Faith Under Fire

BY Sarah KitteringhamPublished Apr 21, 2014

The infamous Tom G. Warrior and his inconsistent musical trajectory have thrilled, baffled, and enraged metal fans for nearly three decades. The brilliant and raw pioneering extreme metal of Hellhammer, and the early thrash laden, blackened days of Celtic Frost are revered; however, the latter project fell apart both musically and interpersonally after the baffling hair metal misstep that was 1988's Cold Lake. Although they released an overlooked gem shortly after, the band flat-lined. It took over a decade for Celtic Frost to truly reconvene and return to their course for 2006's Monotheist; they fell apart yet again shortly after.

Triptykon was thus formed. Featuring Warrior and former live Frost guitarist V. Santura (also known as Victor Bullok), along with newly recruited bandmates Vanja Šlajh (bass) and Norman Lonhard (drums), the quartet has afforded Warrior previously unheard of stability and renewed musical trajectory. Their 2010 debut Eparistera Daimones was an obvious continuation of his previous work — an utterly gothic affair that raged against the machine while continuing to smooth out Warrior's once inconsistent genre-hopping tendencies. The tuning was slow and low, the music beautiful yet crushing.

Melana Chasmata continues this lineage while embellishing the gothic, humanistic elements that have long peppered Warrior's musical output. Although it's technically heavier this trip around the sun, the quiet is contrasted against loud in subtle, and emotionally impactful, ways. Of course, his trademark "UGH" is still present. To hear the story behind what will inevitably land on numerous "best of 2014" lists, we chatted with the salty songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist.

Melana Chasmata is Triptykon's second album, and is absolutely excellent. The first thing that strikes me is the feel of it. Your previous album really came charging out of the gate in "Goetia," whereas Melana and opener "Tree of Suffocating Souls" started out very driving, then the album segues into a more of this atmospheric, slow burn. It states in the liner notes for Eparistera that "Goetia" was the last song you wrote before going into the studio for that album. In contrast, how did "Tree of Suffocating Souls" come about? Why did you decide to make it the opening track for the record?
It was written actually in a very spontaneous manner. I simply found myself one day last year sitting around, fancying writing an up-tempo song, as simple as it sounds. I sat around on my guitar, and I came up with what is the main structure of the song, and so the day after I brought it to the band, the corpse, to speak, of the song. I knew it clicked. The next few days we started really developing it, really working on it into a full song. The lyrics on the other hand, date back to a concept I've had for quite some time, that was provoked by me looking at etchings from the Thirty Years' War in Europe, there are some very radical black and white etchings showing the cruelty of that war, in European history. I've seen these throughout my life, and came across them again some time ago, and for some reason they struck me much more than they have before. It provoked inside me, because the connection to religion, it provoked me to write a song about how religion has been able to muster the energy for people to be able to destroy other people. It's quite a perverted concept.

It's interesting you say that because you've mentioned in numerous other interviews that the lyrics to this album are quite personal in contrast to the others in your discography.
You're completely right, the album is much more private and much more sentimental. It's far more revealing of us as individuals and our emotions than the first one was. Having said that however, of course what is being done on this planet under the banner of religion for a millennia by now, of course that annoys me. Of course that provokes me to think and be extremely critical. If I were to stop feeling this way, I think it would simply be that I'm too old to think. There [are] way too many people supporting the church than criticizing the church, so I feel it's not yet time to let go of that. Of course, that always has to be a part of what I do musically. It's been a part of musical work ever since Hellhammer.

