As one of the world’s most groundbreaking metal masters prepare to release a brand new album (see the video below for a sneak peak) we look back to the creation of one of extreme metal’s most influential albums. In 1990 it would perhaps not be as noteworthy were it created in the West, but behind the Iron Curtain, in what was then Czechoslovakia, it faced the threat of arrest and even imprisonment. GUY STRACHAN spoke to BIG BOSS of ROOT about the making of ‘ZJEVENI’
Although ‘Zjeveni’ sees its 25th anniversary being celebrated with a deserved re-release courtesy of the I Hate label and the debut album of long-standing Czech black metallers Root is rightly held up as one of the early foundations of the second wave of black metal, the band’s leader and vocalist, Jiří ‘Big Boss’ Valter, is today less than keen to discuss the work. “You must know I’m 63 [years] old and I forgot a lot of things from that era,” he says by way of a preface to his email interview, “and now we prepare and work on [our] tenth album.”
The son of a university professor, Valter grew up in a musical household in the town of Brno. Encouraged by his father to learn the piano, instead he turned to the drums, often singing along as he played. A childhood accident put an end to his drumming, being left with “a slow hand and foot” resulted in him concentrating on vocals, all the while devouring as much music as he could, gravitating from the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and then to Black Sabbath and beyond.
Like other countries behind the Iron Curtain, the Czechoslovakia of the 1970s and ’80s was a world of censorship and repression (especially in the wake of the short-lived, so-called Prague Spring of 1968 where a general thawing of hard-line attitudes was harshly suppressed and truncated by other governments of the Eastern Bloc), with any (musical) activity not officially sanctioned by the government carrying the resulting possibility of arrest and even imprisonment. While, at the time, stories occasionally surfaced in the West of underground music fans being sentenced to years inside for obtaining illicit music recordings, although Root’s activities were under constant supervision before the collapse of the Communist regime (not least due to Big Boss having already suffered arrest and a subsequent five-year prison sentence for his occult interests, something he developed at the age of 16), access to forbidden fruits such as Western music and literature was possible, if expensive. Having a relative who was able to travel to Austria and buy records helped, as did others who were able to receive and record shows broadcast on Austrian radio, and if those sources were unable to find what was wanted, records could be ordered on the local black market where almost anything was available for a price; Boss once recounted how he had obtained records by Possessed and Exciter from this source (“you ordered a record and it took two weeks!”), although the cost of each record was around ten percent of a month’s wages at the time. Despite the illegality of such markets, Boss implies that the police were not overly interested, and only broke them up when they felt the sporadic need to demonstrate a show of force.
Joining his first band at the age of thirteen, Big Boss formed Root from the ashes of another band, Vega, in 1988. At the time, access to musical equipment was becoming easier, and thus the band managed to attain a high level of productivity; rehearsing three times a week at a disused dairy and issuing five demo tapes of material; ‘Deep In Hell’, ‘Reap Of Hell’ and ‘War Of Rats’ were all recorded during 1988, with ‘Messengers From Darkness’ and ‘The Trial’ being issued the following year.
“As [with] all bands we started with demos,” says the vocalist. “It was just the logical way of evolution of underground bands, however, it works this way today as well with the difference that contemporary bands release their demos straight to CDs.”
Having to operate, thanks in a large part down to Big Boss’ prior imprisonment, under the constant threat of police attention, the band and their friends still managed to distribute their recordings across the country and further afield, as well as organising the printing of fanzines and the setting up of gigs, almost all of which had to be done as a fan club operating under the radar of the authorities. A key point of help at this time was Törr, a metal band from Prague who had formed in 1977 and who, by the mid-’80s, had started to make a name for themselves locally and internationally with their blackened thrash assault, and who also experienced considerable difficulties in organising concerts. While most shows were unofficial with the result that the band often risked arrest (to the point where the police arrived at one illegal show to arrest the band, however the crowd blocked the police’s access to the venue, allowing the band to make good their escape out of a toilet window before they could be detained, but not before they had pranged one the parked police cars as they drove away from the show), one November 1988 show was recorded officially and later released as the ‘Death Session II’ video.
“The whole concert was organised by Vlasta Henych [from the] band Törr,” the vocalist remembers. “It was his merit. He invited us there and the entire concert was filmed on camera [by] STB (State Security Committee) executive arm of the Communists. Very soon after, we were invited for questioning, but actually we did not even have to ask what. So there we just sat and took [blows from a] pacifier [before they] kicked us out. They knew that pisses them [off] and that we just do what we want.”
