HAMMERS OF MISFORTUNE: The Metal Blade Reissues

By Kyle Harcott

San Francisco’s Hammers of Misfortune have recently signed to Metal Blade, and as a result, the label has reissued their entire back catalogue in hopes that it will get the due recognition it missed the first time around. With no expectation and no foreknowledge of the band, I tossed myself in at the deep end to review these four reissues and wound up discovering something completely fresh.

The Bastard (2001)
Starting out your canon with a concept album is inherently bold. Starting out your canon with a concept album that effortlessly blends elements of classic NWOBHM power metal, gentle-madrigal folk, black/death metal, traditional doom, and prog… that doesn’t only take some balls, it takes exceptional talent. But The Bastard does exactly that without a hint of a misstep. The concept (let me see if I got this right) is a three-act tragedy about an illegitimate son confronting and defeating the tyrannical father/king who abandoned him at birth and taking up his reign. Along the way are oaths of vengeance sworn in Hell and a Blood Ax is thrown in for good measure – got that so far? All of which would be a moot point if the musicianship wasn’t completely stellar. But not only does the music manage to blow your mind with its sheer diversity and intricacy, it’s also cohesive and damn if it isn’t catchy in places. Mike Scalzi voices the main character here, and my first impression is to automatically compare this to Slough Feg, but of course there’s going to be a common influence between ‘Feg and HoM – both Scalzi and John Cobbett pulled double-duty in both bands at the time, and as chief songwriters, how could the similar influence not rear up? The soaring operatic vocals of bassist Janis Tanaka are breathtaking, and Cobbett’s guttural turn at the mic voicing the tyrant king is also noteworthy. The guitarwork is impeccable; light-handed with the solos but that’s not a complaint – a lesser progressive band would have simply soloed all over the map to impress you. But the idea is for this album to be taken in as a whole, and not just the sum of its parts, so singling out standout songs is pointless here. My recommendation is that you take the entire album in, in one sitting; you’re an active participant as the listener and this is not background music. Also, though I was listening to a digital advance, it is my understanding that the album’s artwork paints a clearer picture of the storyline, something to consider as you undertake a listening session here. Highly impressive, I can’t wait to see where they go next. (8)

The August Engine (2003)
The August Engine is an obvious successor to The Bastard, if only in the sense that many bands would be hard-pressed to adequately follow up such an auspicious debut. Of course, as this is the enigmatic Hammers of Misfortune we’re talking about, there’s no sign of a ‘sophomore slump’ in sight. Abandoning the concept-album approach this time -in favor of a collection of songs that each stand on their own merit- this one’s a little easier to dissect as a result. For this reason, I find that I am more instantly drawn in to this disc than the first, which admittedly, took a few listens to sink in. Mike Scalzi carries the majority of vocal duties here; Cobbett’s growl is nowhere to be found. Also conspicuously absent on this disc are the hints of black and death metal that pop up on the first record, in favor of a decidedly more progressive slant, though still with a healthy dose of doom. Proceedings kick off with a five-minute instrumental, “The August Engine Part I”, which kicks the doors down with a thrashy gallop that brought to mind Mindcrime-era Queensrÿche, all the while overlaying plenty of tasty power metal leads throughout , but acoustically segueing towards the end into “Rainfall”, a 180° departure from the attack of the opener. Showcasing stunningly-beautiful guitarwork and those lilting vocals of Janis Tanaka again, I heard strains of mellower Opeth in this song, and it acts as the perfect gateway between two harder-edged songs. “A Room And A Riddle” follows and this one’s the fist-pumper; another punchy rocker, this time showcasing twin-harmony leads à la Thin Lizzy by way of Slough Feg, but toward the end I keep hearing vague Rush-isms. “The August Engine Part II”, which takes the listener on a great prog odyssey, also brings up more vague Rush-isms in its latter half. The guitars in the last minute of the song are a total showstopper. It’s a great companion piece to the album’s other epic, “The Trial and the Grave”, this one all down-tempo and doom, and featuring Janis on vocals. Overall, while I found The August Engine much more accessible, more evolved and still thoroughly enjoyable, I found I missed some of the darker elements that were present on The Bastard. Perhaps they’ll return on the later albums. (7)