Metal as a genre is extremely critical of religion.
The problem caused by religion is more caused by the human psyche, the need to assemble around some kind of superior being, whether it's a leader, often a dictator, or some sort of science fiction character who floats in the clouds or walks across water. Ever since we crawled out of the caves hundreds of thousands of years ago, and then the first thunderstorm came with lightning, we all felt the need to huddle around who is the strongest. Maybe at the time that still made sense, but in the 21st century, and looking back and seeing what immeasurable suffering was caused by religion for a millennia, I don't think that has any room anymore in history, yet it does. What you said about the metal scene dealing with religion, I have a quite varied view of that. It's because people who talked very openly — and fellow musicians often talk very openly to me — I know for a fact many bands do that for image reasons. I mean, people have told me that openly, with exactly those words, "We are doing this for an image." For example, some of the art I am doing as my side project, when I mounted a little metal Jesus on a cross I furnished from dildos, was actually simply to illustrate how human beings treat religion. I got hate mail from people on Facebook, who in their photos wear Slayer T-shirts and everything. And I was "How does that go together? How can you feel offended when I put Jesus on a dildo, when you wear Slayer T-shirts?" And it comes down to it that some people just do that so they seem like evil men, or grown-ups, or so people are scared of them, but in reality, they are just like everybody else out there. Which was quite an amusing discovery for me.

It's an interesting comment, given how it's documented that Tom Araya is a practicing Catholic, yet the band's discography is embedded with numerous anti-religious sentiments.
Well there you go. That's the next level in this topic. You sing the most radical lyrics about all sorts of things, not the least of religion, for 30 years…. I read it an interview he said it was, "Only an image." And you say, "What the hell?" But then, given the course they've steered for the last 25 years, nothing surprises me.

You acknowledged there is a more personal focus to the lyrics though. You are speaking quite passionately about the topic of religion, so what inspired the shift?
Well, I selected the people in Triptykon for very certain reasons. I didn't want any mercenaries for the band, I didn't want it to be Tom Warrior's solo project, I wanted it to be a band. A band where I feel comfortable, and a band I can take serious on a personal level. It has to be people who are active thinkers, and people who have emotions, and people who are not afraid to live their emotions. But all of this also means that sometimes they will experience things in life that make them suffer and causes pain. And that's what happened to three of the band members during the last three or four years in their private lives, and I am one of those three band members. And it made the creation of this album extremely difficult, and it's also the reason why this album was delayed by two years. Having undergone dramatically life-changing events in the past few years is reflected in the lyrics. If you're not a songwriter, you just write about Satan. If you're an honest songwriter, you draw from your innermost emotions in your writing, and that's why this album has become much more intimate, much more melancholic, and private. That's not by design; that simply reflects our state of mind during the last three years.

I recognize the importance of having a private life that you don't divulge to random strangers calling from another country.
It's all much too complicated, because during those years, things happened to three different musicians, and in one or two cases, there were multiple things taking place. So the whole thing is probably inappropriate and far too complex to divulge anyway in a few sentences in an interview to promote an album.

Certainly. It might be better to frame this in terms of the emotionality of the album. The beginning is very aggressive and driving, and the center is quite beautiful, it's atmospheric and lush. There are all these types of emotional ebbs and flows. I'm curious when you were organizing the album if an intention was formed for an emotional journey, or if it simply fell together that way.
In outer defiance of trends, we are still an album band. So, when we were finishing mixing the music, we sit down and try to assemble an album that has an intuitive, natural flow. It has to be like a painting or a movie. The album has to make sense, if you listen through it, it will go, regardless of whether one still does that or not, that is still our intention. We simply try to give the album this flow, and we believe we have achieved that. But it's very nice to hear a different opinion of the album. I've been bombarded by different reviews in recent days because now all the reviews are coming out, and everyone says it's utterly heavy and dark, and it probably is in a way, but for me personally — and this is debatable for some — it's the melancholic melody on this album. You're right. Darkness doesn't mean it's something ugly, it can also be very beautiful, and I think in some of the songs we have hopefully achieved that.

Emotional troughs are important, they make metal intelligent and introspective in ways that outsiders don't seem to understand or recognize. As a newly budding musician, I find that taking or being influenced from specific places is an interesting process that I can only assume changes over time. I wanted to ask you about that, given how long you've been making music.
The most important influence of all is yourself and the things you have lived through in your life and the emotions you have formed because of that. Everything else, you hear so many bands and you like their music and you think you want to play some music like that as well, and that's part of that as well, but when it comes down to it, what is it that makes you different to everybody? Everybody nowadays has a [band], everybody plays guitar, bass or a drum kit. What is it that you have that makes you different from everybody else on this planet? The only thing that makes you different is your own emotions, your personality. If you want to be different from all the other bands out there, you have to draw as much as you can from all your emotions. That's the key to it all. To copy Black Sabbath or whatever, anybody can do that. But there is only one person that is you, yourself… It is probably very difficult these days to make music while blocking out influences, because we are talking about a musical direction, heavy metal, that is now, what? Fifty, 60 years old. There have been so many bands, so many riffs, so many records that it becomes increasingly difficult for young musicians to find their own undiluted path. I don't envy them nowadays, when they try to create something that's completely unique. I fully realize how difficult that has become.

