Hammer Of The North
posted on 8/2010 By:
Anyone who considers themselves a serious music fan has had a beloved band drag them through the triple "A" threat of anticipation, apprehension and anguish. The anticipation rides in high when we first hear tale of new material dropping; apprehension rears its ugly head when questionable details wriggle into the light; and anguish plops the proverbial deuce in the punchbowl once those sobering notes eventually waft from the speakers across the ol' brain-pan.
In the case of the widely anticipated fifth full-length from Sweden's indomitable threesome, Grand Magus, the first two elements of the three stage "presage to disaster" alarmingly rang true for yours truly. Once word of Hammer of the North was whispered on the wind, I basically piddled the floor like a ditsy Labrador about to be tossed a pig knuckle. My guard was up, however, because I knew the indelibly triumphant epic-ness of 2008's Iron Will would be a tough act to follow. Then, news of a label switch to Roadrunner Records dropped, thereby elevating threat levels to "yellow" -- my beloved Magus under the same dome as Nickelback, Stone Sour, and Collective fecking Soul? And finally, the oddly "pop-up book" artwork adorning the album's cover blew up (or "blue" up, more appropriately) -- "Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the biggest-fucking-wolf-you've-ever-seen just snapped at the moon. Oh, and is that a moose hiding behind that tree, diddle diddle? Really? A Moose??"
NO! I'll not have any of these doubts bleach the love I've had for this band for years. And I shall hold steadfast to the more mature attitude I've corralled over the years where I do not fault a band for taking a path that might afford them a living off what they love doing. So widen the net, Magi, and reap whatever reward your years of hard labor can bring you.
And thusly, I dove head-first into Hammer of the North...
It's a very clean, precise delivery, this fifth trip into Grand Maguseses rippin' realm of Hard Rock for Heathens -- even more so than what was found on Iron Will. Immediately jumping to the forefront is the über emphasis on Painkiller-era Priest -- bright, aggressive attacks with more emphasis on razor-riffs and shimmery leads as opposed to the walloping swing of the band's early material. Ample time and attention paid to minutia reveals a more satisfying front half compared to the stern that gets diluted by a relatively sagging midsection of "Lord of Lies" and "At Midnight They'll Get Wise." Neither tune is anything I'd consider bad, per say, but even J.B.'s signature smokey voice and shimmery leads can't quite save the two from the missing hook that's necessary for their formula to fire on all cylinders. Truthfully, as the band continues to sharpen their sound and "assuage" the heaviness, the slower paced tunes really should emphasize contagious choruses in order to keep a firm grip on listeners -- something that's lacking in the aforementioned "Lord of Lies" and the album's relatively matte closer, "Raven's Guide our Way."
Luckily, "Bond of Blood" re-ushers the snappy verse into the blueprint, promptly righting the ship back on its course as it snappily heads into "Savage Tales" -- a hard rocker that'll leave you humming its doleful "those who walk against the wind, will always walk alone" refrain for days. But as I mentioned earlier, the first sizable bite off this chunk is really the most tantalizing. The 90's Priest-isms are most brazen within the brisk hook of "Northern Star" (such a catchy chorus) and the record's rousing opener, "I, the Jury" (right down to J.B.'s opening Halford-scream), while the the most galloping grooves and sturdiest riffs ride ashore on waves broken from the superb self-titled track and the stout "Mountains Be My Throne." And finally, the slower paced "Black Sails" manages to accomplish what the album's other more "leisurely" tunes don't: snag you with a just a little more grit and a nice, greazzy groove.
At the end of the day, I'd be quite comfortable complimenting Hammer of the North for the suitable job it does of appeasing my pangs for new Grand Magus material. Perhaps it's not as wholly impressive as the previous effort, but the staple elements that have rebuilt the backbone of this band the last couple years -- J.B.'s silvery-smooth voice and and glimmering leads -- are still in abundance here as well. And even if the target isn't struck dead center on every cut, there are more than enough infectious measures on this record for fans of the band to grab hold of for a sweet little ride.
Post Script: a special WTF? goes out to Roadrunner Records for apparently choosing to ignore the U.S. in regards to this release. Here we are a month-and-a-half after the album's debut in Europe, and we still don't have a date set for a North American release? Thankfully, there are still a few moderately priced copies available on eBay until they realize we're a worthy market again.
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