Hammers of Misfortune – 17th Street
Release: 2011Oct25 (US)
Label: Metal Blade
Should I even allow myself to post this review? I have so completely fallen in love with the fifth album from the San Franciscan sextet, it may be difficult to objectively criticize. The band was off my radar until last year, when Metal Blade scooped them up and decided to reissue their last four albums. Brad Barratt tackled all of those, so I decided to cruise down 17th Street myself.
What impresses me most about Hammers of Misfortune is the ability to channel and reflect one’s influences without explicitly sounding like any one in particular. Like how “The Grain” focuses lean Thin Lizzy riffs, “Staring (The 31st Floor)” dirges deep into the Sabbath sphere, and “The Day the City Died” is a most convincing progression from Tull territory. The latter is a classic example of how to work a strong hook with variation, as “This one’s called…” is followed up with various exodus destinations—from Oakland to Portland, Austin to London, Glasgow to Moscow.
The call-and-response four-part harmony vocals on “Summer Tears” was enough to jerk salt out of these jaded brown eyes. In particular, longtime keyboardist Sigrid Sheie beautifully balances alongside new guitarist Leila Abdul-Rauf (also of Vastum), adding a shimmering, crystalline layer to the dense dynamic. And thanks to them, rarely have tales of oppressive bankruptcy sounded as sweet as in the title track. Still, much attention is always focused on mainman John Cobbett, who is also well-known for his stints in Slough Feg and the now-defunct black metallers Ludicra—though 17th Street may be his finest performance to date. And their second new member, vocalist Joe Hutton, is smooth-toned, yet boasts a distinct, powerful presence throughout. [Thanks to “Jennonymouse” for the heads-up on my errors, now corrected ~Ed.]
Amazing too is that 7- and 10-minute songs like “The Grain” and “Going Somewhere” grab the listener and pull them forward—not wandering listlessly, not rushing and losing you, but not waiting to catch up either. They don’t need to command your attention; music this captivating works magic on its own. Hammers of Misfortune confidently display the kind of evolution most bands simply dream of. An album like 17th Street may be a far cry from the blast beats and blackened throats of The Bastard a decade back, but is not an illogical development. The production has improved, above all else, with a vibrancy that brings to light every delicate NWOBHM nuance, each muscular metallic moment. And while I liked hearing them sprawl out for 70 minutes on their last release, the 45-50 minute range seems to work better. All told, this is a year-end spoiler if I’ve ever seen one. Top five, easy.
Try not listening to the whole thing—I fucking dare you.
02. 17th Street
03. The Grain
04. Staring (The 31st Floor)
05. The Day the City Died
06. Romance Valley
07. Summer Tears
08. Grey Wednesday
09. Going Somewhere