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Hammers of Misfortune - "17th Street" (CD)

Hammers of Misfortune - "17th Street" CD cover image

"17th Street" track listing:

1. 317 (3:39)
2. 17th Street (4:41)
3. The Grain (7:14)
4. Staring (The 31st Floor) (3:48)
5. The Day the City Died (4:30)
6. Romance Valley (5:19)
7. Summer Tears (6:37)
8. Grey Wednesday (3:58)
9. Going Somewhere (10:06)

Reviewed by on November 21, 2011

"Each [song] is a cohesive piece that transports us to the doorstep of a swirling, misty reality, where Cobbett extends his hand and gladly invites us in."

Hammers of Misfortune, now on the band’s fifth long player and Metal Blade debut, has always had a very distinct sound. We intellectually know that NWOBHM, doom, folk and some thrash pieces are the main sub-genre components, but the sound is wholly unique. Add in that guitarist and band leader John Cobbett is a true songwriter, writing songs that tell stories even disregarding the lyrics, not repeating verse-chorus-solo-repeat jokes, and the top notch quality of the band’s newest album, “17th Street” is realized.

Listening to “17th Street” and comparing it to Hammers of Misfortune’s previous four albums, it seems as though everything has been orbiting toward this until-now-unknown point. From the eclectic schizophrenia of debut album “The Bastard,” to the downer folk of “The August Engine,” the progressive “The Locust Years,” and the 1970s AOR organ jams of double album “Fields/Church of Broken Glass,” it is all here in a big happy family on “17th Street.” Each aspect of Hammers of Misfortune’s sound takes its place at the round table, doing its part and nothing more.

Back to Cobbet’s songwriting – every track has a story to tell. “The Grain” shines under understated riffs, bubbly bridges and a well-measured delivery from new vocalist Joe Hutton, meandering over verdant hills and under gray skies. Album opener “317” takes a Steve Vai style solo and pairs it with a laid back rhythm, telling the story of a friendship pleasantly gone bad, or maybe warm lemonade where all the ice melted. “Romance Valley”’s pounding riff and insistent vocal lines recall amateur drag races to impress the ladies, or maybe cheerfully running from the law. The point here is these songs are more than just collections of notes, hooks, instruments or performances; each is a cohesive piece that transports us to the doorstep of a swirling, misty reality, where Cobbett extends his hand and gladly invites us in.

Everything is in service to the song and story. Track lengths run from three-and-a-half minutes to over ten minutes, but songs end when the time is right, never dragging on or cutting short. Aside from Cobbett, Hutton and percussionist Chewy Marzolo, players and instruments come and go as needed. Leila Abdul-Rauf’s haunting vocal melodies take long absences, but when they filter back again we fall in love. Bassist Max Burnett is always somewhere with his back end, but sometimes it is off in the other room, or maybe down the street. But when all seems tinny and lost, he pops back in, re-grounding the proceedings. “Summer Tears” pops a Queen-style piano-and-guitar section into a slow ballad, with no warning of its coming or going, and we hardly notice it’s unique character, instead focusing on the barely maintained love Cobbett and Hutton and company must be crooning about.

I previously wrote that “Hammers of Misfortune are best when they are the sheen hiding dark corners, not harbingers of happy.” For the first dozen spins or so “17th Street” seems like a pretty happy place – lots of upbeat rhythms, riffs, melodies, and whatnot. Even the solo on “Summer Tears” makes us believe love is still possible. But each repeated spin reveals a dark secret or snippet of sound that seems out of place, bringing the unthinkable disappointment and despair ever closer. “Going Somewhere” is expansive, inventive, and quite possibly Hammers of Misfortune’s best single song yet. The slow crescendo of depressed realism to somehow-still-bridled joy encapsulates Hammers of Misfortune and “17th Street” completely; a story of hidden horror and subtle sadness through a happy vehicle of phenomenal rock n’ roll music. And just when “Going Somewhere”’s muscular chug gets rolling real good, it stops. And it hurts. And we want more.

Highs: “Going Somewhere” shows the band at its expansive and inventive best.

Lows: Leila Abdul-Rauf and Chewy Marzolo are severely underutilized.

Bottom line: Unique heavy metal band shines on Metal Blade debut.

Rated 4 out of 5 skulls
4 out of 5 skulls

Rating Description
Rated 5 out of 5 skulls Perfection. (No discernable flaws; one of the reviewer's all-time favorites)
Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls Near Perfection. (An instant classic with some minor imperfections)
Rated 4 out of 5 skulls Excellent. (An excellent effort worth picking up)
Rated 3.5 out of 5 skulls Good. (A good effort, worth checking out or picking up)
Rated 3 out of 5 skulls Decent. (A decent effort worth checking out if the style fits your tastes)
Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls Average. (Nothing special; worth checking out if the style fits your taste)
Rated 2 out of 5 skulls Fair. (There is better metal out there)
< 2 skulls Pretty Bad. (Don't bother)