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The black metal 'golden age' of the early 1990's seems to almost exclusively inspire fans to think of Norway, with particular regards to the whole 'murder, church-burning, suicide' game of musical chairs that made the genre a seasonal favourite for media sensationalists, and a mark of concert for conservative Christian mothers worldwide. Of course, the appeal and mystique of black metal was by no means limited to Northern Europe, and as some might argue, it wasn't even the place where the best music was being made. Cut to what is now known as the Czech Republic; a band called Master's Hammer recorded their debut 'Ritual' in 1991, creating some well-deserved praise for a band that was doing some fairly sophisticated things with the then-youthful genre. By the next year however, much attention in black metal had scopes on Norway. Although 'The Jilemnice Occultist' (or 'Jilemnicky Okultista' in the original Czech) did not receive the degree of recognition and awe that it deserved, Master's Hammer took the style of black metal into progressive depths then yet unexplored by any others. 'The Jilemnice Occultist' is arguably the most accomplished black metal of its period, and even today holds the title for one of the most effective uses of keyboards in the style.
The band find their sound rooted in a meeting between thick Venom sounding riffs, theatrical vocal work, and symphonic flourishes that many have tried to emulate, but none have managed to execute as well. The edge of the keyboards never attempts to mimic a full orchestra- something often doomed to fail within the context of a limited budget- instead, the keyboards are either used to provide spooky piano rolls over the guitars, or back up the guitars themselves to flesh out the rhythm. In taking their moderated approach with the keyboards, Master's Hammer evade the greatest fault I find with much symphonic metal, in that the keyboards will too often weaken the intensity of the guitar. Vlasta Voral's keyboard work is among the most distinctive aspects of the album however, and while it is primarily aimed to support the guitars, it adds a wholly new melodic dimension to the music that actually compliments the spooky occult atmosphere of the album. Master's Hammer's sound is incredibly vast for a black metal album released in this era, with the recording's only blight being the fairly weak sound of Mirek Valenta's drum kit. The musicianship itself is without weakness across the board, and though the songs themselves may not be as distinguishable as they are on Mayhem's 'De Mysteriis,,,' record (this period's go-to black metal masterpiece) the songwriting on 'The Jilemnice Occultist' is remarkably consistent, although the second track 'Among The Hills, A Winding Way' may be my favourite cut off the record.
Master's Hammer hold alot of 'firsts' in black metal with 'The Jilemnice Occultist'. Most notably, this is the first time a black metal record was ever tied together with a storyline. Similar to King Diamond's penchant for horror storytelling, the album has a plot where dark magic takes the centerstage, creating a complex tale that would not look out of place in Gothic horror canon. For better and worse, the lyrics are all rasped in the native Czech tongue, meaning that many English-inclined won't get to experience the storyline firsthand. Although this leaves many listeners to explore the storyline through online summaries and booklets, the phonetics of the Czech language sound absolutely diabolical when sung by Franta Storm. Although he already took his place as one of my favourite and most distinctive black metal vocalists with his powerful rasp on 'Ritual', 'The Jilemnice Occultist' has his vocals go wild, running from his traditionally dramatic and high-energy performance to griefridden sprechsegang that sometimes sounds like it could be Gollum shrieking. His very distinctive style may have some questioning whether they love it or hate it, but I can mention few black metal frontmen with such an eerie sound to their vocals.
The fuzzy classic metal riffs, ingenious symphonic touch and undeniable vocal brilliance of the band's frontman make 'The Jilemnice Occultist' still one of the greatest black metal albums even today. The band's debut had much of this same charm and occult atmosphere to it, but Master's Hammer's experimental risk here pays off in full. While the folks in Norway may have outshadowed the rest of the world with their antics, Master's Hammer matured the sound of black metal here to such an extent, that it would take other bands nary half a decade to catch up to them. A virtually flawless record.
This has to be the most criminally overlooked band and release in all of black metal history. By 1992, with The Jilmence Occultist, Master's Hammer had developed a facet of what Bathory began with Blood Fire Death, achieved what Emperor's entire discography would repeatedly attempt and fail to, and what Dimmu Borgir might dream of conceiving by 2092.
