Hammers Of Misfortune
posted on 10/2011 By:
Turbulent times make for desperate and inspired art. Whether it’s the Vietnam War informing Hendrix’s guitar screaming out the national anthem in gestures of agony and bomb blasts, or the dismal economic and political climate of late-1970s Britain fomenting the primal scream of British hardcore, extreme music is often both a reaction to and an indictment of the turmoil from which it is birthed. At its best, such art gives voice to a formless hope and anxiety, and if not, well, let’s at least hope it finds some new way to kick ass. On 17th Street, the John Cobbett-masterminded Hammers Of Misfortune manages to do both with consummate ease, and thus remains one of those rare bands that effortlessly makes the majority of active bands appear extremely foolish.
For a full decade now, San Francisco’s Hammers Of Misfortune has been one of the most consistently lauded bands in heavy metal, which is no mean feat given the exponential sprawl of the underground over that same period. Even more impressive is that such success has come about through nothing more than as old-fashioned a conceit as careful songwriting. Following the pastoral and deeply prog rock-ish double album Fields / Church of Broken Glass, 17th Street sees yet another set of line-up changes -- with Joe Hutton joining on lead vocals and Leila Abdul-Rauf (of Vastum and formerly of Saros) on guitar and backing vocals -- and manages to intensify the classic and prog rock touches of the previous album while simultaneously ratcheting up the metal quotient from that relatively subdued offering. What this means is that the Hammers’ sound, though a unique and beguiling trad/progressive/vaguely-folky metal brew in its own right, thrives on healthy nods to Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest, Rush, Iron Maiden, and (more noticeable here than ever before) Queen.
As befits a band with such a well-worn approach to the craft of heavy metal, 17th Street is neatly divided in two halves. After the scene-setting introductory song “317,” the listener is thrust immediately into the knockout one-two punch of “17th Street” and “The Grain,” which together form, without question, the most perfect twelve minutes of music you will hear this year. The title track screams from your speakers with Priest-ly pyrotechnics before piano and drums introduce a key four-note motif. “The Grain,” meanwhile, is the best song here (and a damn-near lock for metal song of the year), boasting a deceptively simple rhythmic verse that erupts into a soaring chorus showcasing Hutton’s powerful voice in a cascade of sorrow. The elastic dual guitarwork that crops up later in the song takes up the vocal melodies from the song’s early verses, which is just one display of the kind of careful songwriting touch that elevates this band to utterly indispensible status. Musical themes are voiced by different instrumentation, and the pure glory of sound rings out over and over again, whether it’s in both guitars diving earth-ward to lock into a rollicking thick rhythm with Max Barnett’s gruffly rubbery bass and Chewy Marzolo’s earthy drums, or the consistently electrifying interplay between Cobbett’s lead guitar and secret weapon Sigrid Sheie’s organ and assorted keys (as on the firestorm of interlocking 32nd notes on the title track).
Following “The Grain,” “Staring (The 31st Floor)” initially comes off as somewhat half-baked. Despite being a satisfyingly heavy stomper of a track, it feels relatively single-minded in contrast to the flowing multi-part barrage of the rest of the album’s songs. Still, the ponderous chunking of this song fits neatly into the arc of the album both musically and lyrically, as it follows the exquisitely wistful and yet strangely hopeful yearning of “The Grain,” and leads directly into the fiery lyrical indignation and restless energy of “The Day the City Died.” The Queen vibe is strongest on “The Day the City Died,” but the song emerges as a construction of impeccable internal logic as it reveals another phenomenally catchy chorus undergirded by arpeggiating organs and guitars that tumble over and around one another in a thrilling dance. Hutton spits perfect chorus lines like “This one’s called, ‘I’m getting addicted’ / This one’s called, ‘I’m getting evicted’” with glee and abandon, and the song fades out to close side one with a classic guitar solo and fugue.
The logic of two album sides is undeniable, meaning that the second side of 17th Street features fewer obviously anthemic songs in favor of what are usually somewhat dismissively referred to as ‘deep tracks’. “Romance Valley” opens this side with ample evidence that the addition of Abdul-Rauf on second guitar (and excellent close vocal harmonies in several places) has amped up the rhythmic bite of the majority of the album’s straight-ahead riffing. The song busts out classic ascending chromatics before tensing up into a staccato rhythmic guitar figure that presents the mirrored image of that eight-note piano figure from the title track. It’s also hard to not just sit back and smile at the effortlessly bluesy leads that carry the bridge into the song’s final verse. “Summer Tears” begins with a classic piano opening straight out of Elton John or Billy Joel, but when the patiently wheeling guitars join the song, it’s all Queen. The song’s verse features some of Joe Hutton’s most expressive phrasing, but perhaps the strangest touch is the clean guitar chord on the upbeat, which, as near as this writer can tell, makes this the first reggae-tinged progressive metal power ballad with a chorus whose descending melody also suggests The Phantom of the Opera. Still, even when John Cobbett’s merry men and women paint with so many classic hues, they never sound like anyone other than the Hammers Of Misfortune. Identity matters.
“Grey Wednesday” plays up a pretty heavy Rush vibe when its organ-flecked doomy intro cuts out into simple but insistently anticipatory riffing, while album closer “Going Somewhere” collects all the anxiety of urban displacement and economic uncertainty (“Now there is only a road we take to the end / Until this wreck can sail again”) and reflects it with both the brave façade of thick, insistent riffing and the nervous flutter of glorious twinned guitar and keyboard lead sections. The song ends up serving as a nice encapsulation of the cover art, with the band arrayed in shadow overlooking The City (constantly elevated in Cobbett’s lyrics to both sociological archetype and quotidian Anyplace) with the flash and bustle of its light both a seductive promise and hopelessly broken dream. Shit, while we’re at it, can’t we just call this the Hammers’ take on Springsteen’s “Jungleland”? The only question is whether they are coming or going; “going somewhere,” the song explains, but it does so with both question marks and equally uncertain periods.
As has hopefully been made clear, 17th Street is absolutely littered with brilliant moments, but its real magic unfolds when encountered as a unified piece. Not only do the graceful movements and counterpoint sections of each individual song ring truer with each return, but melodic and lyrical themes are deployed across the entire album, each subsequent invocation all the richer for its familiar resonance. The lyrics reflect a very real (but never too literal or overtly topical) anxiety about economic decline, political corruption, the petty cruelty of those undeserving of holding power, and the incessant degradation of the powerless. Even so, given that so much of this album is shot through and through with a world-weary melancholy, the fact that the album is an unparalleled joy to listen to is an unimpeachable testament to the fact that this is a truly special band. If you’re looking for soulful, melodic, muscular, and inventive heavy metal that brims with deservedly self-assured songwriting and enough hooks to last a couple dozen lifetimes, take a turn down this street, pull up a chair, and let me tell you a story. Let’s tell it together.
Register to post comments.
RelatedHammers Of Misfortune
Fields/Church Of Broken Glass
8/3/2010 Hammers Of Misfortune
8/3/2010 Hammers Of Misfortune
The Locust Years
6/25/2006 Hammers Of Misfortune
The August Engine