Inside Thomas Gabriel Fischer's Avant-Metal Requiem That Took Decades and Multiple Bands to Complete

Inside Thomas Gabriel Fischer's Avant-Metal Requiem That Took Decades and Multiple Bands to Complete

By Chris Steffen

May 15, 2020

Fans of heavy music with a taste for the avant-garde, discordant, and dark inevitably find their way to the music of Thomas Gabriel Fischer, aka Tom G. Warrior. From the primal clattering of his influential early band Hellhammer to the off-kilter majesty of Celtic Frost to the suffocating weight of Triptykon, the Swiss musician has kept listeners guessing since the early '80s.

At the 2019 Roadburn Festival, Fischer put the final touches on a decades-long project that had its seeds planted with a pair of songs subtitled "Requiem" on the Celtic Frost albums Into the Pandemonium (1987) and Monotheist (2006). The latter track was labeled Chapter 3, implying a missing middle section that has now been completed and released on the band's latest release, Requiem (Live At Roadburn 2019).

The festival performance featured an additional lead vocalist and a full orchestra, and was completed in part to pay tribute to Fischer's late Celtic Frost bandmate, Martin Eric Ain, who died in 2017. Fischer spoke with AllMusic about the weight that was lifted by finally finishing the requiem, keeping musical consistency across a piece that spans more than 30 years, and how he learned to celebrate his earlier music without reliving the pain related to its creation.

AllMusic: You've said that you always intended to finish the requiem; what sort of place did it occupy in your mind over the years?

Thomas Gabriel Fischer:
It was always pretty much on our minds. It was one of the first things, for example, that we talked about when we resurrected the band in the early 2000s, and that's why we did another part of it on the Monotheist album. I even intended to finish it with Martin when I left Celtic Frost, I always wanted to finish it with Triptykon one day. Had Martin still been alive, I would have asked him to be a part of it in some way, and I certainly would have asked him to come onstage with us to perform it. He died in 2017 right before we started working on it, and I carried him in my heart when I was onstage performing the requiem, because it was a project we both always talked about. He was very, very much a part of my thinking as I was standing there playing the requiem.

AllMusic: As meticulous as you can be, I was surprised you opted for a live recording instead of a studio session.

It was quite a risk, of course, because of the complexity and expense of such a project. We only had two days of rehearsals, and by the end of the second rehearsal right before the concert, I thought we could need another day or two. Fortunately, everyone involved was very professional and very experienced, so we pulled it off. But yes, I like to be well-prepared, and I like to work meticulously on things in the studio. This requiem project, when seen from that angle, went totally against my nature. But I enjoyed doing this, as much pressure as it was, it was nice to do something different. It was quite a challenge, and I liked that. This year, I'm a musician for 39 years, so I guess it was time for a live album. It's not that I hurried.

AllMusic: Each chapter was written about 15 years apart, did you try to find a kind of consistency with the sound?

I was thinking of this project over the past 30-odd years on and off because it was always unfinished, and it crossed my mind sometimes faintly, sometimes very directly when I worked with Martin. But on the other hand, I also didn't hesitate to let the contemporary spirit be a part of it. When I finished the part that was released on the Monotheist album in 2006, I didn't think it had to sound like 1984 or anything like that, it was the tone that it was in 2005 when we recorded it, and that was fine to me.

I think my basic demeanor hasn't changed that much. As a matter of fact, I think now at 56, I'm much closer to the Tom I was in Hellhammer than I've ever been in my life, and I haven't really mellowed, I'm probably more an anarchist and more of somebody who goes against the stream of society than I've ever had the courage to, and I was already like that when I was younger. But when you're a kid or a teenager, you don't have that self-confidence that life experience gives you, and now I do have that, and sometimes my courage is even too much. So I think my basic mindset, even though I'm decades away from when I started this requiem, my basic mindset is quite closely related. The big difference is that I'm approaching this more as an experienced musician, but the Tom that doesn't accept anything that's given, the Tom that likes to be a revolutionary in some form, that Tom still exists very drastically.

AllMusic: Was there a weight lifted when you played the last note?

It was an immense weight lifted off my shoulders in so many ways. There was an immediate feeling of having done the performance and having gotten through it without any major mistakes by anybody, and recognizing that the audience was fantastic and that everything worked, and that the technology behind it worked. There was immediate relief, but also much bigger relief, knowing that we had just concluded something that had taken over 30 years to come together, and as I walked offstage while the orchestra was playing the last part, I had to think of the entire context, Martin Eric Ain, that was all on my mind.

AllMusic: The new middle section has some of the most extreme dynamics in your catalog, were you intentionally looking to highlight that contrast?