The final demo tape the band issued before getting a record deal was ‘The Trial’, and turned out to be a recording that fully realised Big Boss’ vision for the band and as a result, he believed, allowed people to hear Root properly for the first time. That recording led to a contract with Zeras, a Czech record label based in that specialised in releasing heavy metal.
“Zeras was the first and only label releasing metal. Their first release was Törr,” commented Big Boss for the ‘Dema’ compilation. “I got the contact [for] the label owner Zelenka from Vlasta Henych and I called him. He came to Brno and the negotiation started. It went all quite quickly and we signed. In fact, we became the first professional metal band here, as we got a regular salary (aside from money for live shows and records). But later the label had some financial difficulties and so our cooperation had to stop.
“Zeras found us by themselves and they offered a contract which we signed back then,” Big Boss adds. “It was a big, and also the only, company involved in metal music. After approximately five years two of the company associates stole all money from the owner and disappeared, so the company went down.”
With the contract signed, the band headed to Studio C, located in Ostrava in the far East of the country. Booked in for two weeks from 16 to 28 July with engineer at the helm, they emerged with their debut album, ‘Zjeveni’ [‘Revelation’ in English]. Preceded by the ‘7 Černých Jezdců / 666’ single (“the company released it as a pilot, but really wanted to test what it does to people. It aroused great acclaim”), the first official Root album saw the light of day in December 1990 (“the intention was to grant people Satan for Christmas!”) and, to this day, Big Boss remains satisfied with the result.
“On the first album, it was all about making sure people have finally, in their hands, something official, issued by Root; something [recorded] in a studio. There is nothing I would change. What should it be? It is done exactly as we wished and there is nothing that I would change today. I really hate bands who say about their older records that now they would record it differently. The recording took 14 days. We had enough time for everything, just as we needed. The engineer was great, he liked our music, so no problems occurred at all.”
So content with ‘The Trial’ demo was Big Boss that the album was a straight re-recording of that demo tape, coupled with an Invocation (with lyrics taken from the ‘Satanic Bible’) and ‘Upaleni’, which brought the lyrical story (of an imagined questioning session by the Inquisition) together.
“Yes, in fact ‘Zjeveni’ is the last demo ‘The Trial’ put together so that it is a whole complete story,” the vocalist confirms, “and we just added a few songs. It worked just great. The introduction is indeed an invocation, but the lyrics in ‘Upálení’ are just a dramatic text that underlined the whole story plot.”
Lyrically, the band chose to sing in their native tongue. At the time, Big Boss admits, Root both cared little and had no real idea about reaching fans outside of their home country. Mindful of the severe problems that his occult interests had caused him and in turn having no desire to replicate the grief for his bandmates, the vocalist implement the simple but successful act of changing the word ‘Satan’ for ‘Rootan’ in his lyrics, thus being able to argue that his lyrics were not Satanic should he be questioned by the authorities.
“Partially, it was bad English, partially it was the thought that first album has to be in Czech,” he comments. “Much later we realised that our album sung in Czech became sort of a cult abroad and as I can see now, it succeeded all around the world, even in Czech. There are bands abroad who make covers of our first album songs in Czech!”
Freed from the shackles of authoritarian control by the so-called Velvet Revolution at the end of 1989 (“It was a wonderful feeling to finally stand on a stage without fear that they will come to arrest or disperse the concert”, he recounted in 2006), Root promptly played a large number of concerts and have maintained their career to this day.
“My passion is still the same, only now I’m going in a different direction,” he stated in an interview for the ‘Dema’ reissue in 2006. “I go into more depth, more to the Magic. Satan here is not for it to lead us by the hand and tell us what to do. It is there to help and show strong and unique personalities. He who learns a few phrases about Satanism and parrots and thinks he is a Satanist and that in turn [has a] completely licked asshole. With the help of Satan, hence Satanism, I found my own way, and after that I will walk until death. Nothing and nobody can make me change my mind.
“I am [a] proud egoist and everyone can kiss my bare ass. I respect only of family, friends and powerful individuals who do something in life.”
The final word has to go to the infamous cover art that saw a close-up of the singer sporting heavy black make-up around his eyes, the bat-like shapes in a style many assumed to be influenced by King Diamond. Big Boss refuted this years later, stating that he was influenced by Arthur Brown (the leader of the Crazy World Of Arthur Brown whose 1968 chart-topping single, ‘Fire’, was later covered by Cathedral). However, the cover subject himself today states that “Franta Štorm of Master’s Hammer created the album cover. He designed it this way and I liked the idea. I have no idea why I blackened my eyes; I was probably drunk!”
Originally printed in Iron Fist #16
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