The Locust Years (2005)
Off the bat, I had a harder time getting into this record than the first two. My initial personal bias against everything prog-rock almost got the best of me; it would have totally been my loss. The Locust Years moves in a different direction than its predecessors, but it grew on me after a few more studied listens. Advancing further afield in a markedly prog direction, The Locust Years continues to blend traditional heavy-metal styling with Hammond-heavy progressive leanings. The more I listen, the more I get into it – and the more I realize it’s a classic rock-opera record; there’s a decidedly ‘70s vibe. If it had been released thirty years prior, I could totally see The Locust Years as one of those genre-defining prog classics of the decade. The title-track opener is bombastic; everything about it screams big-rock tabernacle, from the wailing guitar leads, the moody, hymnal organ providing the foundation, and Mike Scalzi’s pleading vocals overtop. “We Are the Widows” blends mid-tempo doom riffs with crystalline acoustic passages and decidedly gothic passages interplaying between the vocals and piano. A fantastic, first-pumping barn-burner, “Trot Out the Dead” comes walloping at you with those sublime harmonic leads, and I heard shades of Dio being channeled in Scalzi’s voice in the chorus. “Famine’s Lamp” starts out morose with those empyrean female vocals of Sigrid Sheie and Jamie Myers, accompanied by more lush gothic piano, but flips on its ear for the coda and goes pounding out in a doom-slaked Viking slaveship rhythm. But it’s “War Anthem” that claims King Thunder on this disc; drummer Chewy Marzolo really steps up to the plate here, and claims the song as his own with a tasteful drum solo (really, he drives the bus throughout the whole song, not just the solo). The harmonized vocals on the track even hoist some Pink Floyd weight on their shoulders. Subsequent instrumental “Election Day” plunks that big ol’ Hammond right into the driver’s seat and lets all Rick-Wakeman’s-cape Hell break loose in an over-the-top instrumental, Cobbett’s guitar and the Hammond racing (break)neck-in-neck in a complementary duel. “Widow’s Wall” starts out as a lurching, piano-guided lament before devolving into another thick-guitared progstomper; almost hints of Bowie coming through on that lead vocal. Things wind down with the hymnal “Church of Broken Glass”. It’s an inspired and strong closing number, and the vocal harmonies are top-notch here. John Cobbett’s outro solo is also some of his most soulful work in HoM (thus far). Though The Locust Years is pointed in a different direction than the previous two discs, in a lot of ways it’s the most rewarding listen of the discs so far It made me glad I stuck in and got past my prog-prejudice, because The Locust Years is a more incredible disc than I initially would have given it credit for. (8)

Fields/Church of Broken Glass (2008)
Scalzi’s departed the lineup by the time of this double-album set, replaced by Patrick Goodwin. Jamie Myers has also departed, with Jesse Quattro taking over her vocal duties. This is also the most prog of the four albums, though shards of doom still shine through at times. Opener “Agriculture” starts out with a slinky Tull crawl, then drops into a big-rock vibe showcasing more of Mr. Cobbett’s great leadwork crosscut with Sigrid’s big Hammond, while the piano-driven “Fields’ comes across like acoustic Pink Floyd. “Motorcade” is a grand rocker, and Patrick Goodwin’s voice takes center-stage while Chewy Marzolo deftly propels the ship downriver – such an underrated drummer. The song’s become one of my favorites on the album, with great big hooks and more of that rock tabernacle that the Hammers are so good at. “Rats Assembly” is another Hammond-driven leap across the map, again more shades of Floyd in those lush vocal harmonies. “Too Soon” is darker, downward-spiralling prog but the dead center flute solo by Sigrid Sheie is a charming addition, providing a bit of lightness. The dark returns with those creeping Sabbathisms in “Butchertown” too, one of the album’s finest moments, with some heavy, doom-handed guitar, and vocal work that again calls to mind David Gilmour on Wish You Were Here. A re-cut “Church of Broken Glass” is tacked on near the end, and it took a bit of getting used to, hearing Goodwin’s voice in place of Scalzi’s, but otherwise the track remains much the same as it was on the previous record. Album closer “Train” is a tight little rocker, with more great vocal harmonies on deck and tasty guitarwork throughout. The whole album presents itself like a soundtrack to a sprawling (if nonexistent) film, and “Train” acts as end-credit music to wrap the whole journey up. Fields/Church of Broken Glass is definitely the most sprawling and ambitious of their four album, progressing leaps and bounds over the previous discs. It’s also left me curious to see what the newest lineup of the Hammers of Misfortune will produce with their new album expected later this year. (7)

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.