Review Summary: This album is good. Inconsistent, but still good. Stop acting like it isn’t.
Very few bands can claim to have possessed the amount of originality and influence that Celtic Frost had. It would be almost impossible to find any band that was as ahead of their time and heavy as Celtic Frost was during their heyday. Their unholy combination of fast, groove-driven riffs and terrifyingly brutal vocals by frontman Tom G. Warrior with punishing drums, crushing production, and purely evil songwriting was truly something to behold, and I feel that their music holds up much better today than most material from bands such as Venom, Bathory, Slayer, etc. Well, at least everything until after their classic 1985 album To Mega Therion, which was when things started to get a little weird. Their 1987 release Into The Pandemonium was an album that is praised highly today, but I still fail to see why. It’s very inconsistent, and its finest moments come in the form of a very good, yet extremely out of place cover of Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio” and some more traditional sounding Celtic Frost songs that aren’t terrible, but come across to me as fairly boring. The rest of the album is an absolute mess, and while it is at least interesting, it’s far from good. That said, their next endeavor would prove even more of a disappointment. 1988’s Cold Lake was an utter betrayal of everything Tom G. Warrior and Co. had recorded up until its release, and while Into The Pandemonium at least had some characteristics of a Celtic Frost album, Cold Lake had barely any. It was an atrocious faux-glam metal album by a band once known for how influential and groundbreaking they were (essentially, a Pantera story but in reverse) that failed miserably on all fronts. At this point, hope for Celtic Frost making another good album was pretty much completely out the window, and the band knew that they had to do something good with their next album to dig themselves out of the hole they had created. The result of this was 1990’s Vanity/Nemesis album, which is still often viewed today as one of Celtic Frost’s worst releases along with Cold Lake, and because the album is fairly inconsistent and isn’t executed nearly as well as the band’s older material, it’s easy to understand such criticism. However, I would argue that while Vanity/Nemesis isn’t by any means a Celtic Frost classic, it’s a flawed yet very nice return-to-form album that deserves much more credit than it gets. Not only that, but it also far outshines Into The Pandemonium and Cold Lake.
The album opens on a very high note with the sinister, lurching riffs of “The Heart Beneath,” which is one of the very best songs Vanity/Nemesis has to offer thanks in part to its thick production and groove. One problem however is immediately noticable upon hearing this song: Tom G. Warrior’s vocals on this album are quite honestly not very good. Rather than vehemently shouting out the lyrics with the unrelenting ferocity he is known for, Warrior instead opted to awkwardly snarl the lyrics out with an obnoxious, screeching sound that resembles a combination of Tom Araya and Dave Mustaine’s vocal styles that nobody would ever ask for. This is especially sad considering that because Tom G. Warrior’s voice on Celtic Frost’s first few releases was so memorable for its sheer brutality, all you can do is sit there and imagine how much better every song on this album would be if he had just stuck to the vocal style that made him great. Thankfully, the vocals are the biggest problem with the album, and nearly everything else is done very well. While it does come at the price of sacrificing the consistency their first few albums were known for, there is a lot of variety in the songwriting for this album. There are plenty of thrashy, classic Celtic Frost sounding passages and riffs throughout, especially on songs such as “Wine In My Hand (Third From The Sun),” the provocatively titled “Phallic Tantrum,” and “A Kiss or a Whisper,” but there are also a few deviations from the form such as whispered vocals, clean vocals, acoustic passages, and even some semi-alternative metal passages on some songs. “Wings of Solitude” in particular is a standout due to its interesting juxtaposition of a nu-metal-esque riff with acoustic verses and a chorus which features backing clean vocals. It has a slight hair metal vibe throughout, however the writing is much more interesting and progressive, and it makes for a listening experience that is strange, but nonetheless pretty good. A few other songs on the album bear a resemblance to “Wings of Solitude,” the seven minute closing track “Nemesis” being one that I also consider a standout. Opening with a sample of “Human” (the opening track of the band’s classic Morbid Tales EP) followed by an excellent solo passage with acoustic rhythm guitars, this song follows a mid-tempo thrash riff with choruses that are very similar to those of “Wings of Solitude,” yet more enjoyable and closer to the familiar Celtic Frost sound. There are of course a few weak points, but what keeps this album from being a huge disappointment is that the weaker tracks are still not terrible, which unfortunately cannot be said for its two predecessors.
While it is clear that Vanity/Nemesis is far from perfect, it’s still a great album in its own right, so this begs the question: why do so many people think this album is so terrible? The vocals aren’t great and inconsistency is an issue, but that isn’t nearly enough to warrant the amount of hatred that Vanity/Nemesis seems to be the brunt of. Personally, I feel as though the main problem with listeners’ overall view of this album is skewed by the fact that many fail to consider the context of this album’s release. What I mean by that is that if that this album was released immediately after Morbid Tales, then I would completely understand the backlash and wouldn’t be bragging on it near as much as I have in this review, because while Vanity/Nemesis is good, it can’t hold a candle to the band’s earliest material. However the fact that this was Celtic Frost’s apology album for their previous abortion of a release forces me to look at it differently and try and consider everything they did right instead of trying to find all of the mistakes I can in it. I’m not saying that everyone needs to be a fluff critic or stop thinking about the music they listen to critically, but it is important when looking at music to consider the situation surrounding the album and how it compares to the expectations set for it. Expectations for this album were not exactly high, but the fact that it (to me) surpassed those expectations is definitely commendable. It’s certainly not enough for me to consider it a masterpiece, but what it does in comparison to what came before it makes it a great album in its own right.
Vanity/Nemesis is far from Celtic Frost’s best album, but because it improved so much upon its two predecessors, I do believe that it deserves a lot more love than it gets. The problems that affect it are pretty easy to look past, and it has plenty songs that are very entertaining in their own ways. It’s definitely a compromise album, but it’s a compromise album that displays just enough a return to form to make it worthwhile. All in all, Vanity/Nemesis is a great apology for what came before it, and it’s a shame that to this day, the music world still hasn’t fully accepted it. Hopefully Monotheist at least convinced more people...