the booklet, threw away the original photos. This is why we had to get away, but the band fell apart in the process.

What are your feelings on the reissues now? Are you OK with fans buying them? 

I’ve never said that people shouldn’t buy them. I said that I can not endorse them, and to me they’re not official because I did not finish the work I was assigned to do. I left the project before final approval, so to me they’re not official. But I’ve never said that people shouldn’t buy them.

With the reissues done and dusted, what’s next? You’re working on two books just now.

Absolutely. I’ve been working on a much expanded version of my first book, Are You Morbid. And because it now includes the reunion of Celtic Frost and now Triptykon, the manuscript is getting quite substantial and I have much more illustrative material than I did in 1992 when I did the original. So Ian Christe, my publisher, and I decided we’re going to do it in two parts. Eventually you’re going to have a triptych of books: Only Death Is Real, covering Hellhammer and early Celtic Frost era; then a middle book about Celtic Frost doing To Mega Therion, Into The Pandemonium and falling apart and everything; and the last book is about the renewal of Celtic Frost and the foundation of Triptykon. I’d like to finish the manuscript this year, then we’ll see how fast we are with editing, layout and so on. I’m hesitant to say a year – it might be 2018, but it might also be 2019. We’ll see.

And what’s happening with Triptykon?

Triptykon is officially working on the third album. But we’re kind of slowed right now, unfortunately. Triptykon famously has a far more stable line-up than Celtic Frost ever had, we’ve been together for nine years without a line-up change. But our drummer, a few months ago, indicated that he’d like to pursue different kinds of music in the future. This happens in utmost friendship – that’s not just a promo line, it’s actually a fact. So he’s playing with us until we find a new drummer, but of course we want to do the new album with the new drummer. We’re in the process of looking around, but it’s not that easy to fit in to Triptykon – it’s a unique band, and we’re also representing the inheritance of Celtic Frost. So it needs to be a drummer with a lot of band width.

The reissued Celtic Frost albums Morbid Tales, To Mega Therion, Into The Panemonium, Vanity / Nemesis, along with new compilation Innocence And Wrath, are available from June 30th on double CD and vinyl.

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