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Ages ago I remember downloading Master Hammer's debut album Ritual because of the hype I had heard about it. I absent-mindedly listened to it once or twice, not paying a ton of attention to it. I deleted it from my ipod when I realized that there was something wrong with the download and some of the songs cut out before being even halfway done. I forgot about Master's Hammer until hearing that they were releasing a new album, Vracejte Konve na Místo. Anyway, from what I do remember of Ritual, there were some pretty cool riffs and keyboard passages, so I decided to give it a try.
I really like Vracejte Konve na Místo. I downloaded it when I visited the Czech Republic, the country of the band's origin, and got very acquainted with the whole album there. Completely unsure of what to expect, I came away from the album quite pleased with all of the infectious riffing and melodies, and the way that every song is packed full of memorable moments. The sound of the album itself may be a tad on the 'mainstream' side of things--the vocals aren't much more than spoken growls; nothing to abrasive, and the stand-out hooks and riffs are something one might expect in an older, more traditional metal band. The production is very clean, but still gives the guitars and bass a good amount of bite. The incredibly varied drums, shifting from traditional to tribal beats, are perfect in the mix, as is everything else. I just especially appreciate the drums because it seems to me that all too often drums are much too high in the mix of music of this sort. By genre I suppose one could call Vracejte Konve na Místo an industrial metal album--the black metal genre that the band is known for is more of an afterthought and not featured very prominently in their sound. I can't say this affects me personally one way or the other, because I was never very invested in the band's earlier black metal efforts to begin with. The riffs, while simple, work very well in moving each song along a path of structure and flow, and keyboards, where used, are executed to make a lot of great leads, such as the one in Šumava. A lot of interesting things are done to lift up the music and make it come off as very unique. There are some good breaks where one or two instruments take centre stage and introduce a melody. This happens several times in Ve Víchru Nicoty and Pantheismus Dobra. Many different keyboard effects are used in each song, an acoustic passage serves as the backdrop for the verse of the track Lingam A Mikve, and a mouth harp is used in several parts of Šumava. All of these instruments that go outside of the boundaries of the basic drum/guitar/bass line-up give the music a lot of dimension and gives the listener a lot to listen for and concentrate on. There's always a lot happening to fill interest, and none of it comes off as overdone.
The main vocals are, like I said above, a type of spoken-word black metal growl in which I can hear every syllable of the singer's voice. I wasn't too keen on this monotone vocal style at first, but there's a certain indescribable charm to it that works along with the rest of the music very well. It almost sounds like some sort of ancient, tribal chanting that, to western-cultured ears like mine, brings forward an interesting sense of foreign culture. Besides this style of vocals, there is a peculiar singing style that comes in every once in a while, featured most prominently in the chorus of Námořnická and towards the end of Nordfrostkrampland. These vocals are in a high falsetto which completely contrast the deep spoken word growls featured by the main vocalist. Again, I wasn't too keen on the style at first, but it really grew on me. I think the vocal harmony of Námořnická's chorus, for example, is one of my favourite sections on the album precisely because of the sound of the two vocal styles stacked on one another. It's really catchy, too.
