Few obscure, under-ground bands find the level of respect and reverence that San Francisco’s Hammers of Misfortune has. These avaunt-garde weirdos have been doing things their way since 2001 and slowly building appreciation and acclaim along the way. Deftly defying genre tags and easy (lazy) categorization by reviewers like myself, they’ve churned out a uniquely progressive amalgam of NWOBHM, folk, doom and ’70s rock. So unusual is their sound, the only truly comparable band is sister/brother act Slough Feg, with which they’ve swapped influences and members over the years. It’s a pretty safe bet if you like the Feg, you’ll dig what the Hammers are cooking too. Of the two, the Hammers were and are the weirder, more experimental outfit and under the leadership of guitarist/vocalist John Cobbett (ex-Slough Feg, ex-Ludicra), they’ve traveled some strange roads but always packed truckloads of melody and quirky charm. After an overly long wait since 2008’s Fields/Church of Broken Glass, we’re finally treated to their fifth album 17th Street and its a reassuring blast of sonic strangeness, musical eccentricity and refreshing innovation. Although not crushingly heavy or shockingly aggressive, its plenty metal, hugely melodic, catchy and most importantly, original! If that doesn’t sound good to you, go read my diatribe about black metal!
Starting off with the quasi-martial strains of “317,” the listener is quickly introduced to and regaled by quality riff work from Cobbett and new guitarist Leila Abdul-Rauf that sticks to the brain like Crazy Glue and is so metal you can almost see the polished chrome as they play (check out the cool climbing riff at :49 and the slippery solo at 1:08). While it’s a fairly slow-moving piece with limited vocals, the guitars do the talking and keep things interesting. Things get much more energetic with the romping, stomping title track, with an infectiously bouncing, galloping swagger and great interplay between the raucous, near-thrash picking and a rocked out Hammond organ. Cobbett’s distinctive vocals are teamed with Leila’s and those of new vocalist Joe Hutton and things work oh so well! The big highlight comes with “The Grain,” which is a highly emotional, powerful number loaded with feeling and texture. Starting off with a simple riff accompanying heartfelt vocals, it quickly blossoms into a hugely soaring, poignant chorus that will stick with you and keep you hitting the repeat button ad nauseam. It’s probably the single finest moment of their impressive catalog and of 2011 for that matter. Other gems include the hook-laden, hyper-theatrical weirdness of “The Day the City Died” (it sounds like a manic mash-up of Savatage, Thin Lizzy, and Jethro Tull), the vintage Exciter meets Deep Purple attack of “Romance Valley” and the multi-faceted “Going Somewhere,” with its reflective lyrics and all-over-the-place moods.
Musically, there’s a lot going on here but this isn’t some thick, overwritten techy wank-o-thon. Quite the opposite actually. It’s a richly layered album that still manages to feel stripped down and simple. It’s chock-full of intriguing and memorable guitar work from Cobbett and Abdul-Rauf (especially on the title track and “The Grain”) and rich, haunting vocal harmonies. There’s also some brilliant organ/keyboard work from Sigrid Sheie and great bass playing from Max Barnett. When you toss in some thoughtfully downcast lyrical themes dealing with the bleakness of life, you end up with something dark but truly special.
Sound-wise, this is in keeping with the classic Hammers style. It’s warm, organic and far from over-produced. It sounds great but retains a raw, garage-band urgency and power. I especially like the thick, punched-up drum sound. Production aside, the material here is significantly heavier than that on their last few albums and there’s no denying they’re a metal band here.
Whether or not you’re familiar with the Hammers, you should definitely check 17th Street out ASAP. In a year with a lot of solid releases, this is going to end up on many “best of” lists and in all candor, it should. These folks are true musicians and they’ve crafted an intriguing, complex, enjoyable album that overflows with mood and emotion. After a week of listening, it continues to grow on me and reveal itself and I think it’s the magnum opus of their exceptional career. If you believe in supporting quality, cutting edge music, set the GPS to 17th Street and plan on staying awhile. Hail to the Hammers!