Hammers of Misfortune: 'The August Engine' 5 of 5 stars
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This review actually comes somewhat late. 'The August Engine' is actually the Hammers' second album, and they are, at this writing, about to release their third.
I discovered this band only very recently, reading up on the whereabouts of one of my longtime favorite underground metal bands: The Lord Weird Slough Feg. Slough Feg leader Mike Scalzi is part of this astonishingly expressive, artistic and yet powerfully raw musical force.
I don't want to call them a mere band, and this is no mere side project for Scalzi. He pours as much of himself into the Hammers as he does Slough Feg, which is absolutely everything. That's not to say that this band - which is more like a tribe of magickal bards - sounds like Slough Feg.
Aside from Scalzi's distinctive dramatic vocals and tastefully bombastic, dramatic style the Hammers have about as original a sound as any I have ever heard in Heavy Metal. This is especially astonishing since I would assume that in some way Hammers of Misfortune is a response, to some extent at least, to the growing folk influence. I also note the presence of women musicians: again, rare in the annals of Traditional Metal but a parallel development to the folk influence. This influence hasn't always resulted in innovation, noting the swelling ranks of copycat gothic-operatic metal outfits that irritate the hell out of me. (Whatinthefuck does 'Leave's Eyes' mean, anyway? Izzat supposed to sound gothy and sensitive and stylish?)
The musicianship and passionate vocals of the two women in this band, who not only sing (very well) but play keyboards and bass (very well!) is impeccable. I find it important to say this because all too often in the Metal scene, when women are welcome to participate it's often for the wrong reasons. (I point out Angela of Arch Enemy, for one example.) Many fine women musicians are overlooked. These women are cut from the same fine cloth as metal women like Leather Leone of Chastain (before current vocalist Kate French, of whome I do not have as high an opinion) and Michelle Meldrum, John Norum's (Europe, Don Dokken solo) wife and an even better guitarist than her husband.
This is all to say that Scalzi did not recruit these women for T&A. They are real metal musicians; additionally, they do succeed in bringing depth and emotive expression to this band that only women could bring, and the lyrics that this band sings are some of the most truly poetic I have ever heard. This band raises the bar for sheer expressive musianship and songcraft for the entire broad Heavy Metal genre, and these women make it possible. Let me tell you their names, by the way: Sigrid Sheie (keyboards and vocals) and Jamie Myers (Bass and vocals).
The music itself has definable character. The folk influence is not 'folkie' 'singer-songwriter' pap. It's Celtic European folk and solid, old-school True Heavy Metal that stomps its way into your heart and mind like an ebullient young Tyrannosaurus Rex tearing through an unsuspecting herd of herbivores. There is style and passion with a touch of that Slough Feg bombast that makes it truly epic. The pure art of this band, with no mitigation whatsoever of its metallic, aggressive delivery, is proof positive of the maturation of Heavy Metal into a genre that can touch all of the spectrum of Human response to music without the least pretense or commercial pandering. Hammers managed to do what all these pansy-assed, affected gothy bands miserably attempted and failed to do: expand the affective powers of this muse.
This album, this band and its music is a slab of ancient bardic power. Mike Scalzi and his collaborators worked great magick to bring this to us, and they are truly wizards.
About the style of the songs on the album:
The August Engine pt. 1 is an instrumental that leads into the album as a charging speedmetal intro that stamps the album as a work of Traditional Heavy Metal. It sets the tone for the rest of the collection in regards to expectation of aggressive riffs, aggressive percussion and emotive guitar work. The twin-guitar solo attack is exciting and classic.
Near the rollicking, pounding end of the song, the harbinger of acoustic guitars comes interspersed with focused riffing to change the pace for the second track, 'Rainfall'. I wondered how piano would sound on this album, but was pleasantly surprised. It adds to the powerful but quiet tone of this darkly beautiful ballad. The women sing together a beautiful song of contemplation on rain and sky.
Scalzi then charges in with a Slough Feg-like melody and a charging, rollicking guitar attack and female chorus ('A Room and a Riddle').
We then get tones of recusal and anger in 'The August Engine p.2' and a syncopated riff paired with the percussion to make the listener move fists as well as head. This song makes you want to wave your hands in the air like you're directing some metal orchestra. Somehow this is more engaging than a mere air-guitar anthem. The epic atmosphere created by the careful partnership of all the instrumentation is awe-inspiring. The female chorus takes it all over the top.
Track 5, 'Insect', returns us to the wonderful acoustic guitar and female vocals. Scalzi joins in as backing vocalist to add his sardonic vibe, and suddenly the guitars come down like an axe. Scalzi takes the lead and we're back into headbanging mode. This is different from Slough Feg, though. This is less NWOBHM-inspired (read: Iron Maiden) and more ecclectic (even than SF).
Back to acoustics on 'Doomed Parade' and immediately into electric, with drama raining from every musician in an epic song with a folk chorus worhty of a king's court. This song of love and loss comes straight from memory of past lives, for all of its power. It segues with an acoustic interlude with female vocals and ends with the electric motif, as two more verses from Scalzi dryly condemns an enemy for his loss with threates of meeting again in Hell. THEN we get a Maiden-like ending with a punctual end.
The last track, 'The Trial and the Grave' starts electric, with astonishingly morose mood created by highly effective use of dissonance both in lead and rhythm guitars. As Sigrid sings this morbid lament of sadness and death, we have the penultimate doom metal epic. (This is what this thing is supposed to sound like, you imitative fucking commercial children out there. Fuck you all, I'm spending my money on Hammers of Misfortune.) This song is SO bone-crunchingly heavy and yet emotive that it simply takes the music places that will raise the densest metalhead's IQ at least ten points. It compares well with anything My Dying Bride have done and I love MDB! The female voices singing in harmony to heavy-fucking-metal doom-crunch riffs gives the song the power of dichotomy with even more dissonance. The ending takes us into a heavy, darkly dreamy riff with a mournful lead guitar in the land of everlasting funerals in the shadows of a thousand gallows, and all the corpses are blowing in howling wind, twitching. The song as a whole is so satisfying that you feel good about the corpses.
The last note of the song simply ends the cycle of the last riff, and the listener is left with a profound feeling of elevation, sense of impending doom notwithstanding.
This band must certainly know they've recorded a brilliant classic, and it will be fascinating to hear what they do next. Check out Slough Feg's (they've dropped the 'Lord Weird') new CD 'Atavism' on Cruz Del Sol for more awesomeness from Scalzi.