In every right a significant advancement beyond their formidable debut, Ritual, Master's Hammer performed the rare feat of expanding on text and texture while retaining the raw intensity that made Ritual the captivating listen it is. Astoundingly, Master's Hammer managed to squeeze a great deal of sophistication and orchestration into this album and not at the expense of any of the balls or evil contained in their first record whatsoever! In fact, it's an even rarer feat to create such a stand-alone masterwork that manages to greatly surpass and yet greatly compliment its predecessor. Truly, this must be heard to be believed.
Well, what does it sound like? Unlike anything else you've heard in metal. One of the only metal bands to (successfully) employ a timpani player, Master's Hammer added a great deal of synth-generated orchestral sounds to accompany their percussively symphonic boom. Harp, strings, tubular bells, piccolo and much more are all contributing synth textures that make up this dark and brooding journey. However, while harmonically dense and at times murky, the core of guitar drums and bass remains present and driving throughout, complimented often by the band's skillful layering of orchestral themes and atmospheres.
Atmosphere: this is certainly the most impressive quality of The Jilmence Occultist. While Ritual had sufficient energy and bite to make up for a lack of depth to the delivery of monumental melodies, here the band plays with a determined restraint both pummeling and tonally rich. Each melody is clear, impacting and beguiling, keeping the listener thoroughly entrenched in the mysterious journey they started when they dropped the needle.
In fact, it is the seemingly complex storyline (the album is an operetta: a mini-opera) and the vocal delivery that makes this record such a compelling listen. I don't speak a word of Czech but this album has a hypnotic grasp on me when I am in its midst. The performance is one of audible conviction, aided beautifully by the charismatic eccentricity of singer Franta Storm. The guttural, speech-like range he covers gives a fascinating, theatrical quality to the pieces, without crowding the already intricate melodic content. I'm not sure if it's his real name or what it translates to but 'Frantic Storm' is definitely a poetically accurate description of what he sounds like.
Master's Hammer are one of the last and the few in a very strong, early strain of Eastern European black, metal spearheaded by the illustrious Tormentor. The isolation these communist countries had in the 80s from the small but growing black metal underground contributed to their highly original and influential interpretations of the sub-genre. Master's Hammer persist to this day as one of the best examples of this.
If you are so lucky as I to recognize this stylish record sleeve in a milk crate somewhere, do not hesitate to snatch it up! There is also an NWN! 4LP reissue with Ritual, which, with its larger grooves, does a sonic justice to this album the original Osmose pressing falls short of.
BUY OR DIE!
This album is just so strange and abstract. Pretty much what you're getting here in a mixture of Sigh (first to middle era) and Tormentor (Hun). These guys combine the doom and strange atmosphere on the former with the awesome speed/thrash riffs of the latter. The vocals are very unique, I can't say I've heard anyone else like this guy. It's very hard to describe, maybe like he's sucking in air most of time.The production isn't bad, although the production sounds more like 1985 than 1992. I couldn't imagine this coming out in 1985, maybe 1988, but definitely not '85. Apparently this is like a concept album or something, but all the lyrics are in Czech. I'd really like to see the concept behind this album, because if the lyrics are as strong as the music, this could be a total masterpiece.
The you'll notice some strange instrumentation, such as the harp in the first song, and some things that sound like kotos or some other folk instruments. This only adds to a dense atmosphere. The riffs though are always there. Whether they're crushing you with some slow doomy riffs or some fast black metal it's all great. These vocals are quite something else. I have the feeling people wouldn't like them, but they fit the music and the overall feeling of this album perfectly. The ideas that are here are quite amazing such as in the song "I Don't Want, Sirs To Pester", there's a section with an awesome speed metal riff and some cool drumming which enhances the riff, a horn section, a timpani and a slow screeching solo over it. This is not your every day BM, that's for sure. "A Dark Forest Spreads All Around" has a huge BM atmosphere and blazes forward with a nice thrash riff and some great keyboard work that detracts nothing from the music. This is quite headbangable stuff.
Highlights would be "A Dark Forest Spreads All Around" and "Among the Hills a Winding Way", although nothing here is bad. Overall if you like "Scorn Defeat", "Anno Domini", "Under the Sign of the Black Mark" or anything like that, you will dig the fuck out of this. The musical ideas here are very strong, and very unique, but awesomely easy to headbang to. Nothing here is even remotely weak. This band deserves more credit. This is essential. Whole heartedly RECOMMENDED.
