Along with Master’s Hammer, Root helped to define Czech black metal in the late 80s and early 90s. Through a series of demos and early albums, the band crafted a raw, ragged, and riff-centric approach to the genre that always felt a tad off-kilter (and trad-centric) when compared to the metal being created to the Norse north. However, unlike Master’s Hammer – who found their greatest achievements largely within the confines of black metal – Root would not realize their full potential until somewhat abandoning the style; or at the very least, combining it with a wide range of sounds until it became something wholly their own.
With their third album, 1992’s The Temple in the Underworld, Root’s sound transformed from their pure Czech black metal to a wild combination of the black, death, epic, and dark metals that was as theatrical and melodramatic as it was wondrously “evil” and heavy. But under the apparent cheese was the band’s undeniable chops, led by the duo of guitarist Petr “Blackie” Hošek and vocalist Jirí “Big Boss” Valter. The former mixed catchier tendencies with the ability to almost always be building tension, while the latter is on the short list for most unique vocalists in metal, ever. Period. His unmistakable croon and charismatic madman persona (mmmmmwaaaahahahahahahaHAHAHAH!!!!) can certainly polarize listeners, but to fans, he is one of the greats, and the band’s most defining quality.
Temple was the start of a five album run that was sometimes bizarre (Kärgeräs), but usually brilliant, with the trio of The Book, Black Seal, and Madness of the Graves being nothing short of masterful. Fans will find little surprise that no fewer than eight of the songs listed below come from these albums, and plenty of other highlights were considered.
The years since these albums have seen Root in lesser form, with Blackie’s departure ending his long fruitful partnership with Big Boss. 2007’s Daemon Viam Invenient was nothing short of a disaster from both a production and songwriting form, and while 2011’s Heritage of Satan felt at least half like classic Root, it was still often disjointed.
Regardless of this recent misdirection, for over 20 years Root was a band to behold. The 13 songs listed below (or 14, if you call us out on our cheating) represent the best, from their early days in the Czech black metal scene and their years of evolution to their wondrously theatrical, genre-hybridizing plateau. Old fans, find some reasons to argue. New fans, welcome to the wild, weird, dark, and beautiful world of Root.
Behold, a Devil’s Dozen of Root. Laugh it up, scuzzballs.
Root’s debut album Zjevení is more important than it is good. In fact, in many ways it’s a pretty lousy album. But you know what? Mayhem‘s Deathcrush is pretty lousy, too, and it’s still heralded as a necessary inflection point. In any case, Zjevení is one of the key documents that bridges first and second wave black metal, and was important in establishing Eastern Europe as a black metal force in its own right (see also Tormentor, Master’s Hammer, and Avenger). “Upaleni,” though crude and sloppy by nearly every metric imaginable, has a germ of the darkness that would soon bloom so fully. Its main movement is a doomed dirge, but its final minute is a gruesome sprint, with the song kicking into hyper-thrash tremolo and proto-blastbeats that approximate some of the early, rawest clatterings of Sepultura, Rotting Christ, and Repulsion. Even (har har) Root has roots. [Dan Obstkrieg]
THE BOOK[The Book, 1999]
If one were to get a recommendation of where to start with Root from yours truly, the dramatic opening bars of “The Book” would be the first thing they would hear. The first song and title track of what is generally considered to be the band’s greatest achievement contains every quality that they band had become known for to that point. Blackie’s riffs are brilliant in their simplicity; the solo featured during the intro has a backwards, dramatic quality to it; and Big Boss is absolutely inimitable. When he initially enters, his melodramatic baritone dominates the room. But a unified splashing by the riffs and excellent drum work of René “Evil” Kostelnák offer an impactful answer. As the song descends into minor madness, so it builds suspense, finishing with Big Boss’ repeated warbling of the line “Into the beginnings of a new era.” Not only a fitting lyric for the first song in this era, but a damn fun one to try to match as a listener. Really, what a perfect, weird little bit of rhythm that man can bring with his voice. [Zach Duvall]
TALKING BONES (THE STORY OF LEGACY)[Madness of the Graves, 2003]
