[Album artwork by Saprophial]
John Cobbett is a hell of a dungeon master.
Before we get to that, though, please accept the following disclosure:
The only heavy metal band (the word “band” being used rather loosely) I’ve ever played an active role in went down when I was a kid around 1985. We were called Cyst, and we made two albums over the course of…well, probably about a week: Tales from the Pit (side A of a Memorex 90), and Music You Can Barf To (side B of a Memorex 90). No one but Cyst ever listened to Cyst songs, but they included mental jackpots such as “Death Agony,” “Relatives for Dinner,” “Rabid Baboons Are Coming for You,” and “Baby Doom.” By the grace of all that is holy, we never managed to make it past that one cassette, and only one copy of it ever managed to exist.
Sad story, no? Yeah, not really. But based on that blessed failing alone, one might conclude I have no real tactile expertise concerning the windfalls and hardships most every active band in the modern age faces. While on the whole that’s certainly true, I have spent the better part of my life doing the next closest thing: playing fantasy role-playing games.
Please don’t slam that door yet.
Look, I’m not a complete idiot; I have never come up with a world-defeating riff similar to the kickoff to “Miracle Man” while imaginatively honing some fabled blade down at The Chiseled Pec & Dagger smithy. However, the two spheres are closer in kinship than some may think. For example, setting aside the notion of one-person “bands” for sanity’s sake, consider the fact that both realms thrive or die on the vine as a result of a combined effort from like-minded individuals gathered to explore, create, and bring their imaginative efforts to life. Also, while it’s admittedly far from being an invariable case with regard to bands, often times one dominant member does indeed guide the rest of the players like some sort of musical dungeon master, and said DM would be damn-near useless without the other players’ involvement. And lastly (and perhaps most importantly), both scenarios require a miracle on the level of “the disciples rising from the grave to form the greatest basketball team ever” in order to maintain a steady lineup for an extended period of time. Inevitably, someone always ends up packing up and moving to Jockstrap, Nevada, or some poor adventurer is forever persuaded to skip out on fun in favor of keeping romance alive in some enchanted relationship. What a misery.
That’s… pretty much where the analogy comes to a screeching halt, though. One entity concludes with a tangible asset to be enjoyed in perpetuity, while the other mostly provides enjoyment for the players themselves, much like Cyst. Ultimately, when given the option of listening to nerds squabbling over encumbrance rules for 4 hours or, say, The Last in Line, nine out of ten good doctors will urge the latter.
Anyway, John Cobbett is a hell of a dungeon master. He’s a hell of a dungeon master whose longest running heavy metal campaign, Hammers of Misfortune, has delivered over two decades worth of adventuring that spans anything from slain kings to suburban sprawl to… whatever you might hope to attach Cobbett’s lyrics to, as he’s made a point of mentioning they’re largely malleable. Within this hammering realm that’s really not even close to being unfortunate, a number of notables from the Bay Area’s underground have rolled all manner of dice—members of The Lord Weird Slough Feg, L7, Vastum, Old Grand Dad, Sanhedrin, Amber Asylum, Death Angel et al.—and every player has brought a unique voice and disposition to Cobbett’s creations, giving each album subtle and oft-times not at all subtle distinctions. No matter who’s been at the table at any point along the timeline, though, and regardless of the degree of heaviness, moodiness, or eccentricity plated, all the material has been easily recognizable as a John Cobbett-lead adventure. Bottom line: If there exists today a metal band that’s more exclusively and immediately identifiable as is Hammers of Misfortune, they likewise hold membership to a pretty elite club.
Then the dungeon master up and moved away, perhaps driven by the need to supplant the Bay Area’s continued decline at the hands of gluttonous tech dongs with a more wild & natural domain where the pursuit of plow and hearth seemed far less… impossible. The end of the HoM campaign certainly seemed plausible as a result of the move, but Cobbett continued working on music, allegedly lending his talents to a relatively clandestine death / thrash outfit not to be named that sounds a bit like Vhol being dragged through the bowels of Hell, and eventually circulating some additional demo material to a couple of HoM chums (Joe Hutton and Will Carrol) who reportedly passed because it all colored too far outside the band’s usual lines. Hey, it’s only taken 800 words to get to the first bit of crucial info concerning the soon-to-be released Overtaker: It’s an absolutely bonkers record—like, a baby being born with a full beard and immediately reciting the first act of Richard III bonkers. Or maybe it’s just bonkers for Hammers of Misfortune? Per a recent interview over at Invisible Oranges, Cobbett’s stated goal for the record was as follows:
One thing is imminently clear: Cobbett’s hyper thrash enthusiasm for bands such as Sadus and Aspid that gave rise to Vhol continues to fuel his creative fires, and Overtaker exploits it to maximum advantage from cover to cover. Consequently, it should come as little surprise to discover one of the most significant shifts to the Hammers lineup involves netting one-time Vektor drummer Blake Anderson for the kit, and his presence delivers a hell of a turbulent storm to these 44 minutes. That’s great news for anyone who enjoys Cobbett’s vision of modern tech thrash, but fair warning for hoary Hammers fans hoping to find the warmth of songs such as “The Grain” or “Here Comes the Sky” within Overtaker’s halls: You are pretty much fucked. Instead, warmth is sacrificed in favor of unmitigated heat, and Overtaker furthermore manages to introduce a unique form of grim peril that could very well throw old fans for a loop.
