“Just so you know I’ll be milking this for a long time.” These were the first words out of my girlfriend’s mouth after acting willingly (albeit with trepidation) as a last-minute road trip and concert companion to see Watain and Deströyer 666 after the flu struck down two friends who were originally supposed to go. I knew that sitting through myriad episodes of Dr. Phil or Real Housewives of [Pick a Place with Pretentious Snobs Galore] was my price to pay for seeing one of black metal’s most entertaining live acts rampage through the excellent “Nuclear Alchemy” and other great songs, and that was fine. I knew what I signed up for, and honesty is always the best policy. North Hammer, a one-man band from Alberta, benefit from the honesty policy on debut record Stormcaller.
North Hammer is, according to sole member Andrew James, a passion project to act as an outlet for his love of Ensiferum, Wintersun, Amon Amarth, and Blind Guardian. This means James essentially takes the elements of the above bands that excite and compel him the most and bases Stormcaller’s sound entirely around those. Thus is North Hammer’s appeal directly tied to both how much the listener enjoys the above bands and what particular elements of those bands stick out to them.
Stormcaller culls from the more epic-sounding moments of each band. From Amon Amarth come the burly riffs that underlie the leading melodies, but these melodies are often straight out of the Wintersun and Ensiferum playbook. Blind Guardian plays a role in shaping the Tolkien-esque nature of the music overall; while direct nods are few and far between, one cannot escape the realization that without Blind Guardian’s back catalog, North Hammer wouldn’t exist. The music carries a spirit of courage and victory, with the melodic triumphalism of “Magic Mead” almost sounding downright celebratory, as if it were the musical accompaniment of a grizzled mercenary telling tales of old glories to the new blood in the pub. “Lion’s Winter” merges hefty Amon Amarth riffing with Wintersun’s agile melodicism for a properly rollicking and emotive closer.
Perhaps nowhere is the North Hammer sound better defined than on album opener and lead single “Avatar.” A small melody typical of the first Wintersun record is employed as the slightly blackened folk-power riffing of both Ensiferum and Wintersun are seamlessly converted into an Amon Amarth riff that wouldn’t be out of place on Deceiver of the Gods. The whole affair carries the inescapable mark of Tolkien as if Blind Guardian is supervising the affair from afar. It works well and makes for a thoroughly convincing track.
The salient flaw with Stormcaller is the notable absence of any truly killer tracks. While extremely adept at crafting good – and often very good — music with their building blocks, North Hammer has yet to craft something that catapults them beyond being good. By comparison, bands like Vinterblot, Kjeld, and Hyperion take a similar approach to writing music and come out with better results. That’s not to say Stormcaller is a waste of time; on the contrary, it’s a well-written record that’s good fun to listen to, especially with its crisp, clear, and full production.
North Hammer have given us one of those valuable standby records, one that’s below great but certainly good. It’s an accessible listen, it maintains a consistent quality throughout with no real peaks or valleys, and maintains replay value by virtue of being honest, good music. I can recommend Stormcaller unreservedly as a good record, but cannot endorse it as a great one. When telling a close friend who reveres folk metal about what I was reviewing this week, I described North Hammer in a similar way to him. “That sounds awesome,” he replied. I have no doubt that many of you will find plenty to enjoy here, just as I did. I can also definitively say that I own copies of records I’ve rated the same and lower than this. Take all of that as you will, and give North Hammer a chance if you’re so inclined. If any of the above bands are to your liking, you’re in for a treat.