Monday, July 13, 2015

Master's Hammer - The Jilemnice Occultist [1992]

I've always been hard-pressed to find that Master's Hammer's groundbreaking sophomore was never considered a fountainhead of black metal, being a magisterial and delightfully bizarre work of avantgarde music of its own, since I've consistently found it above the quotient of such sacred cows as ''De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas'' or Burzum's early body of work, not that I question the significance of these albums in the question of upraising the genre from its inchoate beginnings to fulfillment, nor that I find them 'bad' in any way, but particularly because the mysticism and originality of these Czech antiquarians have to my ears bestowed greater eerie beauty than any of the aforementioned. Granted, understandably, even hot on the heels on their killer debut, a practice in occult Hellhammer and Celtic Frost, the Czechs hadn't the audience back in 1992 to heed their call, but that still doesn't delineate how ''The Jilemnice Occultist'' is inexplicably shrouded in near-obscurity today. This is bar none the greatest Czech black metal album ever recorded in the country, notwithstanding being one of the finest black metal albums to emerge out of Eastern Europe, and though the band's decision to integrate queer, folksy operettas into the core of their raw first wave black metal scree would amount to the greatly unpopular and 'un-metal' ''Slagry'' within three years, I still fucking love it.

Just look at that cover. Sleek bat-like shapes peer jaggedly from the sides. A magician's hat and wand. A sweet looking black Les Paul's. Benignly occult adornments hanging from the wall. In truth, this is what ''The Jilemnice Occultist'' has in store. There's a similar focus on these coarse, black/thrash rhythms and broad chops as with ''Ritual'', with equally eloquent and mystical octave chords here and there, maintaining a relatively tentative pace for the album in general, but overall the guitar work is latticed with a greater deal of complexity and memorability, but likewise I love that the album consistently complements in predecessor and builds on its merits rather than starting completely anew. To wit, the guitars are wondrously dark and perfunctory, and conversely, there weren't many bands which were practicing the level of intricacy and occult lore-fed obscurity which the Czechs masterfully filtered through their instrumentation: if you think about it, the black metal circle was still quite limited beyond Hellhammer and Celtic Frost, who had long soared into a viking metal foray which I can only regard with indifference, and only Darkthrone and Burzum producing 'big' records. Master's Hammer fortunately had their peers Root to compete with, who were likewise very early entrants into the game, yet ''The Jilemnice Occultist'' manages even to beat Root's ''Temple in the Underground'', with its heavy/speed influence and experimental choral effects, in terms of overall quality.

But back to the music. What really makes this such a jump in quality from its predecessor and grandiose exploration in the avantgarde is, of course, the synths. Whatever track your shuffle takes you to, you're bound to land on some model of the synthesizer, which is now played with doubled frequency, ranging from the eerie crepuscular overtures like in the preliminary intro track, to these freakish, yet enchanted keys which sound as though they were plucked out of an illusionist's hat (how very fitting, eh?), but however much they may belong in some bag of Gothic bizarreries, the synthesizers and keyboards add an awe-inspiring sense of frolicking and frivolity, a dazzling, operatic folksiness which is pretty much non-existent in any other black metal album I've heard. There are just tons of excellent examples to the fusion of sordid black/thrash riffcraft and magical synth-work which entails it on the record, from the bass-loaded blast-beat attack of ''Oh, My Precious Sir, Do You Remember When...'' to ''Among the Hills a Windy Way'' which strides with these gyrating cacophonies of whammy bars - the 'occultist' succeeds nearly with every second. But, alas, how could I neglect Franta Storm on vocal duties? His minimalistic, seemingly amateurish inflection is there for a purpose. He coughs, laughs these uncanny Slavic slathers, and not to mention his rasp has only gotten better, with added semi-cleans reminiscent of the kind of choral vocal splendor Root was experimenting with at that time. ''Glory, Herr Hauptmann'' is this ridiculous black metal fantasy evolving with webs spun out of the imagination of synthesizers, nightmarish and heavenly at the same time, with an interlude of orchestral hymnals before erupting into another brilliant, scabrous black/thrash attack.