On this album, Master's Hammer take a slightly different approach than on their superb debut, "Ritual". This is a concept album, a "black metal operetta" as they referred to it, and is definitely progressive in the sense that the band throws in a lot of grand and peculiar ideas. Some of these ideas work amazingly well, whilst others do not. The silly band photos would pretty much let any black metal enthusiast know to tread carefully, in any case. It's pretty run of the mill to try and be progressive and experimental in metal these days, but this wasn't nearly so common, at least among black metal bands, back in 1993. I think this album was truly revolutionary, in terms of its execution and concept, and there's nothing quite like it out there.
This is a black metal love story, of sorts. The main characters of the tale are a student of the occult, a beautiful witch and the Duke of the Jilemnice Castle. There's a sort of love triangle going on, coupled with some magical/spiritual manifestations and the disgrace of various secondary parties. However, the concept will be lost on nearly everyone, as although the band has decided to include some rather silly sounding English translations of the song titles, there is not even an English summary of the concept within the CD booklet. Ah well, one can read up on this at master's Hammer's website. The story itself is pretty interesting, although it all seems to go a bit pear-shaped near the end and stops making any sort of sense...this could also be due to poor translation, I suppose. But what about the music itself?
Here, Master's Hammer have taken the basic formula they worked with on "Ritual", and added a few elements such as a very heavy use of tympanis and some computerized orchestration. Due to these additional elements, it seems they've also decided to strip down the riffing a little. The fabulous guitar riffs are still in tact, but they are a lot less frenetic and there are fewer of them in each track. Because of the tympanis, the standard drums, although still played, are relegated very much to the background of the mix this time, playing fast, semi-blastbeats and really letting the tympani do most of the over all rhythm work. This is probably one of the most unique features on this album, and although it takes some getting used to it actually does sound very good, though I wouldn't want to see too many metal bands trying to emulate this technique. Add to all this a generally strange, non-standard use of melody and song structure and a very mysterious, magical atmosphere as befitting the story being told and one has an idea of what to expect. Unfortunately, a few of the songs just don't really seem all that strong, and function mostly as vehicles for Franta Storm's incomprehensible narrative. Luckily, at least half this album is really excellent, and the only other weak point I can single out is the synthesized bits..they sound...well, not cheap in the traditional sense, but sort of funny, rather off-kilter and jarring.
After a weird intro that starts with a sampled harp glissando, reminding one of a dream sequence in some surreal cartoon, or maybe a vaudeville comedy, the first song begins, and this is one of MH's best. It starts out with an almost rock n roll riff, that wouldn't be out of place on a Black Sabbath album..except there's gliding harp strains being played over it that now add a sinister touch. The song glides through unexpected tangents, including a rather bright and cheerful piano solo and a strange bit of dissonant guitar noise and crazy, cackling laughter from Storm, who's vocals are thankfully along the same spastic lines as they were on the previous album. The real highlight of "The Jilemnice Occultist", though, is "I Don't Want, Sirs, to Pester Your Ears". Wow..the bombast and might of this track just has to be heard. It makes absolutely perfect use of the tympanis, includes some really excellent wailing, reverberating guitar leads and sounds like a fucking death march. Actually, I believe this song, lyrically, describes the Duke Von Satropold boasting of his hunting ability whilst drinking with his men. It's suitably pompous and huge sounding, and it is just magnificent. "Glory, Glory, herr Heiptman" starts off with some really awkward sounding computer doodling that is reminiscent of an Atari video game gone wrong, however not long after this the band lurches into another powerful, uplifting bombastic piece that even features some decent tenor range singing from Storm. Finally, there's "My Captain", which, predictably, boasts a confident, militaristic feel and a simple yet very catchy melody that forms the basis for the entire song.
So no..this doesn't work as brilliantly well as "Ritual"....but it will definitely grow on listeners who persevere with it. It's very much not an instant album, and often works like this prove the most rewarding in time. Despite its slight shortcomings, "The Jilemnice Occultist" has a very strong atmosphere, essential for black metal, and even those who have no idea of the concept behind the album could probably sense the Bohemian, mystical (in a late nineteenth/early twentieth century sense) of the music. The fact that the album is so evocative really lends credibility to it, I think, despite it's obviously pretentious nature. Those who enjoy real black metal but would like to experience something a little more out in left field might wish to give this one a try. Just give it time.