Revisiting a Truly Unique Album: Master’s Hammer – Slagry
A look back at 1995’s nightmarish combination of classical music and black metal.
It was the middle of November, and I had once again made the mistake of participating in NaNoWriMo. Having fallen pretty behind on my word count, I went to a coffee shop, set down my laptop, ordered an overpriced cup of coffee, and promptly looked up black metal recommendations. I had to get myself in the mood, after all. One of the lists I found placed Jilemnický Okultista by Master’s Hammer pretty highly, citing an experimental style far ahead of its time for a 1992 black metal album.
Turns out Master’s Hammer is a pretty big deal, with influence that trickles down through many of the big names in black metal. Fenriz purportedly half-jokingly called their album, Ritual, the first Norwegian black metal album, despite the band being Czech (he apparently said this on a MySpace post, but it’s no longer in existence and not on the Way Back Machine because it’s fucking MySpace), and still names them as one of the progenitors of the black metal sound before the Norwegian scene became more unified in musical styles. The frontman of Master’s Hammer, Štorm, has strong ties to the legendary Czech black metal band Root, designing the typography for the cover of their first album. Behemoth covered their song “Jáma Pekel” on the Ezkaton EP, with Big Boss and Igor Hubík from Root doing guest vocals.
I was intrigued, and looked the band up on Spotify. Jilemnický Okultista was nowhere to be found on their artist page, just Slagry and Formulæ. Formulæ was a much more recent album than Slagry, 2016 vs 1995, so hoping to get a feel for what the band’s sound was near the time of the recommended record I picked Slagry, pressed play, and immediately thought what the fuck is this Frank Zappa shit?
The opening track, “Savlovy Tanec”, opens with wind, water, and distant-sounding horns, descending in minor chords as electric guitar layers behind them, adding strength as everything grows to a crescendo and leads into a rendition from the deepest pits of clown hell of Aram Khatchaturian’s “Sabre Dance,” a classical piece memetically known as wacky circus music alongside Julius Fucik’s unfortunately named “Entrance of the Gladiators.” A lot of Slagry could be used as the soundtrack to Killer Klowns From Outer Space without much of a hitch. Needing to actually get some work done, I put the album down as a miss and hunted down something a little bleaker and more atmospheric.
I couldn’t get Slagry out of my head, though. That night I gave it another listen and looked up some more about the record. Most of it consists of covers of or variations on other work, especially classical and folk music. Like mentioned before, there’s the “Sabre Dance”, which is then followed by two traditional Czech folk tunes whose performances sound like they’re straight out of a PS1-era JRPG: Ach, synku, synku; and Půjdem Spolu do Betléma, which has the added bonus of a young boy’s choir that is not quite in tune. This is followed by an original work by the band’s frontman, Franta Štorm, entitled Indiánska píseň hrůzy, a song which Drudkh covered on their EP Slavonic Chronicles. The track shows more of a “traditional” metal sound with the return of electric guitar, though it’s still not the place to go looking if you want to bang your head to something. The next track is “Carl Czerny op. 849,” which is Carl Czerny’s opus 849, one of his piano studies, with the sound in reverse. Things were still intriguing but I hadn’t been drawn in yet.
Then the next track, “Rock’n’roll Music,” hit. I was hooked, though a part of me felt that maybe I shouldn’t be. It’s supposedly a cover of Chuck Berry’s song of the same name, though I would call it more of a variation. The original Chuck Berry song is playing throughout, slowed down to the point of being complete nonsense, meanwhile the cheesiest of synthesizers plays the vocal line at a sluggish but recognizable speed while drum machine and more synthesizers play a repeated pattern underneath. Maybe it’s due more to Chuck Berry’s writing, but damn this thing is catchy. It’s the track I jump to when I listen to this record. If and when I get married it’s going to be the track for the first dance.
The next track, Vzpomínám na zlaté časey, keeps the theme of slowed down vocals. The title and lyrics are that of a poem by an unknown poet, with music by Štorm and Vlasta Vorel, the keyboardist. The instrumental parts are full of clusters and folky lines, both of which are my jam, though usually without the experimental electronic element. After not much in the way of an ending cadence, the album rather unceremoniously moves on to the penultimate track, a rendition of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco,” where about half the instrumental parts seem to have been chosen by sitting around and figuring out which settings on Vorel’s keyboard sounded the goofiest.
The final track, Hlava Modernistova, is the only real black metal song on the album, complete with the occasional burst of operatic vocals, though it’s less ICS Vortex and more wobbly Slavic baritone with extremely wide vibrato. Štorm’s vocals are pretty impressive, though, and the song was intriguing enough to get me interested in their other, more “conventional” albums. The drawback about this song is that since everyone in the band except Štorm and Vorel is absent from the record, everything sounds a little anemic, especially in the drum department, and a few of the motives in the guitar feel a little weak and goofy.
Slagry doesn’t come without its share of controversy, though. A review on Encyclopedia Metalum by Abominatrix gives some possible background, stating that around the time of this record, Štorm fired everyone from the band except for the keyboardist, and began making derogatory statements about both black metal and rock music in general, a sentiment that would be interesting, to say the least, coming from someone who still closes out the record with a black metal song. They also state that the insert for the album warns listeners that only those above the age of twenty-something should listen to the record, a claim which I can’t verify as I was unable to get my hands on an actual copy and even if I had I don’t speak Czech anyway. If it is true, however, black metal stalwarts should be glad they at least held onto the insufferable pretentiousness that comes with the genre for this album. Slagry ended up marking the end of Master’s Hammer until they came back in 2009, actively recording and performing since then.
Slagry is like a nightmare vision of what someone would imagine when they hear about people who are into both classical and metal music, yet seem to fundamentally misunderstand exactly what metal sounds like. The difference is, this album was very clearly made by people who knew what they were doing and who have proven themselves to be damn good metal musicians as well, otherwise their other albums wouldn’t keep popping up as cult favorites. The same sort of experimentation seen from composers like John Cage and Harry Partch show glimpses throughout Slagry, and it’d be hypocritical of me to like those composers so much but fault Master’s Hammer for trying the same vein of experimentation simply because they’re a metal band. Possibly against my better nature I was charmed by this album. I’ve since checked out other work by the group, which is a great mix of black metal and experimental progressive, with a healthy dose of sections that sound like they’re straight out of the soundtrack of a cartoon about a mad scientist and his wacky sidekicks. While the newer album, Formulæ, is a lot more listenable, I can’t deny that there’s something oddly appealing about Slagry. If I had to give it a rating, I’d give a decent 6 or a light 7 out of 10.