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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Hammers of Misfortune

17th Street

Review by Mike Korn

If you've never experienced Hammers of Misfortune before, 17th Street is the perfect opportunity to discover why this California band is considered one of America's hidden music treasures. The long-running outfit continues to blur the lines between heavy metal and progressive rock on this new offering, but they do it in a unique way that no other band has been able to duplicate.

Mastermind guitarist John Cobbett has weathered several massive line-up changes and kept the Hammers' unique sound intact. I could literally compare them to a boatload of other artists like King Crimson, Iron Maiden, Kansas, Thin Lizzy, ad nauseum but that wouldn't really be doing them justice. They have a very 70's inspired sound, yet it is not just a "retro" nostalgia trip but a very modern take on classic rock and metal paradigms. Trademarks of the Hammers sound include strong male-female harmony vocals, generous use of vintage keyboards like Hammond organ and Mellotron and catchy guitar riffing reminiscent of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

In the end, you can read my words here to get a small taste of "17th Street" but it pales in comparison to experiencing the real thing.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2011  Volume 6 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
317

A strong opener, this demonstrates how smoothly Hammers of Misfortune blends metal and prog elements right off the bat. It's heavy but wonderfully melodic and the guitars and keys complement each other very well indeed. The song is mostly instrumental but blended male-female vocals come in at the end with a choir like feel.

17th Street
This title track is a great example of the band's wizardry. The opening section has Thin Lizzy-like guitar arpeggios before going into a Deep Purple like refrain with plenty of organ. Then Joe Hutton's deep vocals kick in and a killer chugging metal riff takes over. Hutton is a worthy replacement for the departed Mike Scalzi without seeming to be a clone. I find Sigrid Sheie's keyboard work absolutely mesmerizing and an integral part of giving the band its progressive touch.
The Grain
This bass-driven cut is kind of hard to peg. It has a kind of nervous and choppy feel and there's a dark aura hovering over the whole thing. Yet the melody is still ever present. If I had to make a comparison, I'd say it's a more metallized version of classic King Crimson.
Staring (The 31st Floor)
Now this is Hammers of Misfortune at their most metal. In fact, you might be shocked at the heaviness of the crunching Black Sabbath like riff that forms the backbone of the song. That riff is simple, basic, but oh so catchy. Hutton's vocals are perfectly suited to the tune and I love the chorus. This is one of the album's best cuts.
The Day The City Died
Here's a great mixture of prog and classic rock elements. There are touches of Kansas, Queen and Yes in the clever vocal lines, the strong piano accompaniment and the overall "epic" feel. There's plenty of guitar crunch as well, but the vocals give the song the flavor of classic rock or even pop. You won't hear many bands playing this kind of music any more.
Romance Valley
This is not only the best song on the album, it may just be the best song I've heard this year. Starting with a lilting acoustic organ melody, this explodes into an awesomely fast and powerful metal riff. Joe Hutton's vocal lines give the song a soaring, majestic feel that makes you feel like an eagle flying high above a great city on a clear and windy day. This is progressive heavy metal of the highest order and a defining song for Hammers of Misfortune.
Summer Tears
Things cool way down with this pretty piano-driven ballad. The guitar accompaniment reminds me of the sound Brian May created on Queen's early albums and Queen is not a bad comparison to make here. This is a tune inspired by the great rock ballads of the 70's and while the guitar is definitely present, the keyboards dominate on this tune.
Grey Wednesday
Here's another dark and complex prog metal classic somewhat similar in feel to "Romance Valley" but not quite as overwhelmingly beautiful. The band's NWOBHM roots are more prominent on this tune, but the Hammond organ flourishes keep a Purple/70ish feeling to it.
Going Somewhere
Suffice to say, this is another great example of how Hammers mix prog and metal. This is the most complex tune on the album, switching gears often but doing so very smoothly. At over ten-minutes long, it's one of the most epic Hammers songs ever, but never wears out its welcome.
 
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