Impressions of a Cult Classic: Jilemnicky Okultista by Master’s Hammer
Several months ago, I wrote an article about how I had looked for Jilemnicky Okultista by Master’s Hammer, but I was only able to find Slagry and the much more recent Formulæ. I spent several pages discussing Slagry and why it’s actually not bad.
Well, I placed an order for a ton of Master’s Hammer merch after that, including basically every recording they had for sale on their webshop, and I for one am absolutely shocked that they ended up being the kind of weirdos who would make a record as experimental and strange as Slagry. Shocked!
The format of this thing really is a black metal operetta, right down to having a libretto in the liner notes and a cast of distinct characters. The only drawback, at least if you don’t speak Czech, is that it can be tough to track down a translation of the libretto, though all the movement and scene titles are in English except for the 2017 re-release or demo version. If you happen to really like both Romantic-era Slavic classical music and black metal, then this record will be right up your alley, though this takes compositional influences from both spheres, rather than writing orchestral music and trying its best to shove metal in where it can.
Honestly, having this disconnect between the music and being able to understand what’s going on in the story started to really hamper my enjoyment. It’s well-crafted and odd, and just adventurous enough to satisfy without turning away potential listeners who aren’t prepared to take more than a cautious step outside of their comfort zone. But story and theatrics are such an integral part to opera as a genre that the complete language barrier was more than just a minor annoyance. I wanted to know who this Jilemnice Occultist was, and what they are doing, and who the hell this weird laughing guy was. Luckily, Wikipedia and a translated version of the libretto on a metal forum came to my rescue.
The operetta is in three acts, set in Bohemia in the year 1913. At the time, the town of Jilemnice was a hotspot for occultists and mediums, so a young occultist named Atrament heads to the town to further his studies. He settles at an inn and falls in love with the rich innkeeper’s daughter, Kalamaria, who is secretly a witch. The town’s captain of the police force, Satrapold, is also in love with the daughter, and wrongfully arrests Atrament on false charges, then kidnaps Kalamaria with the help of his stable boy, and they flee to Satrapold’s castle. From there Satrapold plans to run to Cairo with Kalamaria, betraying his stable boy in the process, who flees to a nearby town in disgrace. Before they are able to leave, Kalamaria uses her powers to discover Satrapold is actually a villain named Poebeldorf, who had captured the real Satrapold. Poebeldorf used to be Satrapold’s assistant but betrayed him with a plan to become the town captain and steal the town’s and Kalamaria’s riches before escaping to another land to start his new life. Kalamaria defeats Poebeldorf with her witch powers and frees Satrapold and Atrament, and Poebeldorf is arrested. Everyone celebrates at the inn.
If you want a preview of what you’re in for with this album, you can give the Ouverture a listen, which in keeping with the operatic form, showcases snippets of every important motive on the album before gracefully transitioning into the first movement: “Among the Hills, a Winding Way.” The sparkling synth lines in a major key really provide a counterpoint to the heavier guitar and give a sense of adventure and epic-ness without being too cheesy. About 2:45 into the track, the guitars provide a great emotive background to the “sprechtgesang” (sing-whisper) between Atrament and a fortune teller. It’s also nice, in a way, to see that for a band that made the decision to have a dedicated timpanist, they actually put him to work with some fairly involved parts in every movement.
Again keeping with the Classical and academic style of composition, in this case “borrowing” themes and motives from other compositions, the opening bars of “Everything That Just on my Whim” contains a possible borrowing of the opening bars of Anthrax’s “Caught in a Mosh,” though the song continues to develop that motive, treating it as one of the main rhythmic lines throughout the track. This is also the first track to break from the black metal rasping and feature a short burst of “operatic” vocals, more than likely from a minor character.
“Glory, Herr Hauptmann . . . !” opens with a hint of what the group would develop toward not just Slagry, but also all their new records, with a seemingly out of place synthesizer strain that sounds pretty robotic. This theme comes back a few times in the song, with the guitar doubling the line before riffing into texture and solos underneath. It’s an odd thing to have in a story set in 1913, but in context as this is the penultimate of the “story” tracks, I think the synthesizer maybe plays the part of Kalamaria’s magical powers as she defeats Poebeldorf. It’s an interesting texture to be sure and it might actually be one of my favorite movements in the piece.
The whole album is a testament to the sort of strong compositions you can get when you use classical and academic composition skills to treat the band as its own ensemble, rather than trying to write for a symphony and then shoehorn the metal ensemble in as we see so often when symphonic metal falls short. As far as actual listenability and casual enjoyment go, I do like Jilemnicky Okultista over Slagry, though I do still like the odd turn the band took at Slagry quite a bit. I’m also glad to see that Storm has been putting the entirety of the Master’s Hammer discography up on BandCamp recently, and you can pick up a digital copy of Jilemnicky Okultista now instead of having to wait a month and a half for a shipment from the Czech Republic. If you’d like to read the story as you go along, just like you would with an actual opera performance, someone has taken it upon themselves to put up a translation of the libretto for Jilemnicky Okultista, as well as translated lyrics for the album preceding it, Ritual. I hope you check this album out, as it’s definitely earned the cult status it has. I also hope you check out the rest of the band’s work, as Master’s Hammer has made a strong showing this year with the release of a brand new and pretty damn good album.