When guitarist and songwriter John Cobbett disbanded Ludicra, his avant-garde black metal vehicle, in 2011 to focus on 70s-influenced progressive outfit Hammers of Misfortune, many fans must have secretly wondered if this marked his first step back from the cutting edge. His response, in the form of the band’s fifth album “17th Street”, is a resounding and definitive “No”. After almost a year spent focusing on recording and political activism in his native San Francisco, Cobbett has returned with Hammers of Misfortune’s most challenging record yet.
Although ostensibly a traditional metal act with progressive rock roots, Hammer of Misfortune enjoy breaking the mould with reckless abandon. Their core sound derives from the earliest metal bands to dip their toes into progressive waters, Deep Purple, Jethro Tull and Black Sabbath but also borrows heavily from NWOBHM stalwarts Judas Priest and Diamond Head and doom metal pioneers Witchfinder General and Candlemass. There are even nods to power metal and the early thrash scene. Consequently there’s rather a lot to get to grips with here but “17th Street” is never in danger of sounding incoherent and, most importantly, none of the myriad influences ever seem out of place.
The new album heralds another line-up change for Hammers of Misfortune after Patrick Goodwin replaced Mike Scalzi, of Slough Feg fame, on vocals and Jesse Quattro subbed for former bassist Jamie Myers, later of Wolves in the Throne Room, on 2008’s “Fields/Church of Broken Glass”. For this record, Leila Abdul-Rauf supports Cobbett on guitar and provides back-up for new frontman Joe Hutton. Their superb vocal harmonies add an extra layer of depth to an album that already packs a great deal of music into its fifty minute run time. Max Barnett’s bass really shines on the heavier and more technical tracks when the band ventures further into NWOBHM, doom and thrash metal territory.
Standout cuts include title track “17th Street”, a proggy number laden with sumptuous keyboard and rich male-female vocal harmonies that occasionally gives way to intense proto-thrash guitar riffs. “The Grain”’s soaring bittersweet chorus is the lynchpin of a melodic epic that references everything from vintage Jethro Tull to Queen’s “Radio Gaga” and sees vocalist Hutton at his most emotive. “The Day The City Died”, meanwhile, is a three way pile-up between Deep Purple keyboard theatrics, Paul Di’Anno era Maiden harmonised riffing and Vinnie Moore neo-classicism. In an album of absolutely stellar tracks, it’s arguably the highlight though closer “Going Somewhere” runs it close. This doomy bruiser clocks in at just over the ten minute mark and brings “17th Street” to a suitably crushing finale.
Cobbett has also handles production duties to create a much more bombastic sound than on previous records. While elements of the raw and gritty style that first appeared on 2001’s ‘The Bastard” remain, the low end packs much more of a punch than before and keyboards and guitar have been given more room to breathe. “17th Street” is a considerably heavier and faster album than the band’s older material and this is reflected in both the production and the arrangements themselves. For all the pomp and stadium rock posturing though, the whole affair still manages to feel organic and down to earth.
With “17th Street”, Hammers of Misfortune have unleashed a masterpiece upon an unsuspecting world. Despite everything that’s going on musically, it remains an accessible record and one that’s sure to appeal to fans of prog’s 70s heyday. For more seasoned aficionados of the progressive arts, there’s an almost infinite level of depth and virtuosity to explore on repeat listens; this is one of those rare albums that rewards every second the listener invests in it.