Essential Black Metal Listening: HELLHAMMER Apocalyptic Raids
As part of Black Metal History Month, we will be spotlighting classic albums that we feel are essential for any fan of black metal. This album is a part of that series. Make sure to pick up our limited edition Black Metal History Month t-shirt.
Most "who was first?" arguments centering around black metal tend to focus on the exact point that the form went from "proto"-BM to actual, 100% BM in and of itself. Temporal primacy is obviously a key consideration there, but beyond that it's not as simple as stating that Venom were first just because they named a 1982 album Black Metal (although I'm willing to entertain the idea that the opening riff of side 2 closer "Don't Burn the Witch" singlehandedly invented Slayer).
One angle that is too infrequently dwelt upon is the fact that we wouldn't even be talking about a genre called black metal at all today if it weren't for the bands that made up the "second wave", so really it's only fitting that we allow those later Scandinavians to retroactively plot their own family tree.
Second wave BM really only came into its own as it shed its rock & roll heritage altogether; there's just too much of that residual NWOBHM/Motorhead "boogie" in those early Venom and Mercyful Fate LPs to rank them as more than precursors to a sound that would later be stripped down to the frame and de-Anglicized by Bathory and Mayhem. For that reason Bathory's eponymous 1984 debut is often cited as the true genesis of the "classic" black metal sound, but not so fast: there's another legit contender to be dealt with…
Switzerland's Hellhammer had a busy 1983, releasing three demos in the lead up to their '84 EP Apocalyptic Raids. The bulk of those demos – compiled in 2008 on the 2CD Demon Entrails – consists of reworks/fine tuning of the six tunes that would make up the EP, but one can see the basic formula in place on even the earliest of those demos.
The drums on "The Third of the Storms" halt short of full on blast beats, being rather the same sort of aggressive compromise between d-beat and speed punk (ie. Motorhead) rhythms that Venom cut their teeth on. "Horus/Aggressor" and "Revelations of Doom" also betray strong percussive debts to Venom, but where things really get interesting is in the almost free-form, undertow inducing chords, overdriven to within an inch of their lives and seething low with runaway current like a live wire.
There is precious little of the frenzied tremolo picking that would come to characterize Norwegian black metal, but the mix of unorthodox whole notes and often rudderless song structure – like a free jazz version of Sabbath – was a pretty radical break with anything else that was going on in mid-80s metal at the time (Tom Warrior's hammer ons come off as sheer mockery of the type of shredding that was popular with contemporary glam guitarists). This shit wasn't necessarily fast, but in March 1984 there damn sure wasn't anything heavier.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise then, that Warrior – later regressing to his birth name of Thomas Gabriel Fischer – has had conflicting opinions on this stage of his legacy over the years. As he recounts in the liner notes to the 1990 reissue, "Hellhammer lasted on us almost like a curse […] Many voices saw [Celtic] Frost as the same band with just a name change. The lack of musical quality in HH made it almost impossible for us to get an unbiased reaction for Frost."
By the time that reissue came out Celtic Frost was done and Fischer could afford to color his nostalgia a bit more generously. Even then, the world would hear no new music from the conflicted artist until Apollyon Sun's industrial-tinged EP, God Leaves (And Dies) in 1998. When he eventually reconvened Frost to record 2006's Monotheist, he retained the musical competency and enhanced tempo of his later work but brought back the bottomless, oil tanker riffs of that old Hellhammer ethos, perfectly book ending a legacy he was never sure he deserved to begin with.