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Hammers of Misfortune: A Retrospective

Metal Blade did the world a huge service by reissuing Hammers of Misfortune‘s back catalogue. With Ludicra gaining prominence in recent years, and Slough Feg (hopefully) garnering attention with their new record on Profound Lore, the time is ripe for a Hammers retrospective.

Linked by personnel, Slough Feg, Hammers of Misfortune, and Ludicra form a logical triangle in sound and spirit. Slough Feg and Hammers shared guitarists John Cobbett and Mike Scalzi for several records by each band. Scalzi’s dramatic vocals in Hammers were very much like his in Slough Feg; the latter could be considered a leaner, less ornate counterpart to Hammers. Likewise, Ludicra could be considered a darker counterpart to Hammers. Invert Hammers’ fantasy stories into gritty real life, and replace the singing with harsh vocals – but keep the proggy, harmonizing guitars (which come courtesy of Cobbett) – and you have some of Ludicra’s key elements.

Here’s a brief look at Hammers’ discography. It’s trendproof and timeless, and feels alive. Much of metal now, so highly edited and compressed, feels dead. It’s like eating processed food invented by chemists for stockholders. Real food, however, transfers energy from the sun and earth into one’s body. Hammers’ music does likewise. It makes neurons fire. It opens up breathing. It makes one more flexible. Get ready to stretch out.

— Cosmo Lee

. . .

The Bastard (2001)

. . .

“An Oath Sworn in Hell”

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This debut is amazingly fully-formed. Hammers’ core elements – traditional, folk, prog, and extreme metal; male and female vocals – are all present and interconnected. (The only other band I can think of that’s so stylistically diverse yet coherent is Absu.) Organist Sigrid Sheie hasn’t joined the band yet, so the sound is “just” drums, guitars – a cornucopia of electric harmonies and acoustic picking – and gorgeous dual vocals by Mike Scalzi and Janis Tanaka. Tanaka’s singing over blastbeats predates A.A. Nemtheanga’s doing so in Blood Revolt by nine years.

. . .

The August Engine (2003)

. . .

“A Room and a Riddle”

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If you’re new to Hammers, this is the place to start. Sheie joins the band, giving it its signature organ-based warmth. Her piano also becomes a crucial compositional element. The songs flow into each other more smoothly now, with wrenching emotional peaks and valleys. This is the Hammers record with the most light and shade. Jamie Myers replaces Tanaka on bass and vocals [*ed. note*: Evidently I have the lineup chronology all wrong – see Gerhard’s comment below for the full details], and upholds the high standard; Cobbett picks only top-notch musicians for Hammers. It’s hard to believe that he had trouble finding takers for The August Engine. (The End Records would have been a logical choice at that time.) This record is a modern classic.

. . .

The Locust Years (2006)

. . .

“War Anthem”

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The August Engine‘s lineup – likely the most stable one Hammers will ever have – delivers another beautiful, multifaceted effort. Drummer Chewy Marzolo really steps up, with crisp, tasty playing. The Mike Scalzi-era records all have appealingly dry production that highlights the phenomenal musicianship involved. Underneath the layers of vocals and keyboards, however, remains a base of traditional metal riffing. Remove the metal, and you have a strong ’70s prog record. Opeth pursued parallel actions with death metal at the same time, only they got a lot more notice. Time to rectify that!

. . .

Fields / Church of Broken Glass (2008)

. . .

“Rats Assembly”

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This double record occurs after much lineup turmoil. Patrick Goodwin replaces Scalzi, who has left to concentrate on Slough Feg. Myers is gone as well. Replacing her are Jesse Quattro on vocals and Ron Nichols on bass. Incidentally, none of these replacements are with Hammers today. I saw this lineup play, however, and it was unimpeachable.

The records, however, give me mixed feelings. Goodwin is a good singer, but Scalzi’s shoes are too big for him to fill. Sheie’s organ is extremely prominent, at the expense of the guitars. While technically fine – dry, clean – the recording feels a little flat. It would have disturbed the lyrical continuity of these records, which have political undertones, but musically they could have been condensed into one album. I like these records – their darker moments remind me of Pink Floyd – and would recommend them to anyone. But in a very strong discography, they’re the last place to start.

. . .

This brings us to today. Joe Hutton is on male vocals, Leila Abdul-Rauf (Saros, Vastum, Amber Asylum) is on female vocals/guitar, and Max Barnett is on bass. This lineup will make its recording debut next year. In the meantime, fill in the gaps in your Hammers collection – or start one. You will find it eye- and ear-opening. Metal Blade is selling these records as a discounted bundle here; pick up Hammers merch from the band here.

— Cosmo Lee

. . .

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