To be an ardent fan of heavy metal in 2016 is a curious thing. By many metrics, there has never been a better time to follow this music, whether judged by the sheer volume of bands, the depth and diversity of extant styles, the ease of self-recording and distribution for musicians, the plentiful ways that listeners can access that music, and so on. Nevertheless, to be an ardent fan of heavy metal in 2016 more likely than not means engaging with the music through the internet, and the current nexus of heavy metal, music writing, and the internet is toxic, off-putting, and useless.
Have faith: this is all about Hammers of Misfortune (in its way).
But first, back to the internet. The problem is that far too much of the online coverage of music has turned into an unctuous version of the boy who cried wolf. To wit: if everything you listen to, if everything you post about on social media, if everything you read about on Noisey or Invisible Oranges or Pitchfork or Stereogum or Spin or Last Rites or MetalSucks or Grimlord Darkwing Duck’s Eternally Blackened Black Metal Blackness 666 Zine or whatever – if all of it is “amazing” or “fantastic” or “killer,” then none of it is. Playing this game shouldn’t be about hot takes, or premature evaluations, or a single day of hyperbolic praise on Twitter that gets retweeted and bounced around in an increasingly hollow echo chamber only to vanish the next day into forgetful silence. That thing you saved that link to or had open in a tab two weeks ago that was the next greatest thing in nu-prog ethno-dubstep: where is it now? What was it then?
If the root problem is the same, however, there are actually two slightly different manifestations of it:
The first is overly florid praise by individual writers. Frequently, this happens because it is assumed that readers won’t click to read an in-depth examination of the average, the disappointing, the work-in-progress, the promising but flawed start. On the one hand, this gives readers far too little credit. On the other hand, once a writer falls into this mental trap, it can be hard to claw back out, because it starts to feel like anything less than unstintingly lavish approval will be seen as a takedown or some sort of intentionally obnoxious iconoclasm.
The second problematic manifestation of the underlying issue is the agenda-setting power of certain outlets. It makes sense that larger media outlets might have an outsize impact on what gets listened to, but it makes less sense that those outlets would have the same impact on what gets covered in other outlets. There are a number of explanations for this, both banal and cynical, but it generally boils down to a combination of convenience and self-interested groupthink. If writers are all getting access to (more or less) the same music, they’re more likely to start talking about it, but once that talk turns into buzz, there tends to be a clamoring fear of missing out on clicks (FOMOOC) that leads to a morass of bad, redundant writing.
The consequences of this are easy to spot. If groupthink leads to too much coverage of a narrowing pool of artists and albums, it also tends to lead to a race to publish. Sadly, that race also seems to turn most writing into utterly disposable copy, with too many pieces doing essentially three things: 1) HEY! BAND is doing a THING! 2) Some crummy words; probably a few adjectives. 3) HEY! LINK to THING! This turns an article or review into little more than a glorified bookmark for readers, a reminder to go do something else.
Furthermore, when that publish-or-perish (or rather publish-and-perish-anyway-but-maybe-perish-just-a-little-bit-more-slowly-than-those-other-folks) mentality is coupled with the tendency to hail every last trifling album that passes the tympanic membrane as the next big whatever in who-cares, it only amplifies the latent unwillingness (or perhaps inability) of too many writers to engage critically. Critical engagement, of course, does not necessarily mean criticizing (although it should where warranted!). It does, however, require reflection and analysis, but neither of those aspects is possible when music writing has been turned into a book report: minimally passable description plus summary judgment.
Truthfully, none of this is meant to call out anyone in particular, because 1) people doing this kind of thing should always be trying to do it better, and 2) people reading this who are already doing it the right way know they’re doing it the right way, while people reading this who are currently doing it the wrong way probably won’t think this applies to them.
Your faith has been tested, but: here’s why and how this is really all about Hammers of Misfortune:
1). Hammers of Misfortune is one of our greatest and most vital heavy metal bands (full stop) and they deserve better than the press-release-hastily-regurgitated-as-album-review treatment.
