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]