That, I think, is what I like best about this album. It’s very infectious, and its variety of tempos, tones, and song lengths allow for a lot of memorable moments and songs. Thinking about the album, I easily remember the sounds of the chorus of the title song, and hell, even though I can’t understand Czech, I’ve even tried to sing along with it because the music is so catchy. I remember just about every passage in Lingam A Mikve, most especially the guitar solos and underlying acoustic riff in the verse, I remember the keyboard melodies of Šumava, the chorus of Ve Vichru Nicoty, I remember the chanted vocals on Lovecraft… it’s just an album one can take a lot away from, especially on repeat listenings. I don’t think there are any songs that necessarily don’t work in the album… at least in the version I have. I should mention that the CD track list of this album is a bit longer, including a remix of the track Flammarion and an interlude called Dreaming Bulldog. Both of these tracks are very unnecessary for the album. Dreaming Bulldog doesn’t do anything atmospherically; it’s just very boring and pointless, and totally kills the momentum the album had going for it up to that point. The Flammarion remix is also totally useless, and it eliminates the effect of the final track, Pantheismus Dobra, with its extended interlude that I thought worked very well to bring the album to a close. That’s why I prefer the LP track listing to the CD track listing so much. Besides that, there are a few minor moments where the album gets a tiny bit on the repetitive side. I find the chorus is overused on the track Podejte Mi Samopal, and by the end I can't remember much about the song other than that one part. Most of the songs, however, do not come close to being this way. I also think that Master's Hammer would do well to create longer, more expansive songs, and a little more variety of song structure would really help make their music more well-rounded. I guess I only have one more complaint to bring up about the album, though it is a minor one. I find that, to an extent, the band relies a bit too heavily on alternative instruments to create memorable moments. This can definitely be chalked up to their unique sound (and they do have a rather unique sound here), but I would have liked to have a few good guitar riffs that aren’t as simple as the others. Many of the riffs are quite straightforward. Anyway, this is a very personal preference of mine and considering the unique blend of industrial music and the atmosphere of ancient times and cultures, the problem is overshadowed. The good on this album far outweighs the bad.
I find myself challenged in coming up with my top three favourite songs from this album, because as I said before I think every song (of the LP track list) works well on its own and cohesively with the rest of the album. I guess I’ll mention Pantheismus Dobra (it has a great forward drive, an interesting keyboard interlude which I love, good riffs and a nice flowing structure), Vracejte Konve na Místo (I really appreciate its classic heavy metal riffing and that catchy keyboard-backed chorus), and the third choice… I guess would be Ve Vichru Nicoty (I just love the vocal harmonies of growling and deep, almost Gregorian chanting and its several keyboard breaks), though I was torn between that and Šumava. But this is an album where you can’t go wrong picking any song to listen to. All are very accessible and listenable, with good hooks and a good flow. There’s very little downtime, and if you buy the LP there’s even less of it. While not the grittiest or heaviest metal album out there, it’s sure to please. It would probably serve as a great way of introducing people to extreme metal without dumping the heaviest of heavy on them.
Truth to be told, this time we were somewhat prepared. The great comeback with “Mantras” three years ago had paved the way for the return of Czechs Master’s Hammer in discography but most of all into their (even few) fans’ conscience. Yet the shivering emotions produced from listening to this year’s opus “Vracejte Konve Na Misto” (“return the pots to their places” or something like that) are of such strength that one stands astonished before the grandeur of a band that had disappeared for almost 15 year from the scene.
What if the elements that structure their sound come from the distant past? The proto-black metal riffs, the solos and the bombastic drums, integrated with tricks and innovations from the early 90s such as keyboards and synths (used from MH even since ’92), the feminine vocals; those were the ingredients that made the Czechs special then, these same ingredients keep them on top now, in an era of post-modern bands. It’s the aggressive central European sound, derivating from early Celtic Frost (and less from Bathory), that influenced bands like Samael, Mortuary Drape an of course Master’s Hammer who had an extra disadvantage (for the majority of the fans, since for the true followers it was also a plus) by using their native tongue in their lyrics. Anyway, the fact that in 2012 a record like this one, provokes the senses with its epic intro (“Nordfrostkrampfland”) or with the instrumental “Dreaming Bulldog” leading perfectly to the mean-to-be-hit title-track (listen to it and you’ll start singing “Okultisto, nihilisto, vracejte nam konve na misto!” without even noticing it) is one more proof that sometimes the older becomes the better.
Coming to a closure, the fact that this release is entirely independent without any support from a label, and still comes in a very well presented digipack (as well as in LP format for vinyl fans) shows that in the end good taste and knowledge come above everything else. And that scene newbies (however special they might be –and some of them indeed are) always have to walk with at least one eye turned to the heritage of the pioneers…
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