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.