MASTER’S HAMMER, the seminal proto-2nd wave Black Metal (=before Norwegian influence overrun the genre), is one of those bands that everybody’s heard of, but not that many have listened to. Even fewer are those who seriously enjoy their works. And I mean all their works, not only the hefty, violent Black Metal of their demos and their first album, 1990’s Ritual. MH are what you would call a cult band, which is why their sudden and unsuspecting reunion in October last year didn’t send any shock waves throughout the Extreme Metal scene (compared to, for example, the Swiss drama queens with make-up who, like MH, really enjoyed their timpani), though it certainly raised a few enthusiastic eye-brows among the more heavily patched denim jackets across the globe.
What makes MASTER’S HAMMER so special, historically, was their complete irreverence to trends and Black Metal conformity. Already in 1989 they were using more or less symphonic keyboards and the trademark timpani (they even had a timpanist in the band, incorporating that percussive element to the music, live and in studio, not just for the exotic flavour). The seminal “The Jilemnice Occultist” album from 1992 is not as much an album, but as a thoroughly composed Black Metal operetta, with narrative, recurring themes. A masterpiece in its own terms. Eat your heart out, Dimmu Borgir. The subsequent 1995 album “Slagrý” was as much a farewell to as a raised middle-finger against anything called metal; it sounds more like Nobuo Uematsu directing Laibach in a Bohemian beer hall. Or something. Then nothing happened for 14 years, and save a cult following (wearing a lot of old-school patches, probably), MASTER’S HAMMER were forgotten – perhaps not forgiven their transgressions against the Holiest of Holy, Black Metal.
As is detailed in my interview with vocalist, guitarist and main composer Franta Storm, MH is a very laidback band. And you hear that. The thirteen tracks of Mantras were composed and recorded in about 6 months (except the classic “Jáma Pekel”, which dates back to the late 80’s, here enhanced by a choir of chirping frogs) – it’s clear when you listen to the album that it’s a spontaneous work; some parts sound a bit glued together, perhaps not every riff adds to the whole in a positive sense, some tracks are easily forgotten. But whatever that slight critique may weigh in an overall examination of the album, it doesn’t matter, really. The vinyl version of the album has fewer tracks, and on the CD you can skip a track if you get bored. That’s really not Franta&Co’s problem, and you hear that. They make music for themselves (no labels, everything is self-produced, but honourably professional), they are not trying to make you listen. It’s you choice. And I choose to. So what do I hear?
First of all, the production is heavy and clear. Monster’s bass is very chunky, and the guitars lay like a snowy blanket over a field. To continue that simile, the electronic elements (symphonic and electro), the vocals and the timpani stand out as trees and bushes from the snow on that field. The drums are played on pads, making the sound a bit more synthetic, but that’s no biggie. Franta’s sore screams have dropped in pitch and force (he’s got to be in his forties by now), but are as rancorous as ever. The songs, all similar in shape and sound, independent and lined up (unlike Jilemnice Occultist’s narrative shape or Slagrý’s unsettling dynamics), retain the core of the immediately distinguishable MASTER’S HAMMER sound. Most songs are based on clear, enchanting melodies and themes, played on guitars and organs (Hammond and church); I think of them as small roads winding through verdant central European valleys and hills – you can see where they are going, without many unforeseen surprises, but it is still a great pleasure to follow their twists and turns. Harsh and beautiful, but without the forcedly histrionic drama and shallow romanticism you normally find in symphonic metal. As MASTER’S HAMMER have always been.
For a Black Metal band (as they still claim they are), there is not much traditional Black Metallery here to be found; MH somehow manage to negate the past 18 years of Norwegian influence upon the genre. The riffs are heavy and bludgeoning, but relate more to ordinary rock music than Death Metal (but do for the Devil’s sake not think of any recent BM/rock crossover). Mantras is not modern, nor is it old school. Again, I think of central European forests and fields – like them, MASTER’S HAMMER are timeless.
A couple of tracks stand out from the crowd, like big rocks raised centuries ago in a beech forest (can’t seem to leave those similes behind!). “Bodhi” and “Ganesha Mantra” are more electronic than metal; the former swathed in sequenced guitar and synthesizer melodies on a looped drum rhythm – the synthesizers sound more like Welle:Erdball than anything metallic. The latter of the two is even farther out, it’s basically a seriously cool techno song with metal guitars, heavy on the Indian influences in percussion and vocalisation. “Propesko” on the other hand is a bluesy ballad, complete with organs, hoarse almost-out-of-tune singing, and echoing guitar licks. But it still sounds like MASTER’S HAMMER – like the mentioned rocks, they form natural parts of the whole landscape.
With Mantras, MASTER’S HAMMER efficiently show that you don’t have to try to prove anything, be it how dark and evil, weird and experimental or profound and poetic you are. They have gone many miles beyond having to prove anything. For MASTER’S HAMMER, it is about doing what you want, what you feel like. Enjoy life, or whatever. It’s your problem, ultimately. A very liberating attitude nowadays when Extreme Metal has become more pretentious than ever. MASTER’S HAMMER is about something else. About going fishing perhaps, or spending quality time with your friends. And you hear that.
Note: If you want to buy this album, I suggest you try the label link above to buy it directly from the band.
Release: December 2009
Label: Self-released Via Stormtype
Avantgenre: Black Metal Enjoying Life, Exploring Sounds
Duration: 54:17 (cd)
Origin: Czech Republic
Official site: http://www.mastershammer.com
Review online since: 23.02.2010 / 21:04:59
03. Az Já Budu V…
06. Cervené Blato
09. Propesko *
10. Fantasie *
11. Ganesha Mantra *
12. Jáma Pekel *
* Only on CD version