Naturally one wonder what these guys were thinking or what they were on when ''The Jilemnice Occultist'' was being recorded. Ritualistic and poetic would be a naive and artsy understatement. Otherwordly doesn't encompass it. This is a record which, at any rate, deserves to be experienced, and at least a few times repeatedly for the full effect, because the 'basic' attitude of the riffs and the lack of anything truly labyrinthine, this album ages with quality, like proper wine. The cohabitation of operatic and orchestral fancies with traditional, frosty Hellhammer influences is likely to serve as a major caveat for purists and retrograding listeners who want to hear nothing but the raw buzz of undiluted Norwegian black metal in their music, but the truth it, with such imaginative sophistication and a crafty enterprise sprung out of curiously fiddled nightmares and darkly pirouettes beyond the artistic comprehension of so many of these 'cult', 'raw', 'pure' or 'old-school' black metal bands, ''The Jilemnice Occultist'' doesn't give a fuck. So much of this masterpiece twists and soars in my head: the vocals, the harrowing or at times enchanting orchestral work, the riffs, that I've found it impossible after some point to permanently disintegrate this from my cranial compendium of the black arts. It is, to be sure, a sliver or two shy from absolute perfection, but an unsung evolutionary phase in the genre nonetheless that deserves its accolades. Sheer alienating, Gothic, morbid majesty.

The album was initially misprinted as ''The Filemnice Occultist'' because of a typo. Whatever the band and that typist had during the span of 1992-93, serve me a round of that.

''I Don't Want, Sirs to Pester...''
''Among the Hills a Winding Way...''
''Oh, My Precious Sir...''
''Glory, Herr Hauptmann...!''

Final Rating
Masterpiece [9.3/10]

Monday, July 6, 2015

Master's Hammer - Ritual [1991]

Master's Hammer's debut ''Ritual'' is one of those albums which comes with your early second wave black metal starter pack, along with such cults classics as ''A Blaze in the Northern Sky'', ''Hell Symphony'', ''Burzum'', ''Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism'', ''De Mistiriis Dom Sathanas'' and ''In the Nightside Eclipse''. Yet somehow in terms of 'cultness' ''Ritual'' exceeds the reputation of all the aforementioned records, a grisly, Eastern European response to Celtic Frost/Hellhammer, a record that stands the test of time both with its inherent sense of menace and evil, and its seemingly casual rawness, earning the praise of being 'the first Norwegian black metal album', despite belonging to the Czech Republic. Granted, the early 90's exemplified the sheer crudeness of early black metal, and before the time when Scandinavian black metal outfits poured from the skies like devil spawn during the mid-late 90's, there was a brief stone age, an antediluvian margin of time where demons devoured each other, angel carcasses were abound, and Master's Hammer subsidized some of the most ungodly music around.

Of course, it helps that the market was very unsaturated for black metal back in 1991. Robed in subtle overtures of atmospheric synthesizers and obscure beauty, ''Ritual'' channels a fundamental uniqueness in addition to its undiluted black/thrash hauteur which would later bequeath their sophomore masterpiece ''The Jilemnce Occultist'' with the title 'black metal operetta' which still holds today; looming keys a la early Emperor (though I would argue Ihsahn was probably more influenced by the Czechs than the other way round) are not dominant here, but they have a masterful, huanting quality which perpetuate the kind of folksy, ritualistic ambiance which Master's Hammer channel, especially with longish tracks like ''Pad Modly'', but really, keyboards are just a fragment of what makes ''Ritual'' such a bonafide attraction of early black metal. Where Burzum bathed in constant fuzzed darkness and embalmed forestry, Darkthrone practiced sheer, impenetrable evil, taking the Hellhammer influence to far colder region, ''Ritual'' was all about these mid-paced, almost groovy and syncopated chord progressions, octave laden but not melodic, and while the grittiness of this record still partakes in the rudimentary ghastly mess of Tormentor, or Celtic Frost circa 1985, there is a ribald and sinister feel to the riffs as they congruently evolve into more intricate, well-developed adaptations of their source material, perhaps slightly interchangeable, yes, but nonetheless varied and retaining sufficient clarity within the guitar and drums to appeal to fans of both 'cult', extinct demos with dilapidated production values, as well as connoisseurs of newsprint black metal recordings and those third wave acts like Ragnarok and Nokturnal Mortum.