2). Their new album Dead Revolution invites questions, hesitation, reflection, and ultimately celebration.
3). As such, if we attend to what it does and how it does it, the new Hammers of Misfortune may point a way, if not out, then at least outward from some of this mess.
Although it has been a long five years since 17th Street, that interim period has seen Hammers of Misfortune’s ringleader and guitarist John Cobbett release two albums of gloriously crusty psych-thrash with Vhol (albums which, on occasion, bear traces of the pre-Hammers group Unholy Cadaver). Even so, any new Hammers release should be greeted as the gift that it is, because very few bands channel everything true and righteous about traditional heavy metal into music that sounds anything but traditional.
Though Cobbett’s music and themes in Hammers of Misfortune have always tended towards the reflective and emotive, Dead Revolution is both thematically darker and tonally heavier than its predecessor 17th Street (or, really, than most of the band’s work). Although Sigrid Sheie’s organ-tone keyboards and Cobbett’s songwriting sensibilities are still descended from prog and ’70s hard rock, the heavy riffing on the album is much stauncher (and borderline thrash) than on past albums. The 12/8 chug of “The Velvet Inquisition” starts the album on an authoritative note, even as the straight-ahead riff is buttressed by organ and stretched by extra-beat measures. When Cobbett and guitarist Leila Abdul-Rauf play rhythm in tandem, the crunchy midrange of the guitars provides a powerful momentum that is accented by new drummer Will Carroll’s sturdily classicist patterns.
The album’s title track is another wonderful demonstration of songwriting that manages to be both economical and progressive. The whole piece is beautifully taut, with Joe Hutton’s impassioned vocals soaring even as they remain tightly anchored to the knotty riffwork. The song’s midsection solo break is a breathtaking piece of acrobatics, with a double-tracked guitar solo that morphs into a few measures of guitar and keys trading off licks before transitioning back to the song’s opening riff. These are the sorts of compositional skills that are easy to underestimate, because when they’re done as well as this, they become essentially invisible. But as Hutton belts through the song’s immaculate closing couplet – “The better world you were trying to build is / Laughing in your face; / the better world you were trying to build is / On fire” – and the band digs deepest into the cowbell-dictated riffing, it’s hard not to get chills.
Even with such periodic exceptions, Dead Revolution might be HoM’s least vocal-centric album to date. This isn’t to say that the vocals are absent or unimportant, but they tend to be almost muffled, sometimes hidden against the instrumentation in a way that one assumes has to be deliberate. Hutton himself is often masked, obscured, or distorted. On “The Velvet Inquisition” and “Sea of Heroes,” his voice is filtered by a watery effect, and on the chorus to “The Precipice” he almost sounds like he’s yelling through a pitch-shifted megaphone.
Although it gives more space to marvel at the instrumental interplay that has always been HoM’s beating heart, these vocal choices are initially disorienting. Still, they start to seem sensible and thematically appropriate as the dark, knotty core of the album unfolds. Although the verse/pre-chorus of “Sea of Heroes” seems to winkingly toy with the same ascending chromatic scale as Metallica’s “The Thing that Should Not Be,” the acoustic digressions and distant but heavenly vocal overlay of its bridge suggest Queen more than anything – think of a somewhat distant twin to “’39.” . In fact, Cobbett indulges his inner Brian May in both the tone and intuitive movement of the soloing throughout the album.
Even as the band’s grounded prog and freewheeling hard rock exuberance have their lineage in Queen, Thin Lizzy, Deep Purple, and Pink Floyd, Dead Revolution brandishes its heavy metal bona fides with glee. The reason that HoM’s progressive heavy metal earns both sides of that description is because even though its instrumental phrases are a foundation for elaboration rather than closure, the riffs are always sturdy enough that no matter how many variations they go through, they’re always there at the bedrock, thick with the tactile exertion of real fingers on real strings. “The Precipice” opens with a whip-crack martial snare roll from Carroll that tumbles into a bristling full-band urgency, with Hutton’s warped vocals buffeted by Sheie and Abdul-Rauf’s backing harmonies. The guitar solo that closes out the song teases and pushes against both the drums and keys, a somehow playfully keening demonstration of blunt emotion channeled through the crest and lash of pure sound.