For your own musical experience, how does that process work for you? When you're writing, do those thoughts ever come to play, and if they do, how do you counteract that? Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, and Triptykon have all produced innovative music.
That's because all of these bands you've just mentioned are basically one and the same as far as the approach is concerned. Your date of birth is a matter of coincidence, it's a lottery. I didn't have any influence on being born in 1963. Now, since I'm in the metal scene, it's turned out to be a lucky date because I was able to be there and start being a musician when metal was just getting going, and was extremely adrenalizing and inspiring. I was lucky enough to create my own style in the early '80s when metal was still very fresh. That's a coincidence, it's not like I had a secret recipe or anything like that. I could have as well been born ten years later or 20 years earlier and it would have been completely different and probably much more difficult. As it is, I was really lucky to work on and develop my own style early on, and I think I found it already, at the latest, on To Mega Therion in 1985. And so, these days I can say in all honesty I don't think about these things. I simply sit down and play guitar. I never, ever think anymore what should this sound like, what should this be, a song like Black Sabbath. That's how it happened 32 years ago, but not nowadays, because I have my style and my style luckily is 100 percent me, since I'm the main songwriter in all these bands I was able to develop a style that is 100 percent me. It's my emotions, my thinking, which now frees me extremely when I write music.

Yet this album was far more collaborative than your previous album with Triptykon, where you wrote most music, although Victor also contributed. Comparatively speaking, how did that work?
There [are] really two answers to this. It is far more of group effort because we have grown to know each other far better in the past six years. We have grown into a proper group; it's far different than when we were a newly assembled outfit for the first album. And when I write songs, I never write fully finished songs. My songs are very rough sketches. And I bring them to the rehearsal room and in the following days, weeks and months, the entire band are working on a song to develop it, so it really is a collaborative group effort. But having said that, yes of course, me and Victor are the main songwriters, and that's not because we are dictatorial in our approach. I think it's because I think it was quite overwhelming for the younger band members, two of which are half my age, to come into this band and be faced with all this history I am lugging around me, for better or for worse. I have always encouraged the others to write, and the door is always open and they know that. As I can see in the past, they have collaborated much more this time around, I am quite sure they will start writing much more complete songs in the future. But I think initially, in these early years of Triptykon, they were quite intimidated also by the pressure that was applied from the outside. Everyone was expecting, well hoping, that Triptykon would live up to the best of Hellhammer and Celtic Frost. And that was probably was quite intimidating for people outside this band, trying to live up to that.

Does Triptykon live up to the legacy musically and personally? How does it compare?
I'm absolutely fulfilled. I feel the band is absolutely perfect for me personally. I am able to develop the music I started with Hellhammer and Celtic Frost, and turn it to a level without having to put energy into infighting and ego competitions and all that stuff that deluded Celtic Frost at the very end. Right now, it's really only about the music, as cliché as that sounds. That's enormously rewarding, and I'm personally very happy. When I say I want Triptykon to be a perfect continuation of Celtic Frost, I'm not saying I want that in the outside, I'm saying that to my own perception in the outside… In my own view, I think we have achieved that right now. Musically, I don't work any different than I did in Celtic Frost; the difference is on a personal level. I am very, very happy with this band. The fact alone, with the single and the EP, we have done four records in a row with the same lineup, that's something Celtic Frost was never able to achieve. Every album with Celtic Frost was a different lineup, and I think that speaks volumes to what Triptykon is versus Celtic Frost.