It's not that ''Ritual'' doesn't feel like a doom metal record at times, it does. I don't always find this expropriation of 'pure' black metal aesthetics and dive into slow Celtic Frost territory very appealing, as in tracks like ''Geniove'', since the synths which back the lurching guitars at this point are hardly potent enough to create dream- or nightmarescapes on their own, providing a mere choral aural undertone to refurbish the rhythm department, and needless to say the band is better on its fast-paced, black/thrashing fervor. But whatever song is played, except the instrumental title track and atmospheric intro, vocalist Storm does a great fucking job of perpetuating the atmosphere with these raw, unhinged barks, that sound surprisingly professional. Some resonance, and the dude sounds like a fucking turbaned Bedouins smitten by leprosy, barking and coughing his way through the songs as though half-burnt and half claimed by a tumorous death; I'm even more in favor of his inflection in the second Master's Hammer record, where he romps up the performance with demonic coughs and sardonic laughter, but at any rate, with its distinctly entertaining shoveling of Czech lyrics, ''Ritual'' is one of the strongest contender to black metal vocal work far and wide across the genre. The native lyrics, while seemingly ostracizing for some, frankly add a terrific degree of calculated and almost poetic clamor to the record in general, and as with just about all heavy metal albums sung with their native tongue, I love this.

Like most early black metal recordings, ''Ritual'' lacks the longing and frigid mysticism of, say, ''Transilvanian Hunger'' or ''In the Nightside Eclipse'', but that's not to say it's a damned impressive offering overall and a record that was very much ahead of its time. ''Jama Pekel'' with its percussive, blast-beat oriented thrashing verse attacks and pungent, declarative chorus line alone should be able to convince any follower of the black metal cult that this is a record which deserves more recognition, full of winding and dark corners twisting into crude semi-nightmares and thunderous Eastern European skies, it is a record which very much evokes the jagged patch of terrain represented in its cover art, one of those midnight haunts every witchfinder should indulge in if he/she can find the time, and surely enough they will. Or, you could also regard it as level ladder to climb the theatrical cavalcade of their sophomore, which easily remains their best, and gleefully take pleasure in the skeletal liturgy as you work your way to the top.

''Jama pekel''
''Věčný návrat'' 
''Pád modly''

Final Rating
Awesome [8.5/10]

Monday, June 22, 2015

Ghost Story - The Image and the Reality (Demo) [1990]

The truth hurts. While so many undeserving acts receive recognition and pundits beyond belief, those whose fates are as tragic and fragmentary as Ghost Story becomes lost in the billowing wind. Fortunately, with the technological benefits ushered in by the 21st century, hunting down an obscure demo such as the Atlanta quartet's ''The Image and the Reality'' becomes a much easier task than to have acquired the demo by tape trading in the early 90's. Ghost Story and their second demo are significant for two reasons: not only does the sound existing within these five tracks possess the potential to champion most thrash or speed metal outings that were being put out by 1990, but the sound itself is quite unique, a stunning tribute to the power/speed/thrash traditions of the 80's that, without conspiring to move the genre's foundations in any manner, manages to become one of the most potent and memorable heavy metal demos of all time.