With Madness of the Graves, Root got more aggressive and less complex. “Talking Bones” is an asskicker, for example, but still a relatively straightforward affair, outside of a wacky box organ intro. The weirdest thing about this track may be that it’s constructed sort of backwards (or inside out, maybe), with exactly half its running time devoted to riffing and soloing before Big Boss even begins to bellow. Time well spent, though, as the “intro” rocks. Blackie penned riffs for this one that straddle the line between thrash and power metal and within the bed of which Ashok lays some fantastic LaRocquian shred. Big Boss is as wonderfully over-the-top as ever and delivers what might be my personal favorite of his seemingly inexhaustible embellishments at 3:30. [Lone Watie]
THE WALL[The Temple in the Underworld, 1992]
The Temple in the Underworld was the album when it all (mostly) came together for Root. No more were they playing primitive Czech black metal, but a hybrid of black and dark metals, sprinkled with the feel of 80s epic metal. In other words, they went big, and no track exemplified this newfound maturity more than album centerpiece “The Wall.” Through over four minutes of instrumental build-up that features Blackie at his foreboding riffage best, the song seems to be building an actual wall, and climbing it. When Big Boss finally joins in – his rough metal croon now fully formed – he seems perched upon this symbolic wall, and his commanding presence is palpable. “The Wall” was one of the earliest examples of exactly how powerful the songwriting of this band could be, a band that was only just beginning to bear its greatest fruits. [Zach Duvall]
SALAMANDRA[Black Seal, 2001]
If it really came down to choosing, I would likely give The Book the slight nod over Black Seal as the definitive Root album, but the margin is razor-thin in part because Black Seal has several of the band’s all-time greatest songs. “Salamandra,” despite its relatively unassuming bearing, is one of those world-beaters. The song trudges like a dirge, but with an odd gentleness due to Big Boss’s quiet self-harmonizing throughout the verse which suggests, as sometimes is the case with Root, a Satanic-Beach Boys-by-way-of-Tiamat‘s-Wildhoney. It’s one of those many instances where they take something that would be weird and off-putting in other hands and turn it, by sheer sleight of hand, into something captivating. The last minute and a half of the song, then, is just a bonus, with a searching, squealing guitar solo that meanders against the barreling crunch of the rest of the band. Structurally, the song acts as both a bridge to the album’s closing act and as something of a preview of the miraculous unspooling of the album’s timeless closer, “Before I Leave!” On The Book and Black Seal, no one in heavy metal was better than Root. [Dan Obstkrieg]
LEVIATHAN[Hell Symphony, 1991]
Chock full of riffing that calls to mind Slayer, Metallica, Kreator, Death and Pestilence, it’d be easy to dismiss Hell Symphony-era Root as a knock-off if it wasn’t for their uncanny ability to mash all that influence into a seething weirdo ball of bile uniquely their own. A lot of it is attributable to the combination of rich guitar tone and licks that stick, as well as Big Boss’ infernal growls and shrieks, but much more is the result of Root’s early growth. “Leviathan” is the best example of the band’s move to up the songwriting ante from their debut, featuring a multi-part structure that shifts from a conjuring of the Sea God to His ascent from dark waters and finally to the blasting destruction of hapless seafarers at the surface. You’re gonna need a bigger boat. [Lone Watie]
After finding Their Sound with The Temple in the Underworld, Root decided to make a slight diversion for one album, and delivered the baffling, if utterly enjoyable, Kärgeräs. Full of bright atmosphere, half balladry, and pop rock hooks, the album felt like a strange combination of dark metal, musical theater, and AOR. But it was also damn catchy, and the upbeat “Rodäxx” saw the band pulling off this odd pop vibe without losing any of their dark theatricality. An intro of acoustic guitar and (naturally) cowbell quickly gives way to one of the most straightforwardly rock verses Root ever wrote, with both Big Boss and Blackie achieving a bright hookiness at which most metal bands would balk (the arpeggio passages are particularly infectious). Again, it’s an odd album, and definitely not the first choice for diving into the Root experience, but songs like “Rodäxx” prove that there was plenty of value here. Subsequent albums would retain small remnants of the Kärgeräs sound, proving that this was a necessary step to the most brilliant phase of Root’s career. [Zach Duvall]
THERIAK[Black Seal, 2001]