Pedantry alert (yeah, yeah, yeah – too little, too late, right?): the squealed guitar note that opens “Here Comes the Sky” is a perfect doppelgänger of the start of Manilla Road’s “Crystal Logic,” but it yields immediately to the album’s most pastoral passage. The core of the song, however, is a folk-doom shanty in languid 6/8 punctuated by slide guitar that crescendos into a gripping conclusion with Hutton’s triple-tracked exhortations scattered across the stereo spectrum. An unexpected coda of Latin-sounding trumpet provides the album’s richest transition, as the following song “Flying Alone” is Dead Revolution‘s most shit-kicking, fire-starting piece from start to finish. It’s like a supercharged “Hallowed Be Thy Name” without the quiet introduction, but also features Cobbett and Abdul-Rauf letting loose sparks with impossibly nimble, Thin Lizzy-inspired dual leads. It also might be Hutton’s best performance of the album, as he sneeringly tears into vaguely sci-fi lyrics in which a protagonist flees the scene of some unnamed destruction and takes to the sky, to space, to who knows what: “Flying faster I take one last look back / I’ll never see this place again.”
Given the full-throttle release of “Flying Alone,” it could have easily been a walk-off hit for the album, which initially makes the abrupt shift in tone and theme of the actual album closer “Days of ’49” a hard sell. The song is a folky barroom lament – superficially about the California gold rush of 1849 – that plods intentionally with the clank of the prospecter’s pickaxe while the narrator describes with wistful realism a roster of absent friends. At first brush, the song treads too closely to schmaltz, but as the internal logic of the album sinks in for the listener, “Days of ’49” sinks in, too.
In a way, the song is an inversion of two previous HoM album closers (“Train” and “Going Somewhere”), as well as of “Flying Alone” which directly precedes it. If those songs are all, in their way, about striking out into the future – no matter how uncertain its shape – “Days of ’49” is about both the draw and the danger of dwelling in the past. If 17th Street meditated on gentrification and Fields/Church of Broken Glass contrasted agrarian and urban themes, Dead Revolution is even more agitated, more uncertain, more aggrieved. Thus, it’s not only through its gradually unfolding rightness that “Days of ’49” turns out to be an imposing capstone to another excellent HoM album – though it does do that, with its elegy of dreamers and workers brought so low by the bust that their memory of the boom times is tainted by selective amnesia; call it the ghost of the ghost of Tom Joad – but through its immediate juxtaposition with “Flying Alone.”
The twinning of the evocative escapism of “Flying Alone” and the concrete if anachronistic references of “Days of ’49” is a useful illustration of HoM’s great strength: because of how they are able to pair the imaginative and fanciful with the real and consequential, even as the music swirls and riots into orbits around new, joyful planets, that music always remains tethered to the real world, to real sadness and regret and pain. The guitars that wind down “Days of ’49” bend and weep with that plaint, swiftly negating any earlier thoughts that the song is a put-on, and as they finally slink away, they leave space for a few brief seconds in which the only sound is the faint murmur of the backing vocals – the ghostly chorus that awaits us all.
That music so often despondent and unflinchingly unsettled can still exist for the listener as nothing less than thrilling heavy metal should, at this point, be no surprise to those who’ve hewn closely to HoM’s singularly triumphant path through heavy metal over the last decade and a half. But the fact remains noteworthy in part because the tools that Hammers of Misfortune wield with such seeming ease are a witheringly rare commodity. And – and here’s where this loops back around – if that craft and subtlety are overlooked or underappreciated because of the myriad ways in which good, thoughtful writing is crushed under mountains of insipid jaw-flapping (yeah, yeah, yeah – pot, kettle, etc.), then we not only lose a fuller appreciation of the band’s music itself, but we also lose the opportunity to reflect on how we experience the art that moves us, the art that challenges us and asks us questions that we’re often not sure how to answer.
HEY! BAND did a THING! So what are you going to do about it?