Hammers of Misfortune – 17th Street

Hammers of Misfortune

17th Street
Metal Blade

If John Cobbett had been around about the time when heavy metal ruled the airwaves, he could well have been a metal god by now. Steadfastly remaining dedicated to true heavy metal through his time served in The Lord Weird Slough Feg, and more recently, he was one of the driving forces in now defunct, but critically acclaimed US black metallers Ludicra. Inbetween, he’s also the main visionary for progressive heavy metallers Hammers of Misfortune, who’ve made a name for themselves in the States among critics in particular for their third three albums, all of which received high praise.

17th Street‘ is the fifth album from Hammers, their first for new label Metal Blade, and while not as sprawling as past releases, there’s still a smorgasbørd of styles and slants going on here within one CD’s worth of material. The opening few tracks are in the vein of straight up traditional heavy metal, yet all sounding distinct from one another all the same. The opener ‘317’ sets the scene in much the way an overture would for a musical or cinematic score. This makes way for the galloping title track, stuffed with alternative male/dual female vocals and plenty of guitar noodlery without being too over the top, owing to the twin attack of Cobbett and new addition Leila Abdul-Rauf. They follow this up with  the immense seven-minute track ‘The Grain’, which simply has a chorus to die for thanks to a soaring vocal from new vocalist Jon Hutton, and the trad-doom stomp of ‘Staring (the 31st Floor)’, absolutely crushing in its delivery.

Where it truly gets interesting is around the middle. ‘The Day The City Died’, is awash with pianos, keys, melodies and solos that would befit any Broadway musical, and very much in thrall to the likes of Rush and Queen rather than the NWOBHM qualities of the previous tracks. Lyrically it appears to be about the decline of San Francisco and the migration of its people (‘Skinny dips on crystal ships sail through the Golden Gate/I left my heart in a shopping cart at the bottom of the Bay‘), and the chorus (‘this one’s called I’m getting evicted‘, etc.) will leech onto your brain for days. As far as heavy metal goes, that’s one of the most ambitious and quite simply splendid tracks I’ve heard for quite a while.

It returns briefly to straight up heavy metal on ‘Romance Valley’, possessing a dazzling speed metal riff and some clever transitions that keep the song hacking away with a headbang friendly mid-section. More Queen/Bowie influence rears its head for a second before returning to the main riff. The next track is a ballad – ‘Summer Tears’ gets its mourn over six and a half minutes, with piano taking center stage and more alternating male/female vocals, and though its a little out of place with the other tracks (even ‘The Day the City Died’), its a competant effort and shouldn’t simply be skipped. It still fits the concept of the album and if there’s going to be cheese, at least they’ve done it fairly well here.

The album finishes a little more straight ahead, with the speedier ‘Grey Wednesday’, suitable Maiden and Priest-worship abound, and the closing monolith, ‘Going Somewhere’. Following a piano introduction, the riffs chop and change over the course of the 10 minutes, from a fleeting pub metal swagger to a series of NWOBHM-style licks and some impressive fretboard workouts. It runs the gamut of Hammers’ many guises and by the end, just plain rocks out with a simple crunchy riff.

It’s a damn shame that for all their dedication to the cause, that Hammers of Misfortune, like Cobbett’s previous connections, are often met with many a positive journalistic eye but not a wider public one. That probably owes to heavy metal not being the mainstream force it once was, as this sort of stuff could well fill arenas. Hammers of Misfortune should be celebrated for holding up the old-school values of heavy metal without sounding retro, and for sounding modern without watering down or sounding 80’s for the sake of it.

I’m still trying to get my head around the lyrics of ‘17th Street‘, and its more than likely to be a paean to the decline of city life and the way the subjects of the lyrics are dealing with it. In today’s world, where recession is in the headlines everyday, there aren’t many albums more befitting that this one to be the soundtrack (although the recently reviewed Pyrrhon record did pretty well from describing it from another angle). With that considered, ‘17th Street‘ is one of the most complete records you’ll hear all year round. A masterclass in classic heavy metal revelry.

Peter Clegg

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