Hammers Of Misfortune
The August Engine
posted on 12/2003 By:
Hammers of Misfortune has left me at a loss for words. Not because this is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard or anything. It is damned good, but it’s just so damned weird. Coming up with a “theme” for a review is usually no sweat, but these guys have put out such a strange album, drawing from such bizarre influences and still making it sound good, that I just don’t even know where to begin. So, I’m using my confusion as a starting point. I guess this is some sort of power-progressive folk-tinged thrash metal, but that hardly even begins to cover it. The music on The August Engine is forward thinking in a different way than many other truly progressive bands. Instead of honing a certain style and expanding on it, Hammers of Misfortune manages to meld a vast array of genres that on their own are quite tired and turn it into something exciting and completely enjoyable. By far the finest points on this album are those where there aren’t any vocals. Not to say the vocals are bad or anything, they’re rather good, but during the instrumental passages, there’s very clearly tons of attention paid to writing killer music. Where many bands that utilize long instrumental sections in their music let it grow dull with repetition, Hammers of Misfortune doesn’t let any riff overstay its welcome, leaving you wanting to hear it again instead of wishing it to just be done with. But, although each song varies tremendously, none of the changes seem forced or abrupt; they all flow naturally together. There are both male and female vocals on The August Engine, and neither is bad or detracts from the music at all, but neither inspires awe, at least for me. The female vocals are typical of those found in metal; operatic, and somewhat overly dramatic. Unlike many female vocals, though, those found here aren’t ever overbearing, making their relatively typical nature completely bearable if not even enjoyable at times. By far the best two tracks on the album are both of the title tracks (pts.1 and 2). The first one opens the album with a bang. It’s an instrumental just under five minutes long and shows that they’re awesome musicians who understand that writing ass kicking melodies is just as important as showing off technical prowess. The balance between wankery and songwriting is just as it should be. There’s enough great playing to make me say, “Damn! I wish I could do that,” but not enough to make me want to shoot them for being so damned pretentious. The second part to the title track begins sounding like standard, cheesy 80’s thrash influenced metal, but instead of being boring, it’s actually rather endearing. Of course, that portion of the nine-minute song only lasts for the first three and a half minutes and, even during that phase, between verses there’s some impressive playing and odd melodies. The last five and a half minutes are easily the best on the album, though. Obvious influences range from the likes of Megadeth, Thin Lizzy, Rush, Opeth, and far too many others to name, but somehow it’s completely cohesive. Probably the only slight downside to the album is the closing track. It’s not that it’s bad, but it’s a bit too slow and long to be as captivating as it could’ve been. It’s the most doom influenced, so the slow speed makes sense, it’s just that the melodies in it aren’t strong enough to keep it afloat for its entire eleven-minute duration. Still, it’s an enjoyable listen, just nowhere near as much as the rest of The August Engine. I guess another aspect worthy of a little complaint is the production. It is quite clear and effective; it’s just missing some necessary “Umph” in many places and is slightly rawer sounding than could truly do the band justice. Overall, this is an entirely gratifying listen, another breath of fresh air not just into metal but also into some of the most stagnant genres of metal around. If you’re into bands that push the envelope without really straying too far from the core values of the style’s they’re playing, this is an album for you. I know The August Engine will be given many future listens from me and maybe if I’m lucky it’ll stop seeming so confusing one of these days. Still, despite the confusion, it totally rules.
posted on 8/2010 By:
Having clicked on the link for this review, the chances are pretty good you already know Hammers of Misfortune's The August Engine. Likely you've even read a good selection of other reviews over the album's seven years of life and you know that the majority have been dripping with critical acclaim, many to the point of fawning. So it certainly is not news that the San Francisco progressive metal troupe's second platter is regarded by many to be a modern metal masterpiece. I'm not going to bother with a build-up here, is what I'm getting at. Rather, Metal Blade's reissue of the Hammers of Misfortune catalog gives us an excellent opportunity to address and discuss the elements of what constitutes greatness in a heavy metal record through an examination of those that comprise this particular tour de force. A few aspects seem to be mandatory for any serious possibility of enduring prominence, while others are less necessary but nonetheless fairly ubiquitous in this circle.
So, riffs, right? And solos. Assuming that it's heavy and it's metal, the prime requisite has to be kickass guitar work. It doesn’t have to be groundbreaking or technically ambitious, just really fucking cool, and The August Engine is rife with riffs that are all of these things and more. Shit, there's more blue-ribbon riffing in the title track alone than most bands can manage on an album. Add to this a bevy of truly incomparable dual leads (see the end minutes of “The August Engine Part 2” for a picture of lead guitar perfection), and the stalwart foundation is in place.
But even awesome fretplay works better when it’s characterized and accented by distinctive sound and between the just-off-kilter tuning of the trademark twin guitars and the inimitable vocals of Mike Scalzi and Janis Tanaka, The August Engine clearly has this covered. Even with obvious draws on some of the greats of heavy music, from Megadeth through Iron Maiden to Thin Lizzy, John Cobbett has assembled and augmented these pieces in such a way as to create an equally loyal and instantly recognizable sound, unique even among the band’s own recordings.
Of course, killer sound rings hollow unless it sticks, so the tunes have to be memorable. Master of an endless wellspring of ideas and never beholden to convention, Cobbett is known for taking liberties with his melodies, so it can take a few listens for his songs to reveal their hooks. Once they do, though, they're irresistible. Much of what makes his songs so compelling is a natural predilection to diversity in songwriting, often the key to getting an album over the hump from catchy, sing-along headbanger to one that uses these tools to tap emotion by exploiting the brain’s natural favor for unpredictability within sound musical structure.
No mere mish-mash of ideas, though, gets the job done, so many great albums capitalize on a strong thematic approach. Now bands make concept albums all the time and many of these misfire wildly, but Hammers of Misfortune is known for doing it right with absurd consistency. There's been a bit of mild debate over whether The August Engine is a concept album per se, mostly because it lacks the developed storyline of The Bastard or the clear socio-political allegory of their most recent works. Even so, lyrically, it is consistent in coursing through various incarnations of life's mysterious dooms and dreads. Lyrics aside, the mind-blowing array of musical thematic devices found throughout firmly settles the issue. Riffs, rhythms and melodies return frequently during the record’s play, sometimes obviously and often in the form of some twisted mutation of one or the other, endowing The August Engine with an undeniably natural cohesiveness. Nowhere is this more evident than in Cobbett’s uncanny ability to match the mood of his music to his lyrics. Whether exquisitely gifted Lorraine Rath's quiet contemplation of “Rainfall”, the white-hot sardonic disdain of “Insect”, or the bones-deep crippling pain of the album’s doom-drenched closer, “The Trial and the Grave”, every utterance, vocal and instrumental, is critical to the evocation of the underlying sentiment.
Finally, inspired compositions get a little bit of extra kick when they’re just a little bit weird. Hammers’ essence is so steeped in this notion that discussion of the band seems always to struggle for just one more synonym to explain them (quirky, bizarre). It’s a vain effort, because Hammers of Misfortune is of that exceedingly rare breed that can be accurately described only by its very name. And that, as the outward expression of its inner richness, is the indelible mark of this peerless record.
So there you have it. Much more than a mere piecing together of what works, The August Engine is an example of what happens when it’s all done ridiculously right. And, testament to its blatant disregard for propriety, Hammers’ second LP sounds and feels every bit as rebelliously avant-garde seven years after its original release. If you haven’t yet availed yourself of this incredible band’s creative pinnacle, count yourself, the discerning metal fan, fortunate for the opportunity to embrace The August Engine for the first time. I certainly envy you that.
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