The very best heavy metal is a panacea for those plagued by feelings of emptiness, uncertainty and isolation. Whether metal’s solutions to life’s capriciousness are presented in nihilistic, esoteric or histrionic terms, or whether they are expressed allegorically, obscurely, or melodramatically, the best metal reminds us that we are not alone, and there is consolation (and community) to be found in the realm of the heavy riff.
Hammers of Misfortune, founded by guitarist John Cobbett, have been at the forefront of illuminating life’s mercuriality for the past decade. The band has pondered life’s great questions in noteworthy fashion, building a loyal following along the way. Their four previous albums are widely acknowledged as innovative, sagacious releases – classics of underground metal. Their new album, 17th Street, is assured of equal status.
While many metal bands regurgitate stale clichés, the Hammers craft albums with sophisticated arrangements and narratives. They have released conceptual suites, gritty barbarian epics, brooding tales of urban decay and poignant hymns to the disenfranchised. Lyrically, they’ve covered wildly divergent scenarios, but a clear commonality exists between all their albums. All are etched with an anthemic spirit and a theatrical, larger-than-life presence. All have a doggedness about them, suggesting that, irrespective of an audience, they simply had to be made.
The band blend a familiar set of genres but, unlike the work of many of their peers, their unique hybridization ensures the results remain distinctive. The Hammers intertwine New Wave of British Heavy Metal (or NWOBHM), heavy-prog and traditional power-metal riffing with flourishes of doom and blacker metal. This is mixed with passages of folk and psychedelic rock. Use of odd time signatures, idiosyncratic phrasing and elegant harmonies mark the band as extremely imaginative, but for all their accomplishments they’ve inexplicably remained a cult act. With any luck, the new album and the recent re-release of their back catalogue will remedy that situation.
17th Street marks a shift in focus from the band’s previous double LP, 2008’s Fields/Church of Broken Glass. That release was defined by its ambitious songwriting, which brought ’70s prog, folk and psych elements to the fore, to create something truly epic. 17th Street, however, is a great deal more intimate and insular. While not an obviously conceptual work, its overarching themes speak of loss and mournful self-reflection.
The band have gone though turbulent times over the past few years, with key members departing in 2005 and 2010. This has had an understandably ruffling effect on the band’s chief lyricist, Cobbett. The emotional turmoil is reflected throughout the album. “The Day the City Died” is the most obvious point of reference, dealing as it does with the physical loss of friends and the dismantling of a vibrant artistic community. “Grey Wednesday”, with its fantastic Hammer horror intro, also expounds a romanticized meditation on grief. However, the album is not claustrophobically grim. As Cobbett has noted in interviews, there is a thread of abstraction to his lyrics, leaving them open to interpretation. If you want hope, you’ll find it. If you’re seeking catharsis, that can be found too.
The new album introduces two new members – guitarist and vocalist Leila Abdul-Rauf, and vocalist Joe Hutton. They join guitarist Cobbett, drummer Chewy Marzolo, keyboardist, vocalist and flute player Sigrid Sheie, and bassist Max Barnett. Together they produce some impressive melodies, interweaving vocal lines, and plenty of steamrolling riffs. The album’s first single, “The Grain”, encapsulates what is so special about the band. Beginning with a throbbing bass line, it is layered with chunky classic metal riffs and some subtle keyboards, and culminates in a rousing and utterly gorgeous chorus – metal single of the year, undoubtedly.
The album’s greatest strength is its harmonic interplay. The rolling NWOBHM riffs of “17th Street” and “317” are bolstered by the use of Hammond organ and juxtaposing vocals, and “Staring (The 31st Floor)” has excellent dual-guitar soloing, providing plenty of texture. The album’s quirkiest track, “Summer Tears”, begins with tinkering piano and a Queen-worthy solo, before developing into a psychedelic romp that finds vocalist Hutton crooning for all he’s worth. The entire band operates superbly, but particular mention should be made of the keyboard work, as it adds significant depth to the album’s progressive aesthetics. “Going Somewhere” captures those inclinations perfectly, as its acoustic introduction transforms into a heavy-prog workout full of grand euphonic and euphoric moments.
Hammers of Misfortune have a transcendent ability to meld together a disparate set of influences into a startlingly inventive style. While they are unquestionably entrenched in the metal realm, there is much on 17th Street that would appeal to any aficionado of visionary, emotive and progressive rock. The band has produced an album that is equal parts beguiling, thought-provoking and absorbing. With outstanding musical prowess and poetic, resonating lyrics, 17th Street is quite simply stunning.