On paper, Czech black metal might be an ideal style for people who struggle to get into the harsh sound that we’ve come to associate with Norway and yet I wouldn’t be surprised if a first impression of Ritual would cause some confusion. Forget descriptions such as second wave black metal, or thrash/black metal… Czech black metal was quite something unique and it wouldn’t take some years before you could find like-wise albums outside of Czechia (think of Mystifier’s amazingly-titled third album, for example).
In Master’s Hammer’s case, we’re dealing with a flexible style of black metal that for the time was quite something. The real treat of Ritual comes down to the guitars and although there’s a healthy dose of thrash injected into the guitar work (think of the title track or “Věčný návrat”), you would never call Ritual a black/thrash metal album. Just compare the differences between other Czech black metal albums such as Root’s Hell’s Symphony or Crux’s Řev smrti and you’ll notice how prominent the blackened touches of Ritual are. We’re also dealing with an authentic vocal performance that’s unlike anything that I’ve ever heard before. This vocalist relies on a breathy rasp that becomes pretty sinister once the guy starts to laugh in a maniac manner (and he does that several times, mind you). It’s a distinctive vocal delivery that you’d never expect of a Nocturnal Culto or Varg Vikernes and just like the vocals of other several other Czech black metal bands, it makes Master’s Hammer stand out from the crowd.
However, none of this would matter if Ritual was a mediocre album, but for the most part it delivers. The first few songs fluently follow up after each other, yet each expresses a variety moods and musical ideas. “Pád modly” quickly moves past a chanted introduction and immediately starts to channel early Iron Maiden, but instead of some catchy lead harmonies, you end up with a bulky rhythmic attack that harkens all the way back to their debut. While this may not promise much black metal just yet, the second track already shows how much ahead of their time Master’s Hammer really were. At their most intense, the riffs have a tendency to hammer onward with a sense of urgency; add a few blastbeats into the mix and you end up with “Kazdy Z Nas”. The leads also stand out, as the instrumental title track features a nice interplay between gritty riffs and suspenseful lead playing and yes, the riffs sound rather thrash-inspired here, but it’s one of the minor exceptions to the rule (the other one I’ll mention later). On a related note, “Geniové” sounds a bit more evil, with a brief lead-attack at the start that vaguely reminds me of death metal-era Amorphis, but it quickly becomes clear that you’re still listening to Master’s Hammer and no other band.
Stylistically, Ritual remains consistent, but quality-wise, I can’t help but think that some tracks sound somewhat less-inspired, even if they feature some interesting minor features. “Černá svatozář” has that well-executed guitar solo that’s memorable from note to note, “Jáma pekel” has that eerie chorus “hook” to it and ‘’… Vykoupení” is another song that puts the lead guitarist in the spotlights with its well-crafted main motif that you won’t forget anytime soon. To me, these tracks leave to be desired in terms of superb riffs, as the guitars sound less intense here and hence, these songs sound slightly under par when compared to the album’s highlights. Make no mistake, that’s not to say that everything that you’ll come across near the end sounds poor; “Věčný návrat” has some serious fire to it with a series of stinging riffs, before morphing into a hurricane of blackened vigor and “Utok” makes an epic and contrastive monolith of a song. The keys sound at their most haunting here and manage to convey an enormous fog, but this doesn’t stop the guitars from storming with malice… add a timpani and some insane laughter of the vocalist to it and you end up with a great album closer.
While Master’s Hammer’s Ritual isn’t my favorite Czech black metal album, it’s still worth giving it a try – for both historical and entertaining purposes. That said, newcomers to this style might have a hard time getting used to this style; an accessible album this is not (but then again, how many early 90’s black metal albums really are?).
Score: 75/100 – Blackened Czech attack
Release date: 1991
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