In the supremely oddball world of Root, “Theriak” stands out by kind of not being very strange at all. Rather, it’s a fiercely resolute execution that makes it great. It’s full of rippin dual riffplay that locks step with equally insistent drumming, and together they define the battlefield upon which Big Boss belts out the vein-popping oration of an impending monstrous clash. In telling the bloody outcome, he shifts to exultant chant, a paean to valiant death, the celebration punctuated by yet another triumphant Ashok solo. And yet though the battle has ended, the War has just begun, as Big Boss reveals the fate of the fallen warriors: to be resurrected and made immortal for eternal battle by theriac, the ancient panacea. Are you not entertained!? [Lone Watie]
MESSAGE[The Temple in the Underworld, 1992]
In some ways, The Temple in the Underworld was the final warm-up act for Root’s truly stellar four-album run (Kärgeräs, The Book, Black Seal, and Madness of the Graves). Of course, that undersells an excellent album in its own right, and “Message” runs the board of key Root-isms: melodramatic acoustic and spoken word intro, crazed laughter, a simple but deviously catchy melody carried both by Big Boss’s croon and the trad/black riffing, and a great false ending followed by powerhouse outro: “I Coooooooome… With Knowledge!” And as always, Root walked a line that few others have managed: too epic and (har har) rooted in traditional metal to be pure black metal, but too charred and rough to fly a true heavy metal banner. So the question remains: Where were u in ’92? [Dan Obstkrieg]
ENDOWMENT (REFUSED MESSAGE)[Madness of the Graves, 2003]
Though it necessarily shrinks in comparison to The Book and Black Seal, Madness of the Graves is a tremendous album. Its slightly ramshackle production doesn’t do it many favors, but at its best moments the album reaches the same sky-scraping heights as anything else. On “Endowment,” the absurd riches of these oddball Czechs are on full display, from that clean chorus about two minutes in that sounds more Olden Domain than A Night at the Opera to the criminally short guitar solo halfway through (if you forgot why Cradle of Filth was suddenly ripping so hard again, this is where new guitarist Ashok cut his chops). Root has carved one of the most idiosyncratic paths in all of metal’s thorny history, so if you haven’t dipped your toes in this bottomless black lake, you’re missing out on an absurdity of riches. [Dan Obstkrieg]
BLACK SEAL[Black Seal, 2001]
Always known for a huge amount of melodrama, the title track of 2001’s Black Seal might just be Root’s pinnacle in that department. After a very brief, doomy intro, a wondrous lead line backs up some of the most vibrato-drenched vocals of Big Boss’ career, creating an aura that is as instantly chilling as it is grin-inducing. There is a standing-on-the-theater-stage-waving-arms-like-a-maniac quality going on here, but much of that comes from the personality of Big Boss, which oozes from every ounce of this track. Beyond just that, however, is how truly beautiful this piece of music is. It is dark, foreboding, and evil at heart, sure, but it’s also just gorgeous. The melodies of both the guitars and vocals elevate each other throughout, with the rhythm section providing similar dynamics, all building to a natural climax that shows Big Boss’ knack for rhythm as well as for melody. A tour de force for the whole band, to be sure. [Zach Duvall]
CORABEU PARTS 1 & 2[The Book, 1999]
“Corabeu,” like Root and The Book, is weird but in so many wonderful ways. The song’s lyrics suggest it’s a love song for some cherished but lost cosmic divinity and Part 1’s epic sorrow confirms it. In the verses, Blackie’s spiccato guitar lines mourn and Big Boss’ full-bore baritone is sick with grief and longing, but it’s between the verses where Ashok’s Quorthon-indebted melodies really drive home the lonesomeness. But then Part 2 explodes with an even greater sense of faith in a coming unity with Corabeu (maybe?). Guitar riffs and leads paraphrase Part 1, taking on an air of resilience and hope, while Big Boss laments the time still to wait in passages that draw from neofolk pools and even foreshadow Kim Larsen’s great Of the Wand & the Moon. “Corabeu” shows that a song can be strangely sweet and vulnerable and yet remain wholly Heavy Metal. [Lone Watie]
REMEMBER ME![The Book, 1999]
For a band that was born from the rigid orthodoxy of proto-second-wave, overtly Satanic black metal, Root eventually found strength in their idiosyncrasies. They kicked off their most prolific (and potent) period with 1999’s The Book, and no track nutshelled the impending weirdness quite like “Remember Me!” It’s a haunting ballad, led by Blackie’s smooth, clean guitar lines, but there’s little of Big Boss’ budding bombast and theatrics. Rather, it serves as something of a eulogy for Root’s black metal phase, as the Boss runs his gnarly gamut of growls n’ howls—even working his trademark cackle into the invocation—before Blackie unleashes a shredly epitaph of his own. On “Remember Me!,” as they casually “walk through death’s door,” this lethal tandem is priming themselves to kick down a few more. [Jordan Campbell]