Bohemian rhapsody: Root and Master’s Hammer

It was old style black metalling, before it got such a bad name. That, at least, is the perception of these disparate scenes of the late 1980s taking root (I’ll refrain from making too many Root based puns from here on in), looking for a way out of thrash and death metal’s mire. The renewed fixation on nostalgia has led many to look more closely at this era, beyond the surface level aesthetics and the Bathory/Celtic Frost dominated narrative. Pivotal as these giants were, just a few years later new artists sprouted up all over the world with a unique interpretation of an underground scene in a state of perpetual reinvention. One important but oft overlooked piece of this puzzle is the Czech scene. This could also be considered as a link between the otherworldly occultism of Finland and the more melodically minded Hellenic style. Root and Master’s Hammer are perhaps the best remembered names from this branch. And both had a unique approach to this marriage of heavy metal with occultism and the extreme metal stylings taking shape at the time. If we are charting evolution, what is perhaps most interesting about these artists is how they bypassed the rising death metal style of the time almost completely.

This fact is most true of Root. Their debut ‘Zjevení’ released in 1990 could be understood as a heavy metal band playing – or rather pre-empting – Mayhem’s ‘De Mysteriis Dom. Sathanas’. The reverb washed guitar tone and open string tremolo picking may well be largely absent, but this album offers a fine crop of dirty, evil, occult metal. There are two overriding flavours that seem to define each track. The first are those that take on an alternative interpretation of ‘Under the Sign of the Black Mark’, rendered through a crisp, open mix, replete with clear but raw drums, and a sharper guitar tone. These tracks blast by with thrashing speed and energy that one cannot help but be carried along by. The second kind of track displays the undeniable eccentricities of ‘Zjevení’. They are characterised by some slower, droning passages that call to mind (or rather predate) Samael’s early work, crafting an oppressive, intoxicating atmosphere through doomy tritones, repeated refrains, and stop-start rhythmic patterns.

But it would be impossible to talk of this showering of quirkiness without mentioning Valter’s vocals (or Big Boss as he likes to be known). This is really where singing meets theatre performance. His voice ranges from deep, soulful clean chanting of simple three note refrains, to full on distorted growling, to rasps and overtone techniques that are almost on the level of Mongolian throat singing, all rendered at the lower end of the spectrum of course. This gives the music not only a unique character of its own, but also opens up a new dimension of creative expression. It’s a voice that can fill out the slower passages with depth and drama, or else spit out quickfire lines made up of many syllables, following the frantic tempos of the drums to build the pace and momentum of the music as required. Big Boss is no King Diamond, but the broader expressive range he brings to the black metal framework can work in unison or contrast with the guitars, and imbues the music with colour, life, and a healthy dose of tasteful humour if you’re in the mood. It’s notable that this was one feature of early black metal that was not picked up on in the decades that followed. Although the hardest to imitate or perform in a manner that does not invite ridicule, it’s a wonder that black metal vocals became such a homogenous institution after these earlier examples of bizarre and colourful ejaculations.

Beyond this, the guitars rule all. They combine rock solid, mid-paced heavy metal riffs with a touch of evil articulated through some well-placed dissonance. The tone is crystal clear if a little tinny, perfect for articulating the staccato chugging of more simple, punk orientated riffs. But there is enough decay on the ringing chords to carry forward the oppressive doom passages as well. When these lower inflections are combined with Big Boss’s earthy vocals, a unique experience is fashioned out of what is for all intents and purposes a relatively straightforward mix. At once grand and romantic, yet primitive, punky, and raw, the range and depth of this album is not to be underestimated. It has an undeniable character and freedom of expression lacking in many modern interpretations of the old school that Root were born from. Sometimes, the genuine article simply cannot be replaced.

Master’s Hammer have gained something of a following from modern fans, most of whom are probably younger than the band themselves. Thanks to the power of the internet many have delved back into these gems lost to time, and discovered the origins (really trying to avoid those root puns) of how the raw primitivism of early Bathory and Hellhammer/Celtic Frost was transformed into the majestic beast black metal became in the mid-1990s. And this happened through albums like Master’s Hammer’s debut ‘Ritual’, released in 1991.

The mix displays all the shortcomings of a lot of extreme metal production of the time, before producers really knew what to do with bands like this. Despite the pillow punching drums, and a bass without any mojo whatsoever, Master’s Hammer were able to imbue this raw metal punch with a sense of grandeur and romanticism rarely found at the time. The guitar tone has that intentionally tinny quality to it that distinguishes it from death metal. It retains its sharpness in the face of this, operating at an atmospheric level alongside the all-important articulation of the riffs. These are accompanied by some well placed keyboards that fill out the sound left by the weak bass, and fully commits the rest of the music to the dark and spiritual aesthetic. Franta’s trademark vocals are already fully formed here; harsh and inhuman. They retain enough clarity to follow the phrasing of the guitars for certain passages, but along with Quorthon’s performance on ‘Blood Fire Death’ signal a very different direction for distorted vocals for the years to come. Frantic, hoarse, a little strained at times, but utterly expressive and captivating.

But outside of these clear and distinct elements that point to ‘Ritual’ aiming for esotericism over full throttle ear bashing, it is still a very riff driven beast. Which means the album stands or falls depending on how we read their construction. It is not the fact that Master’s Hammer were overtly aiming for a different sound by playing with timbre, tones, and overall delivery; what’s more important to consider is their manipulation of heavy metal and Bathory style occult thrash riffs into something new. We can see this throughout the course of ‘Ritual’, as power chord driven riffs give way to minor key harmonies, melodies informed by dark romanticism and basic tritones. The thin guitar tone, catered more to unsettle than bludgeon, begins to inform the very shape of the band’s compositions as they realise the strengths and limitations of their chosen sound palette. It’s these influences we can hear on ‘Ablaze in the Northern Sky’ or ‘Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism’ released the following year, or the direction Mayhem were honing at this time. What’s also interesting is the presence of easily identifiable guitar solos that are rooted (stop it) in the classic heavy metal tradition, and how different they sound in this darker context. They sometimes invoke the idea of life’s affirmation or triumphalism to this otherwise downbeat proceeding.

Both these albums bring very similar things to the table, both work with a very similar set of techniques and intentions, but the results turn out to be wildly different. At the end of the day, ‘Zjevení’ is a much dirtier, sloppier, more frantic conveyor belt of early black metal. Whereas ‘Ritual’, despite offering all of these things, aspires to an atmosphere and space that speaks of romanticism more than it does the primeval. For that reason, both should be considered essential listening for anyone that calls themselves a fan of old school underground metal. It also makes the weekly ritual (a non-root-based pun) of choosing one album over the other all the more difficult. For my money I am going with Root. This may simply be the fact that ‘Zjevení’ has retained its uniqueness, many elements have not been successfully imitated in much of the metal to follow. ‘Ritual’ can boast this too to some extent, but it feels like more familiar territory all things considered. But ultimately, we must reiterate the disclaimer that both these albums are essential listening as far you’re concerned. Yes you!

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