The whole middle part in general is probably the most ambient of the three parts, but on the other hand, there's also some quite crass moments in it. I don't think anybody has used such a heavily distorted electric bass with a classical orchestra, for example, and so on. Some of the drum lines are very doom metal-like. What I wanted to do in general, the basic mindset behind that large part in the center of the requiem, was to not go the cliched path, like so many other bands have done, by having an orchestra and just employing everybody because you paid this immense amount of money, you set up this hugely complex project, and you're tempted to use everything because it was so difficult and so expensive to do it, but I didn't want to do that. I wanted to play with the orchestra, I didn't want to go the cliche way and have them full throttle for 45 minutes, that's why sometimes even though we have 30 musicians onstage, you may only hear a cymbal or a faint percussion. I really wanted the piece to be dynamic and to play with this, and to take a risk, to not do what people expect. That's really the basic idea behind the new part.

AllMusic: Does the completed requiem tell a story?

Of course. It's a piece that makes sense to me personally in my imagination, but being such a unique piece, I'm quite sure everyone has wildly varying emotions about it and impressions about it. I can also understand that there will be people who say that it doesn't work because it's not the cliched classical thing, "Why didn't he use the entire orchestra all the time, it's a waste." And I totally understand this.

But what I've noticed over the past few months when we were working on the details, mixing the live recording, what I noticed most is that the picture I had in my head was always, "What would Martin think?" That is the prime emotion I was feeling, I always feel, "I hope Martin would like this album," or that in some way or form, Martin might hear this, even though I'm not esoterically-inclined, but I always try to imagine what Martin would think, and I hope that I've fulfilled this project that we started so many years ago together, that it would satisfy him, the way we finished it. Right now, that's the first and foremost emotion that I feel.

AllMusic: You continue to find ways to celebrate your past, whether it's revisiting Hellhammer live with Triumph of Death, your book projects, or completing the requiem. Is it tough to find satisfying ways to revisit your older work?

This is a very important issue, and it's a complex issue. Sometimes I'll see a band I liked as a teenager, and they abandoned their roots and do something completely different, and sometimes I find that very difficult. Or I see a band that endlessly repeats itself without taking even the faintest step forward, which is also difficult, because as much as you like the original music, of course you also expect some kind of development, even in a modest way.

I'm very involved with my own past. One of my private interests is world history, for example, so the past has never scared me, and I'm fascinated by the past. But I'm also very much living in the present. I really try to combine the two, I try to do new things and I try to stay relevant as far as my songwriting and the technology we use, the stage production and so on. But we also try to be true to what we liked when we started, because I still like that myself. Some of the early stuff we've done has a feeling, an emotion, that is very difficult to achieve again, so why would I abandon it?

But this is my perception, and I don't know if I'm succeeding. I'm trying to combine the two, and the audience will have to decide whether Tom is successful at this or not. But it's in our heads constantly. When we did Monotheist, I thought Celtic Frost had really discovered a sound in which I feel at home, it was a fresh sound, but it also had a lot of elements that were typical Celtic Frost, so I took that sound with me to Triptykon, and it satisfies the old Tom and it satisfies the new Tom, so I hope it's also the same for the audience, that it satisfies the people who are more retro and the people who are more modern.

AllMusic: Is it bizarre to you how people are still so interested in music you made when you were a teenager?

Actually, it's a privilege, an absolute privilege, it's something I never have taken for granted. It's something we all dreamt of in Hellhammer, but we didn't think it would ever happen, because we were so ridiculed and were outcasts, so it's an immense privilege. And I totally understand these people, the emotions back then, the fire was so pure, so untarnished, there was no business ideas or A&R people or major label, it was just music, extremity, rebellion, and these are very pure feelings, and I love that, too. I love to listen to that old stuff, because it carries an emotion that you cannot resurrect, you cannot artificially create it.

This is also why I'm opposed to re-recording old albums, as flawed as they might be, sound-wise, production-wise, you cannot possibly recreate this. I don't think that's a negative thing. When I listen to Black Sabbath, I still think Vol. 4 is fantastic, and that's a very old album, or an early Nazareth or early Motörhead album, the first Venom album, it's the same thing. But there's nothing bad about it, one should feel lucky to have such albums under their belt.

AllMusic: Were you always that comfortable connecting your past to your present?

I've had my issues with some of our early work for a while, and so did Martin and so did Steve Warrior, who formed Hellhammer with me. But I think these issues were largely caused by our personal involvement with it. If you're simply a fan of a band, you look at it abstractly, you just hear the songs. For us, a lot of our early days were connected to very difficult times in our youth, for some of us radically difficult times, very heavily problematic times, and I think for a long time, some of us, including myself, were unable to look at our early music without this negative, dark feeling that was connected to it.

It really took some life experience and some distance, some maturity, to start to be able to look at it like a fan, more abstractly, to be able to look solely at the music, which for me was impossible for quite some time. But there was a time in my life when I had issues with the early stuff, of course. It feels much more comfortable now. It always burdened me, but I knew in some way that Hellhammer or early Celtic Frost was hugely important to my life, but it was very difficult to look at it without some of the stuff that happened in my private life, and it was much, much more positive to leave it all behind.