Yes, you heard it right, and the joke is on you if you're smirking behind your PC reading this, smiling at the laughable crudity of the cover art, because ''The Image and the Reality'' is fantastic. There is no tandem to quality here, since each track serves equal portions of ass-kickery, but I love that the band diverges from the linear thrashing simplicity or speed/thrash filth offered by so many of its peers, and a general feel of power metal here runs parallel to the well-forged arsenal of riffs, which are entirely memorable excursions into the wide fulfillment of the genre at large, and you're bound to hear anything from ''Rust In Peace'' era Megadeth to more progressively oriented speed/thrash a la Angent Steel, Toxik, Coroner and Watchtower to more obscure power/thrash acts from the early 90's like Mystik or Stygian. There is a certain hooking quality to the riffs that makes them both immensely entertaining and also slightly moving. ''I Won't Change'' is a good example, with a broad thrashing rhythm accentuating the verses and moodier breaks into ballad-esque arpeggios and melodic guitar solos. But the group also harnesses these chugging, looming that feels completely satisfying in terms of mood and sway, with pure wisps of clear power metal melody reminiscent of early Fates Warning crowning the remaining bits and pieces. Of course despite the marginal variants, Ghost Story's focus remains a furious dialect of speed and thrash metal, like the excellent verse of ''Repent'', full of twisting but uncomplicated riffs which sound like an awesome addendum that Dave Mustaine forgot to add to his first two Megadeth discs. At any rate, the rhythm section remains extremely tight and killer, with no frugality of headbanging material.

Rob Thompson's vocals here are part of what makes the demo so damn unique. A versatile detachment from the classic harsh Teutonic rasp, but retaining enough audibility, poignancy and an arousing timber to sound fresh, I'd say he sounds like a more controlled, gruffer Sean Killan, but all the same he can seamlessly weave into a different tone according to the undercurrent of guitars: granted, he doesn't feel like a majestic soaring banshee destined to bewilder a listener as on a classic like ''Think This'' or ''Control and Resistance'', but he still sounds almost immediately distinguishable than the umpteenth 80's thrash rehash I'd hear. For a demo, the production here, just like everything else, reigns supreme. Sure, you might need to raise the volume a tad before you can really hear the music, but the drums have a crisp tone to them and never perambulate in terms of volume as on an occasional demo recording; the guitars are copious but they never overfeed the mix; and the bass is surprisingly audible in a Steve Harrison kind of way, ballasting the metallic crevices of the guitars with some sweet, raw lines. In terms of instrumentation, Ghost Story sure dwell into a lot of 'contemplative' discourse riffing, more often than a regular thrash act, but the long moments are never dull as to cull boredom from the listener and they're smart enough to break off from the more melodic, moody instruments-only plateau just in time to cut into a fierce chorus or bridge. Every song is truly legendary here, within its minimal cult status: from the introductory arpeggios of ''I Won't Change'' to the irresistible chorus on ''Silent Masses'' to the unforgettable gap riff midway ''What Few Even Dare'' which has stayed with me ever since my first spin, ''The Image of the Reality'' is one of those rare recordings, which, assuming the shape of another abstruse obscurity, heightens to the level of a full-length, beating so many at their own game that it makes my flesh prickly just thinking about it. Truly, its only fault is its brevity and slightly cramped production that feels only natural. Otherwise, find this at all costs, and if you're a collector of heavy metal demos, you've already wasted your time reading this reviewer's fanboyish rant about it.

''Sanity Web''
''What Few Even Dare''
''Silent Masses''

Final Rating
Masterpiece [9/10]

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Cyclone - Brutal Destruction [1986]

It might be a sad fact that Cyclone suffered from anachronisms throughout their brief career, but they nevertheless managed to emerge as one of the best Belgian thrash outfits with only two full-lengths at their belt. While their sophomore was a tour de force in the realms of classic, albeit chunkier Bay Area thrash, complete with a characteristically dark and alluring atmosphere, back in 1986, when Bay Area thrash was just finding its way around the woodwork with cornerstones like ''Master of Puppets'', ''Reign in Blood'', ''Darkness Descends'' and ''Bonded By Blood'', the Belgians were keeping more to the German rule book, boasting a vicious, uncompromising Teutonic aesthetic which Kreator, Destruction, Sodom and Tankard were promulgating at the time, doused in speed metal. As crazed and energetic it may seem to purists, ''Brutal Destruction'' is not the most memorable piece to be excavated from its time, even though the Belgians obviously had a good head start.

