The story usually begins in late 80s or early 90s and in one of the many corners of the world. In this particular case it is 1987 and the Czech Republic (or Czechoslovakia, as it was back then). Master’s Hammer was founded on the brink of the Velvet Revolution, which would come in two years later, in 1989, and would end the communist era of the country. With the heavy metal tapes of 80s like Motörhead, Venom, Slayer, Mercyful Fate, etc. and fanzines finding their way into the country; Czechoslovakian youth founded more and more amateur, underground bands to play their own music as loud as possible, and as the sound got more and more extreme all around the world, as hideous as possible.
The late 80s were interesting and very fertile times for black metal because the strong influence of Norwegian second wave black metal sound had yet to take hold; all the early bands from all around the world were trying to find their own unique sound and their own unique approach. Unsurprisingly, most of these early acts of violent and hideous metal were still strongly rooted in 80s heavy metal as it was their main influence and main thing that inspired them to make their own noise in this world. The early Czech scene is no exception, in fact the country has one of the most prominent black/heavy sounds of early 90s with bands like Master’s Hammer, Root, Amon, and Entrails in addition to the early black/thrash acts like Törr or Crux.
Reading philosophers like Schopenhauer and Ladislav Klíma, Master’s Hammer were full of anger and desire to yell at and spit into the face of humankind when they founded their band. Their inspirations and intentions can most certainly be considered more sophisticated (yet filthy at the same time) than what the Norwegians had in mind when their blend of black metal surfaced. From Franta Štorm’s own words (who can be considered the “main guy” in Master’s Hammer and who was also studying at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague when they founded the band):
“Czech black metal was not about church burnings nor brutal murders of bandmates – our Satanism was referring to Baudelaire, Josef Váchal and occult traditions of delirious clochards of our mountains. The cult of revulsion was mirrored in our gloomy lyrics as well as in the reek of the cracked drainage in our rehearsal room, which was located in dark cellar and furnished by moldy egg cardboard boxes.”
Even though they started their musical journey at a very volatile time politically, their minds were off the worldly matters like the revolution, Iron Curtain, or the public in the streets. They played dirty, raw, aggressive metal on their 80s demos as well as at their handful of not-so-successful live shows. Some of the demo material would also eventually end up in their debut full-length, Ritual, which came in 1991.The album was just the beginning of what would be a very long, weird, and unorthodox journey for the band.
Coming out as early as 1991 but already one of the most forward-thinking, creative black metal albums of its time (as well as today), Ritual is actually the band’s most traditional metal album. Strongly rooted in the 80s heavy metal sound; with its guitar tone, production, and most importantly riffing style, it might as well be called “dark heavy metal” -a term which is embraced and used nowadays by a contemporary current band in the very same style, Malokarpatan.
Master’s Hammer had no intentions to keep things stable and play a safe, familiar sound for years to come. They say that while nothing is sacred to a typical black metal band, for them even black metal itself has never been sacred so they started “attacking” the genre itself right after their debut by experimenting with electronic samples -their adventurous attempts actually resulted in one of the most creative synth usages on an album in the history of black metal on their sophomore output, Jilemnický okultista, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
Ritual took a smooth, mid-tempo melodic heavy metal sound and successfully made it darker. Small but tasteful keyboard touches, combination of harsh and occasional clean vocals, lyrics in Czech, strong occult themes, a more level-headed approach to black metal with galloping rhythms instead of non-stop blast beats, and the very clean production for a black metal album from ’91 all played a role in this. Another thing that clean production does is put the emphasis on the fantastic guitar work, the leads, and the solos while keeping every instrument easily and clearly audible.
The first intro riff of first proper track, “Pád Modly”, immediately sets the mood for the album. Surely, this does not mean that the album is a monotonous piece by any means. At parts it gets more beautiful, at some other parts it gets pure occult and evil but all the while keeping that unique early Master’s Hammer sound A song that deserves a special mention is the title track, “Ritual”. A three-minute long instrumental song could never be any more successful to summarize the old school black/heavy metal sound without relying on any kind of harsh black metal vocals. It showcases the beauty, the melody, and the dark sound of it all.
Ritual would go on to heavily influence the Norwegian circle who released the first important wave of their releases in ’92 even though the album sounds and feels richer, warmer and thicker than any early black metal album that came out in Norway. More recently, with easier access to music thanks to the Internet; it is even more recognized how creative, ahead of its time, and influential this album was. The movement of some newer, modern bands directly worshiping the old school black metal sound with plenty traditional heavy metal in it gives us quite a bit of new albums with a similar sound and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone amongst those bands who wouldn’t consider early Master’s Hammer as a main influence.
Album rating: 100/100
Favorite track: Jáma Pekel