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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Hammers of Misfortune

The August Engine

Review by Mike Korn

Here is one of the most delightful experiences I have ever had as a critic. Completely ignorant of this band and having no expectations at all, I find Hammers of Misfortune to be a totally original and invigorating unit. To describe them would stretch my vocabulary, as "medieval folk/thrash/power metal" sounds loopy but actually hits pretty close to the mark. To nail down all the influences of HoM would be a difficult task, as the record at times is reminiscent of all the following: Rush, Metallica, Iron Maiden, The Cure, My Dying Bride, Sara McLachlan, Dead Can Dance, Hammerfall.

But this is completely unique. Many bands claim to write without concern for what the record company or even the public wants, but few really sound like they put such indifference to practice. Not Hammers of Misfortune. These guys sound like they simply sat down and wrote whatever they felt like writing, with no pressure to conform to any expectations. The wonderful liberation arising from such a premise has given birth to "The August Engine".

This is an expansive, brilliantly conceived album that truly captures a medieval feeling with its powerful melodies. Although the album is quite heavy, there's an aura of the ancient clinging to its musical vision. A lot of that is due to the amazing vocal manipulations of three extremely talented singers, two of them female. The male vocals are nasal but not unbearable and relate the bulk of the album's incisive lyrics with complete conviction. The intertwining female vocals are very folky and quite pleasant to listen to...that's where the early Sarah McLachlan comparisons come in. Often the vocalists play with and against each other, with their singing styles being highly reminiscent of old English music. But these melodies are put on a backbone of classy, powerful metal that is quite aggressive in spots and always very well thought out. The metallic sheen of the record ranges from the old Metallica style leanings in "The August Engine Part One" to the dueling Maidenesque guitar runs of "A Room and A Riddle" to the final ponderous, melancholy doom of "The Trial and the Grave". Really, my words fail in trying to relate the class of this band and this disc. You seriously need to track this record down and enjoy its many subtleties and high points for yourself.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2003 Year Book Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
The August Engine Part One
This instrumental lets you know that this is a metal album first and foremost. It's fast-paced for the most part and merges a kind of chugging sub-thrash riff with some ornate and melodic power metal guitar stylings. The melodies are outstanding and this band is really, REALLY tight! Those tumbling guitar runs at the end are killer and mix with the acoustic approach of the next track.
Rainfall
This song really sounds exactly like its title! Some beautiful acoustic guitar melodies intertwine with each other and are accentuated by some spare piano. The harmony female vocals here are soothing and enchanting. You can actually picture a gentle, cleansing rain as you listen to this magical song.
A Room and A Riddle
Speed and heaviness kick in again with this outstanding power metal cut. Hammers of Misfortune have an incredible knack for writing heavy guitar riffs with a true medieval feeling. The unique male vocals of Mike Scalzi also add to this feeling and are enhanced by backing from the women. The ringing, bell-like tone to some of the guitar reminds me of classic Rush.
The August Engine Part Two
This could be the greatest medieval metal song I've ever heard. It's perfect in every regard. The only thing that really comes close is "Xanadu" from Rush's "Farewell to Kings" album. Folk-like vocal patterns mesh excellently with a heavy mid-tempo riff to transport the listener back to a time of castles and queens. The song is a true epic that sometimes get almost death metal heavy with some of its dark riffs but at other times seems delicately ominous with its acoustic flourishes. Both heavy and light parts are given equal weight and are just as effective. It's an uplifting classic of progressive metal that builds to a mighty climax that will have you ready to fight any dragon that stands in your way!
Insect
The beautiful acoustic melodies that begin this track remind me a lot of Heart's "Dreamboat Annie". Again, the merging of female and male vocals is outstanding and a delight to the ears. The cut then gets heavy with a vengeance and emerges as a driving, forceful power metal tune that ends with a noisy, jagged barrage of choppy riffs.
Doomed Parade
A somber, sorrowful feeling pervades this track. The offers the best example of the Hammers' vocal magic yet. The female vocals insisting "She was here, she was here" that mix with Scalzi's plaintive tones are mesmerizing. The gentle solo female vocals in the middle of the song are lovely and lead seamlessly into a surging metallic section. Again, though the song is heavy through and through, it seems like it comes from another, earlier time.
The Trial and the Grave
If "Doomed Parade" was somber, then this track is completely mournful. A 10-minute plus epic, this is the kind of gothic doom metal that bands like My Dying Bride and Candlemass used to specialize in. The guitar melodies are like a shroud that covers the listener. The dual female vocals relate a tale both tragic and graphic: "Was it a dream?/Was it in hell?/What is the difference/I scarcely can tell". Just when the song threatens to overstay its welcome and become monotonous, it switches riffs to a CRUSHING doom metal riff with a sad twin guitar melody over the top. It's a supremely depressing listening experience and caps off one of the best, most original albums to come down the pike in a long, long time.
 
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