Review Summary: Monotonist
Monotheist is pretty tedious and misguided, but I'm not gonna piss on it as much as I could, because it's at least brave. Celtic Frost are one of the few bands I would have given a pass for resting on their laurels at this point in their career, because they're one of the few bands who embody a virtually "lost" sound. See, if you told a metal neophyte the truth of the matter that Hellhammer/Celtic Frost were a groundbreaking force that helped set the rules for extreme metal in its infancy, you could hardly blame 'em for not really hearing it, because by the late 90s there was barely a molecule left of Tom and co's direct influence in death or black metal; their immediate disciples like Darkthrone were ultimately most influential in ways that had nothing to do with the crusty classic-metal-takes-a-dump sound they expanded on. After the genres' expiration dates death metal became rigid mathematical junk, black metal became saccharine drone music, and Celtic Frost were left somewhere in the middle, neither having much to do with that, or what your mom imagines when she hears the word metal.
So after decades of not having released anything halfway decent, they could've done a modern retread of Morbid Tales, and people would be satisfied because a unique band returned to a unique sound they're at home with. Instead, they attempted to modernize their churlish dinosaur-like 80s sound in a way that's not quite an abandonment, but makes more sense in the context of a new wave of angsty "pissed off" bands while beating many of them at their own game. It's almost like Celtic Frost took cues from nu-metal, and their immune system protected them from nu-metal's ***tiness virus because they're one of the bands nu-metal got their downtuned groove from in the first place. When they work in electronic elements they're way more tasteful than a metal band has any right to be, and lilting goth rock moodiness abounds. That's normally a red flag indicating commercial pandering in metal, but remember CF had goth elements from the start--Christian Death were a huge influence on their unorthodox atonal riff constructions, for example. So again, this is one of those weird cases where they "payed their dues" and are kinda allowed to mope around the batcave. All that stuff works out quite well.
The problem is in the big picture of things, the way they modernized here ALREADY sounds more dated than their 80s stuff. Fart-sniffing mystical, literate lyrics can't compensate for a mood that's monotonously, straightforwardly dour. Their riffage always had this kinda clumsy bottom end swing to it, but in Monotheist they use it in a more physically oriented jockish way that's both unevocative, and awkward/ineffective as body music. This is why kids these days are so confused when they hear Tom's borderline happy gravelly pseudo-singing in the old stuff; it wasn't one-note screamy catharsis, he was something between a caricature of a biker metal frontman and narrator, and his glibness let you draw your own conclusions in the band's primitive but emotionally ambiguous designs. Of course, in every song on Monotheist he sounds like someone pissed on his hash browns. Grrr! It's pretty representational of the difference between oldschool and modern death/black metal in general: one is a playground for the mind, the other regurgitates convenient liberal truths and tells you how you "should" feel.
It's important to note that Thomas Gabriel Fischer isn't quite the same person as Tom G. Warrior. If you're wondering what Mr. Warrior's up to, forget it, he hasn't done anything since Morbid Tales (something that Mr. Fischer seems to dismiss as amateurish noise). It's admirable to be forward-looking, but if you can't admit as a person or an artist that your present is attached to your past as well as your future, then you're not totally connected to yourself. So, what we have with Monotheist is something that's aesthetically classy, but in some fundamental way just misses the point. It's far from a disgrace, and probably one of the better "comebacks" in metal, but that doesn't say much.