Review Summary: A classic album from the unknown Czech masters of early black metal Master's Hammer.
Master's Hammer were one of the very first Czech black metal bands, originally forming all the way back in the mid 80s and playing an extremely simplistic form of proto-black metal still entrenched in the thrash/speed metal tendencies of their Eastern European contemporaries such as Törr, Root and the mighty Tormentor. All of these bands would go on to release landmark albums with the highly distinctive and unique sound found in early Eastern European metal. Master's Hammer would reach this goal in 1991 with their masterpiece "Ritual". As one of the first bands to incorporate folky elements into black metal while retaining their a heavy thrashing sound and interestingly strange songwriting, Master's Hammer were a challenging but very rewarding band.
When approaching Master's Hammer the first thing one must take into consideration is that this stuff predates the second wave explosion of Norwegian black metal in 1992 which forever changed the popular conception of the genre and lead everyone to expect bands to be like Darkthrone, Burzum or worse yet Immortal. The second thing is the locale of the band. Czech and other Eastern European metal groups in the 80s and early 90s had frequently strange and uncommon styles which are often very dissimilar to what most most metal fans expect. Bearing these things in mind, Master's Hammer created some interesting, well written, heavy and at times downright zany music. From their Czech folk infused tracks (something unheard of in black metal at the time) to their weird and sometimes off-kilter thrashers in the vain of Tormentor but with unique touches, they had a lot interesting stuff to bring to the table.
The production is clear and audible with an old analog tone that allows the harshness and filth to flourish. Everything is held roughly equally in the mix allowing each instrument to be distinctive and appreciable. The musicianship is cleaner than one might expect, as the clarity in production sharpens the sound so as not to hide any potential mistakes. The riffs vary from chugging thrashers to heavy/speed metallish lead parts (sometimes with folky touches) and even to dissonant tremolo picking (something uncommon this early in black metal's development). Even the palm muted riffs work in more eerie diminished sounding chords fusing the early thrash/speed metal style with what was becoming modern black metal. Some of the solos (yes, black metal had guitar solos in these days!) also made some interesting use of dissonant and offkey notes which works well into the general strangeness of the sound. The bass lines can be distinctly heard, and while they mostly plunk along to the rhythm of the guitar, they occasionally foray into some interesting territories with booms and pops accentuating the weirdness of the riffs. While I generally disapprove of synths, especially used in a folky style, this album makes good use of them (and thankfully uses them sparingly) adding in some strings or choir sounds to accent the more "epic" sounding riffs. Vocalist and primary songwriter Franta Storm has a particularly odd style. His vocals are almost like wheezing rasps rather than screams, yells or grunts. Adding to the strangeness is that all the lyrics are in Czech and mostly audible (some people dig that foreign touch, makes em feel cultured or something). The drums are fairly straightforward, mainly using simple mid-paced blasts during the thrashing parts, but also using a galloping sound seen in later folk-related and "epic" black metal. Another interesting percussive element is a thudding tom that sounds like some kind of war drum. Highlights of the album include the instrumental thrasher "Ritual" and the catchy "Jama pekel" (which will have you screaming along in a language you've never heard before), although all the tracks are great.
Master's Hammer took me quite a few listens to get accustomed to, as I am most often opposed to folky or "epic" sounding black metal, but it appears that having predated the second wave (foregoing any Norwegian influence whatsoever) and having come from the uniquely strange Czech Republic made Master's Hammer a very different and worthwhile band. While it doesn't quite fit in with the pallet of the average modern black metal listener, Master's Hammer are a captivating and strange little band and their "Ritual" album is a landmark release in the genre despite being frequently overlooked. For fans of classic bands like Tormentor, Root and Mortuary Drape who innovated and mastered black metal in the 80s and early 90s without any help from those dirty Scandinavian pigs, "Ritual" is an essential release. Even for the connoisseur of wimpy folk-laden epic nonsense this release should prove a rewarding venture. Also a quick disclaimer: Master's Hammer's second and third albums were real turds. Don't touch those with a ten foot pole. And finally... get this album now!