Monday, October 19, 2015

Root - Hell Symphony (1991)

Hell Symphony was not only my first Root album, but one of the earlier exposures I had to Czech extremity, around the same time I was discovering Master's Hammer and Krabathor. Of the three, this was by far the most compelling band, though The Jilemnice Occultist gave them a run for their money. But what I was truly fascinated by then, and no less now, is how they've chiseled out their place within the black metal medium with such a distinct sound that derives from influences other than the expected. I do realize a lot of 'first wave' black metal acts, and several in the second don't bear that traditional Scandinavian structure, or even the filthier production of old Venom, Bathory and Hellhammer, but along with the 'Greek style' pioneered by Rotting Christ and Varathron, Root has proven one of the most curious and compelling examples of a sub-genres parallel regional evolution, hinted upon with the debut Zjevení but fully fleshed out for this iconic sophomore.

The sound here is one of a clash between Floridian death metal riffing motifs with bursts of old Teutonic thrash intensity, with individual riffing progressions redolent of 'tidier' Death picking patterns and the angry, antique Kreator material which is oft considered just as important to the legacies of black and death metal as to its more commonly recognized form (thrash). I heard singular licks reminiscent of the clinical Pestilence debut, or even Voivod's cosmic wandering. You can occasionally hear fits of Celtic Frost or Venom adulation among the songs here, but what's so bizarre is how the Czechs took such a polished, cleaner approach to the production of the guitars, which you would more equate with American thrash/speed or even traditional heavy metal around the late 80s. Or you could try to envision a parallel, European Acheron, with a similar physical threat level, but far more personality, and infinitely superior songwriting. This was several years before the proper release of the sweltering, suffocating atmosphere of an album like In the Nightside Eclipse, and happening right alongside the raw ferocity and chilling vibes of Darkthrone during their transition away from death metal, yet Hell Symphony and its predecessor were untouched by those ideas. Slick rhythm guitars, leads that never shied away from a melodic hard rock flair, and drumming so tight that it almost seemed sterile compared to the rabid blasting and double bass which characterizes so much of the successful extreme metal of its era.

There is also a portion of this disc devoted to experimentation, conceptual and aural. Each of the cuts is devoted to a particular diabolic entity from religious or mythical history...and yet the lyrics are more heartfelt and interesting than the sheer antiChristian emissions of a band like Deicide. The tune "Satan" is essentially a percussion piece accompanied by Jirí Walter's maniacal raving narrative and a few little guitar sounds, while "The Prayer" is a lush, memorable acoustic piece with weird, faint high wailing voices occasionally popping in; foreshadowing a lot of the more atmospheric ballads they'd incorporate on future records. The choice to have an opener ("Belzebub") which is almost entirely instrumental also seemed bizarre, since it's comprised of a gamut of speed and thrash metal licks which would absolutely have benefited from lyrics. Yet, Hell Symphony is entirely engaging from front to back, without a dud among the bunch. I could point out again that I found the drums to be a little bit weak and even mechanical, and the bass is also not a huge factor here, but Root compensate with an enormous plethora of riffing and ideas which are always drawing the ear off in this or that direction, and they're anchored by one of the most inventive and unique front men the genre has ever shat forth from the fiery gates...

Yes, 'Big Boss' is a character, but one you're unlikely to forget once hearing his blend of decrepit hag raunchy harshness, manly baritone, and even more mesmerizing, the harmonization of the two! As if Lucifer's odd and estranged uncle showed up at the family reunion one year and did some drunken renditions of hellish hymnals, the guy did not and STILL doesn't sound like any dime-a-dozen rasper you are like to encounter in this end of the metal canon. And that fact, along with the eloquence and attention to detail within the guitar riffing, are why this group shall forever stand among the greats for me. There are a few production guffaws with the rhythm section I've outlined, and even by 1991 standards some licks you'd already heard, paraphrased from a Death or Slayer, Possessed or Venom, but the complete package here is just too good to pass up, and as many good records as they've put out since this time, I'd still consider this one of their greatest moments, eclipsed only by offerings like The Temple in the Underworld where they took these components and ramped up on both the emotional impact, the note selection, the contrast between snarling menace and unusual accessibility. Anyone searching the back stacks of the black or death metal archives owes him or herself a favor in checking this out, especially one of the versions with the live bonus tracks, which sound even more magnificent in some cases than their studio counterparts. Root. Ever poignant, rarely faltering.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10] (filling barrels with brimstone)

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