Cyclone always seemed one step behind the world, which is probably why they were lost in the throngs. Had this record come out 2-3 years before its release, it would easily had been hailed as one of those cult pre-'85 recordings, with ragged production values and undiluted, sporadic speed/thrash riff ballasts supporting its cult status. But that's not the case here, since ''Brutal Destruction'' feels like an average ringlet in the whole circular universe of thrash recordings, even at a time when the genre was still fresh and malleable. Still, that's not to say ''Brutal Destruction'' is bad; while I'd still say this isn't as impressive or technical as something Dave Mustane would have crafted at the time, speedy guitar licks and delicious lead snippets inserted into a broader, savage thrashing undercurrent, Cyclone is notably 'German' here, with a sound that reminds one of the earliest Destruction and Kreator records peized randomly and stuffed into a nice speed metal cauldron, yet not as evil as some of Sodom's early recordings, stripped almost entirely from all sense of melody. Ripping, ribald muted tremolos and occasional heavier moments that borrowed a riff or two from ''Pleasure to Kill'' give the impression that the band members where still uncertain whether they should go by a more straightforward speed/thrash aesthetic or a slightly more complex hefty thrash barge (it turns out they picked the latter in the end, although not on this record) with reasonably outrageous and corny song titles (''Take Thy Breath'', ''Incest Love'', ''In the Grip of Evil''). Unmuzzled and road-driven as these riffs are, it's hard to take Cyclone too seriously, even with the evident energy bestowed upon their performance: this is 'real' 80's metal for sure, but it also feels more moderate than the higher octane body of works that was being put out at that time.

The vocals give that frenetic Paul Bailoff effect; they're amateurish (not unlike the sophomore) but there's enough shrieking and shouting to be heard to make them enjoyable. I'm not going to lie that the guitar tone and the production levels are surprisingly impressive for a record out of 1986. The chords, the drums and even the plodding, one-dimensional base lines are all suitably integrated into the mix, and if anything, the leads, in all their frivolity, are still fairly entertaining with a sporadic blues attitude, reminiscent more of a ''Kill 'em All'' than ''Infernal Overkill''. To be honest, there are good tracks here: ''Long to Hell'' and ''Incest Love'' are both quite compilation-worthy, fiendish shouting and successively rabid riffs galore. ''Fall Under His Command'' is probably my favorite tune here, possibly because of its swirling panorama of guitar solos and a bulky, percussive main riff coupled with some more fanciful, tremolo picking episodes, but in the end, none of these tracks are really on a par with the premium material that was being released in '86-'87, nor do they cast a wide net of creative reinforcement upon the genre. Needless to say, I'd vie for the Belgians' sophomore over this any day for its sheer crushing majesty, but ''Brutal Destruction'' yet remains as one of those half-unearthed mid-80's speed/thrash gems that deserves a discovery (or rediscovery) at the hands of collectors or purists, and even beyond that it remains a spry and rampant declaration of the genre's hostility against those who supposedly flattened out its tires with tongue-in-cheek during the early 90's. Poseur-free as always.

''Incest Love''
''Fall Under His Command''
''Long To Hell''

Final Rating
Mediocre [6.8/10]

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Cyclone - Inferior To None [1990]

Unable to come into commercial fruition due to the financial constraints of Justice Records, Cyclone ''Inferior To None'' is perhaps one of Belgium's best-kept secrets of the 80's and early 90's, not solely for the fact that I've almost never seen a genuine metalhead give a nod towards its direction, but because it retain some of the 'classical' approach of thrash that largely dissolved by 1990. In fact, so much of this album's musical constituents are built on the foundation of ''Master of Puppets'' and a handful of other pivotal Bay Area thrash records that it's hard not to admire the Belgians' commitment to the transition from the rougher, frolicking Germanic aggression of their debut ''Brutal Destruction'' to the grandiose scale of this record, even if took them 4 years. I imagine ''Inferior To None'' was still sucked in by the painstakingly devoted heavy metal subculture existing in and around Belgium in the 90's, but even today you could count yourselves lucky if you caught a glimpse of it scanning lists or obscure forums, which is shame because this is easily one of the best  Belgian thrash outings, ever: I'm not going to shake my head and moan in despair for the sheer underestimation that has entailed this record for over 25 years, but this would be a good place to start on telling you why you should start adding it to your collection.