Grim peril, you say? GO ON.
“Under the vault of heaven
Slumbering blossoms sway
Turn your gaze upon them
And feel your mind decay
Flocks beyond description
Encryption in their wings
When their throats begin to croak
The Neuromancer sings”
That’s taken from “Don’t Follow the Lights,” a song that launches with a spirit that seems much more typical of Hammers of Misfortune—a little mellow, a little otherworldly, a little “setting the stage for something very adventurous”—but then it suddenly splits down the road like a gazelle with a bee in its ear. The overall mood is hyper as hell, with unbridled energy bristling at the seams, but it’s still immediately identifiable as Hammers of Misfortune because Cobbett continues to weave so many of his signature touches into the picture with such a natural ease. His notably unique melodic effervescence is all over “Don’t Follow the Lights” (as well as the whole of the record), as is the signature use of keys / mellotron (shared with long-time collaborator / partner Sigrid Sheie) to help deepen the atmosphere. All sewn together, the full picture comes across like some sort of close quarter martial arts battle in space.
We like things a little weird, no? That’s been a huge part of HoM’s draw these many years, and Overtaker definitely cranks that element to a curious degree. First and foremost, it is absolutely bananas hearing mellotron welded to hyper thrash like this, and in the hands of anyone else, it would likely sink faster than a lead whale wearing concrete underpants. Here, however, we get speed kraut-prog catawampustry of the highest order—like “Dark Brennius,” which is thick with classic HoM theatrical oddness, including stacks of medieval keys and howling guest vocals from none other than one-time Hammerer / perpetual Lord Weird Slougher Mike Scalzi (one of two songs that feature him alongside Myers, which is wonderful to hear again.) And what in the fried bullberries is that nutso riff about 1:20 into “Orbweaver?” It’s got a strange little ’70s strut at its heart, as if it just sashayed into Mr. Kotter’s class 10 minutes late without a note from principal Woodman. So, yeah, wEiRdNeSs is definitely afoot, and it catches its peak with “Outside Our Minds,” a song that warps flanged melodic fret and key play into something that resembles a casual alien conversation about favorite ways to prepare humans, but filtered through a weirdo thrash band like… Nasty Savage? Sure, why not.
“Flames of salvation the chains of gravity fail
Strange coronation the serpentine fleet set sail
Ice giants sing telepathic wings of insectoid detail
Stellar machinery in our eyes
Call of the magpie chant of the dragonflies
Spying astounding surroundings senses decentralize
Psalm of the fauna calls as the dragon flies
Wild breath of heaven still whispers betwixt the spires
As the sonic cathedrals rise”
Whaaaaaaat the hell is in the Hammers of Misfortune vape pens, and where can I get a case.
All said and done, Overtaker is an overwhelming listen that absolutely will not soak in overnight. Hell, it probably won’t soak in after multiple nights, as there are enough moving parts from one moment to the next that taking notes is advised to help keep track of the overall trajectory. And even then, you might have fuck-all knowledge of where you are or how you got there once the conclusion finally careens through the back of your brain. That’s okay, though. While the hyperspeed hurtling bordering on instability mixed with a healthy slab of grimness might be new territory, your guide is a familiar master of dungeons with decades of experience under his utility belt. You will definitely be challenged, and sometimes a Volturnian baboon might give your boiled leather britches an atomic wedgie, but your reflexes are swift, your party’s got your back, and the rewards at the end of the adventure glitter like a wyvern’s treasure bath.
Bang your helm against the stage like you never did before!
- Digital and CD versions will be available 12/02/22 through bandcamp
- LP versions will be available 01/20/23 via Cruz del Sur, plus a limited amount available through the Hammers of Misfortune bandcamp
- Guests: Mike Scalzi (The Lord Weird Slough Feg) — vocals on “Dark Brennius” & “Overthrower”; Frank Chin (Crypt Sermon, Daeva, ex-Vektor) — bass on “Dark Brennius” & “Outside Our Minds”; Tom Draper (Spirit Adrift, Pounder) — guitar leads on “Overthrower”; Steve Blanco (Imperial Triumphant) — keyboard solo on “Vipers Cross”; Brooks Wilson (Crypt Sermon, Unrest) – backing vocals on “Aggressive Perfection”.
- Recording / mixing: Sanford Parker (drums, piano, timpani); John Cobbett (guitars, bass, keyboards, percussion); Jamie Myers (vocals); Avinash Mittur (Mike Scalzi’s vocals)
- Mastering: Justin Weis / Trakworx Recording, San Francisco, CA
- Photography: Aaron Cobbett