By Andy Curtis-Brignell. Root are one of those bands that never quite seem to get their due. As part of the preternaturally influential but still obscure crop of early Eastern European black/death bands with Master’s Hammer and KAT, the Czech act have their die-hard fans, but in my experience they primarily focus on the band’s debut album Zjeveni and Hell Symphony’s follow-up The Temple in the UnderworldBy Andy Curtis-Brignell.
Root are one of those bands that never quite seem to get their due. As part of the preternaturally influential but still obscure crop of early Eastern European black/death bands with Master’s Hammer and KAT, the Czech act have their die-hard fans, but in my experience they primarily focus on the band’s debut album Zjeveni and Hell Symphony’s follow-up The Temple in the Underworld, being the two albums closest to the Venom/Hellhammer/Bathory template. However Root, despite 30+ years of existence, have never made a true misstep and, bucking the trend that saw most 80s survivors churn out either tedious epic metal or AOR crud (hi Metallica) their more recent work was amongst their most creatively fertile - toe to toe, Black Seal and The Book wipe the floor with their late 90s/early 2000s competition.
But this isn’t a career retrospective - I’m here to write about my favourite Root album, Hell Symphony. I could start by talking about how comparatively polished the production is, or how excellently the central concept (a form of sonic grimoire, each song dealing with a particular demon) is executed. Instead, I want to look briefly at how astonishingly varied this album is. Ranging from technically stunning thrash to creeping, chugging death metal via the sonic abjection of early black metal, Hell Symphony is rounded off with a touch of classical clean guitar and the inimitable operatic ‘Attila Csihar sings Verdi’ vocals of band leader Big Boss, Hell Symphony covers more ground in its spare 41 minutes than most bands do in their entire careers, without ever feeling contrived. Indeed, the album as a whole gives the impression of being streamlined and produced with a supernatural level of restraint and economy - dynamically this is one of the most interesting metal records of all time, with nothing ever feeling too saturated or overblown whilst maintaining a consistently high level of engagement and excitement. This relationship between the albums brevity and its dynamic content also keeps the album feeling curiously unresolved, as if it could loop endlessly around some ancient darkened grotto until the demons conjured within are ready to rise. Hell Symphony is exactly that - an orchestrated piece designed to show the listener around the band’s demonic weltanschauung.
However the concept never overtakes the execution, and whilst the songs benefit from context they also shine individually, "Belial" and "Loki" being particular highlights. There’s an unexpected accessibility to Hell Symphony that belies the overtly dark and satanic imagery and concept, not to mention the band’s relative obscurity. The thundering drums and grooves remind me more of Beneath the Remains era Sepultura than anything being put out by black metal acts at the time, whilst the intertwining guitar melodies and ripping thrash sections resemble nothing less than some kind of Mercyful Fate/RTL-era Metallica collaboration, albeit with vocals from a drunken, phantasm-beset Pavarotti as opposed to some generic leather-clad showman.
There’s a fundamental sincerity to Hell Symphony that I think may be one of the reasons why it has failed to see mainstream success. There are no pyrotechnics to their diabolism, and there’s no sensationalism in their performance. Putting aside the impressive guitar licks and how easy it is to bang your head to it, there’s an almost indefinable humility to the record that makes you feel as though the band aren't simply paying lip service to any aspect of their performance. They believe, so we believe. I think that might be the highest compliment I’m able to pay to such an interesting, varied, dynamic but ultimately restrained piece of metal art.