Hammers Of Misfortune
Fields/Church Of Broken Glass
For myself and many others, there are very few bands quite like John Cobbet’s Hammers of Misfortune. Their unique theatrical qualities, mixed with the fact that they largely forego instrumental self-indulgence, gives the band their own niche in the prog and traditional metal realms and helped The August Engine and The Locust Years to gain classic status in the eyes of many. In spite of this, Fields/Church of Broken Glass experienced a quieter reception upon its initial release in 2008, perhaps due to the decreased metallic nature of the music, possibly because of the perceived daunting nature of a double album, or maybe due to the departure of Slough Feg's Mike Scalzi. Regardless, this Metal Blade reissue will undoubtedly garner more attention for what is a true achievement of musical and lyrical vision.
Compared to Hammers of Misfortune’s previous albums, this platter is as reported: less metal and far more 70s prog rock in nature. As such, Sigrid Sheie’s keyboards have an enhanced prominence within the overall sound, taking on a very John Lord (Deep Purple) quality on several tracks. The orchestrated riffing, male-female vocal mix and theatrical music are still in full effect here, but a subdued production, extended and very tasteful soloing, and a methodic, often expansive songwriting style provide this album with its own role in the band’s catalog.
Fields/Church of Broken Glass is a double album in the pre-compact-disc sense of the term, as the album’s 70 minutes would easily fit onto one CD. The decision to split it was undoubtedly made because the Fields and Church of Broken Glass sides each represent their own half of the complete concept. The former is a celebration of agrarian life, honoring the personal and societal toil required for harvest, while also warning of the coming industrial storm. The three-song suite of “Agriculture,” “Fields,” and “Motorcade” starts things off. Each brings its own style (the title track’s somber tone is especially nice), while the repetition of certain melodies ties the three together. Following are an additional three tracks that slowly shift the mood into a lament for the loss of the old way, best emphasized through the “to be continued” riff that rings in disc-closer “Too Soon.”
As you would wisely expect, the Church of Broken Glass half of the album is based on the polluted and twisted wastelands of the Industrial Revolution, and as such some of the music has a dark and bleak air to it. Nowhere is this truer than with the ten minute “Butchertown,” a track that is equal parts doom metal and The Wall-era Pink Floyd. Its sorrowful chorus is repeated many times as the music grows and shifts slowly around it, a technique employed elsewhere on the album as well. At the other end of the spectrum is the album-ending “Train,” an urgent rocker with riffs and rhythms perfectly designed for its title and lyrics.
A few traits unique to Fields/Church of Broken Glass may be double-edged swords for some fans. First and foremost was the replacement of Mike Scalzi by Patrick Goodwin (now also out of the band). While Scalzi is the superior vocalist of the two, he is also the most unique, and one could make an argument that Goodwin was the more apt choice for this album strictly because he disappears into the music easier. In addition, the bare-bones production features far less heaviness than that on previous albums. This is actually quite fitting, but these songs would certainly have benefited from increased texture to accompany the sometimes distant and story-telling quality of the music.
Despite being a fan of the band, I personally had not heard Fields/Church of Broken Glass until this reissue. Perhaps I passed it over due to the seemingly insurmountable brilliance of the band’s two previous albums and I feared being let down, even in the slightest, by a band that I held in such high regard. In hindsight this was a grievous mistake, as this album furthers the Hammers of Misfortune journey with their most ambitious work to date, if not quite their most accomplished. It is a fearless union of music and sprawling lyrical landscapes, those which we now have no excuse not to go traveling through.
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The August Engine