This is somewhat of a weird deviation from the conversation trajectory, but bear with me. Track five from the album, "Aurorae," was written in the Celtic Frost days, was it not?
I write my songs not according to one specific routine. I simply write music, and sometimes my songs are written in a few minutes, sometimes it takes days, sometimes months, sometimes even years. "Aurorae," I began working on it in 2002, when we were working on the Monotheist album by Celtic Frost. I simply wrote that song like I wrote many songs at the time. I don't sit down and say "I write a Celtic Frost song," "I write a Triptykon song." It was simply a song I started writing and then maybe we had so much material for Monotheist, so many songs we were going to finish and did develop to their finished state, and for some reason "Aurorae" was not one of them. There are many unfinished songs from that period. I personally always loved that song, and I have listened to the demo many times over the years that I have recorded at the time, and eventually I just thought it was time to play it to the band and they loved it. When we first jammed it at rehearsal, when I played them the demo, they loved it. It was written in Celtic Frost times, but it wasn't designed to be a Celtic Frost song. It was simply started in 2002 and finished in 2013.

I'm curious about the story behind "In the Sleep of Death." The song is slower-paced; it's quite crushing and emotionally it seems like there is a lot of desperation and yearning oozing from the lyrics. In it, you repeatedly sing the line, "Emily, why don't you speak to me?" Who is Emily?
The song is actually fairly new. The music was written by Victor while we were on tour with Triptykon, after the first album. The lyrics are an idea I had for quite some time, but I wrote them in 2013, so the song is actually fairly new. I've been asked countless times about the identity of Emily, and a lot of people would probably be disappointed because it's not some secret love of mine, at least not a physical love of mine. The song is homage to the English writer Emily Brontë, who lived in the 19th century. Her most famous work is Wuthering Heights, but to me personally, it is her absolutely stunning poems that are fascinating to me to no end. Martin Ain (bassist) used some of her poems in Celtic Frost without properly crediting her, and that is something that has always bothered me. I didn't know at the time, in 1985, the true circumstances of that, but once I found out, it bothered me. For years I thought, "I have to make this up to Emily," who of course has long died. It was just a personal pain of mine, to pay tribute to her, and make up for this. This is why the song exists.

Thank you. I have one last question about your relationship with H.R. Giger, as his artwork adorns the cover of Melana Chasmata, and this is your third album following To Mega Therion and Eparistera Daimones to feature his artwork. How do you think his artistic vision coincides with that of yours and Triptykon?
I was a huge fan of his literally when I was a child. I discovered his work through some of the books of his my father owned, and the older I got the more I loved his work and more I discovered. Of course, that was pre -internet. Once I became a musician and we played in Hellhammer, we were hoping we'd one day have a record deal, which was far from certain. Umm, we were of course wondering what we could use as a cover. We always looked at his paintings and we felt, in our tiny little amateurish way, we tried to do the same, have the same emotion or feeling in his music that he in his genius way, conveyed in his paintings. So the testosterone powered teenagers we were, I sat down and wrote a letter to him. Of course, pre-computer, I sat down on photocopied stationary and wrote it with a pen, and described Hellhammer and sent him some demo tracks, and we described our feelings about his art, and how cool and related we felt his art and our music was, and we sent him the letter by post. To our astonishment at the time, everyone laughed at Hellhammer, nobody took us seriously at the time, and Giger was at the height of his fame, had just won the Academy Award [for] Alien, and called me back and said he could understand and had listened to the music and felt he could see the parallels, and he said "You can not only have the cover, I'll give you two paintings you don't have to pay for them, you can have them for free." That was in late 1983, or early 1984, and that's when our friendship started and that's a friendship that has lasted to this day and is probably tighter than it's ever been.

The painting on the cover of the album is the 1975 piece "Mordor VII." Why did that painting resonate with you?
The painting "Mordor VII" to me personally looks like hell. It looks to me like a glimpse into hell. It almost looks like worms or snakes in hell… I picked it quite some time ago, years ago; I simply felt it reflected exactly the music that I have been starting to create for this album. The album when it comes out has a very detailed booklet with liner notes, and detailed excerpts from the painting, so even in the CD size, you will see the painting in quite a large magnification. The vinyl edition even has it bigger and even has a poster of the painting; of course there is a second Giger painting for the gatefold ["Landschaft XVI"], in the booklet of the CD and in the vinyl. So people who really care about album artwork will have a field day.

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