First Listen: Hammers Of Misfortune, '17th Street' The new album examines an embattled soul, with songs that would be heavy with or without amps.
NPR logo First Listen: Hammers Of Misfortune, '17th Street'

First Listen: Hammers Of Misfortune, '17th Street'

Hammers of Misfortune's new album, 17th Street, comes out Oct. 25.

Craig McGillvray hide caption

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Craig McGillvray

Hammers of Misfortune's new album, 17th Street, comes out Oct. 25.

Craig McGillvray

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For a little more than a decade, Hammers of Misfortune's members have synthesized the best elements of metal without sounding like any one of them at once. It's a seamless vision of thrash, doom, traditional, prog and even folk styles, all unified under the organizing influence of guitarist John Cobbett. In fact, it might be the folk touches that make Cobbett's songwriting universal; something beyond a bevy of spine-chilling riffs that, if taken away, would still reveal stellar songs. That's where the band comes to a head on its fifth album, 17th Street, out Oct. 25.

Nowhere is Hammers of Misfortune's attention to songcraft more apparent than in "The Grain." With a soaring, melancholic chorus, Cobbett may have written the song of his career. The riffs hit with emotional impact, Sigrid Sheie's organ swells at just the right moments, and drummer Chewy Marzolo's sudden four-second propulsion at 5:20 into a powerful riff is the stuff that headbangs are made out of. That puts a lot of pressure on Cobbett, but "The Grain" gets to the heart of what he once said about Thin Lizzy's late singer-songwriter: "Phil Lynott is the ultimate lyricist for the tough guy with the broken heart."

An album about loss and the hope and pain behind it, 17th Street turns new vocalist Joe Hutton (The Worship of Silence) into a muse. Hutton has seriously strong pipes, but he's also got a surprising amount of soul, the kind that lets him get inside a line from "The Grain" like, "Oh, how the sound of our hearts beating down / The gusting and howling will drown / There is no shade, but the shadow of you / Lost in the dust of the dunes."

Needless to say, "The Grain" casts a strong shadow over 17th Street, but the entire album is packed with solid songs. Inspired by the Motown 45s spun at Cobbett's bar in San Francisco, "The Day the City Died" actually does sound like a Motor City R&B band raised on Yes. Had it been written two decades earlier, the Queen-like "Summer Tears" could have been the Wyld Stallyns power ballad that saved the world in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. But if you're looking for something more straight-ahead and rollicking, the barn-burners "17th Street" and "Grey Wednesday" are sequenced at just the right spots.

While bringing in two new members — Hutton and guitarist/vocalist Leila Abdul-Rauf, of Amber Asylum and Vastum — can throw a band off track, Hammers of Misfortune sounds revived after the good but sprawling 2008 double-album Fields / Church of Broken Glass. The new record examines an embattled soul, with songs that would sound heavy with or without stacks of Marshall amps. Still, it's great that they're turned on.