Surprisingly, ''Inferior To None'' is less glazed and technical than, say, a band like Forbidden or Atrophy, sporting a dense, dark production quality that I can't exactly equate with any other thrash recording of the 80's or 90's. You have to give the Belgians some props because despite emerging on the dawn of groove and grunge the songs here are don't sound anything like Pantera of mid 90's Sepultura, with the groove and swagger of the rhythm is not unlike the transformation of Chastain on their 1990 ''For Those Who Dare'' which also bolstered 'groovy', even modern-ish production levels in contrast to the grainier texture of their USPM/heavy metal output in the 80's. But that aside, ''Inferior To None'' is such a dark and classy adventure full of riffs and fantastic, bulky drumming that it easily overrides the primal aesthetics of the debut, with pummeling verse riffs and lengthy songs not unlike the ones on ''Master of Puppets''. Of course the album doesn't contain one 'Leper Messiah' or 'Damage Inc.', but you can bet that the approach is similar, coated denser guitar tones and a far more ominous atmosphere than bands which were performing thrash in the early 90's; I also wouldn't say any of the songs are infectiously catchy, but honed with care and precision enough to make this one tantalizing bulk of a riff-fest.

Guido Gevels's vocals, admittedly, don't quite hit the sweet spot when it comes to operatic skill. I would compare the man to Sean Killan, but more controlled, yet despite this his fanciful singing falls perpendicular to the crushing parade of riffs and proves to transcend what might have been a painful attendance to thrash vocals 101, and instead we get a surprisingly effective performance. He'll occasionally go for a resonating shriek or bark, not unlike those of the legendary engineers of the Teutonic howl, like Millie, Tom Angelripper, or even Ron Royce of Coroner, as on ''So Be It'', and indeed even though I've dubbed ''Inferior To None'' a 'controlled' album, it only acquires that tag as an improvement over its predecessor, because there's such a wall of well balanced flesh and chaos to be enjoyed here that Gevels's raspier moments still hold credibility. To be sure, the leads here are spurious but not to the point that they're on par with the gigantic rhythm department which looms over the record like the daunting, titular door on the cover. The chugs and palm mutes are so scabrous and majestically heavy that ''Inferior To None'' doesn't always feel a far cry from a doom record, with something like ''The Other Side'' serving as a middle-paced crusher, delivering thrash justice. ''I Am The Plague'' is one the shortest pieces on the record and in my opinion, rushing and vivacious while still retaining the album's signature heft and eeriness. The band also manages to elude typical thrash/heavy/power pitfalls by supplanting a generic ballad for the beautiful instrumental ''Crown Of Thorns'', a sweeping humdinger with percussive, even anthemic drums and moody transitions.

All told, I wouldn't be able to cite so many 'golden' moments on this record since everything isn't exactly so different from one another (a few moments truly stand out) and I wouldn't have minded a greater sense of melody for a record of such depth; but in the end it all comes down to the sheer effort put into this powerhouse, which leaves me wanting for more. How many bands were performing thrash like this in '90? Devastation and Demolition Hammer would put out their respective anvils in the following few years, but those would be roving far too flirtatiously with death metal to be called 'pure' thrash. Even Sepultura would abandon the uncircumcised brutality of ''Beneath The Remains'' for something slightly more technical with ''Arise''. All the tech-thrash bands - Coroner, Toxik, Watchtower, Mekong Delta, you name it - were configuring intricate guitar palettes with machine-like precision (I actually do love their releases at that time, but that's another story) and there was little room for what Cyclone were harboring. It's far from perfect, but just settle on the ''Crown Of Thorns'' and give this disc a chance - you owe it yourself, thrasher.

Crown of Thorns
I Am The Plague

Final Rating
Awesome [8.5/10]