San Francisco’s Hammers of Misfortune take to their 17th Street with a sense for the theatrical. Indeed, many of the arrangements on this underground metal release carry a decided Lloyd Webber feel, with patches of Phantom of the Opera and Jesus Christ Superstar woven in.
That sense for the theatrical will either thrill or distract, depending on what draws you to the party.
Hammers of Misfortune have created something special out of their rejuvenated line-up. The band lost two members (bassist/vocalist Jamie Meyers and vocalist/guitarist Mike Scalzi) after 2005’s The Locust Years was released. Guitarist and producer John Cobbett drafted new members and released new records, but it wasn't until vocalist Joe Hutton and guitarist/vocalist Leila Abdul-Rauf joined the fray that 17th Street took shape.
The new members, making their first playing appearance with Hammers of Misfortune on this record, join Cobbett, drummer Chewy Marzolo, bassist Max Barnett and flutist/keyboardist/vocalist Sigrid Sheie in the eclectic line-up.
Every bit of 17th Street sounds as sprawling as the six person band. The songs are often labyrinthine and forceful, sucking listeners in with webs of guitar and atmosphere before Hutton's vocals really take off.
Hammers of Misfortune’s mix of 1970s-era prog, psychedelic and European folk elements can often seem to stuff the pot a little, but for the most part the tumbling rhythms and swaying guitars effectively work to convey the record’s broadness.
Lyrically, 17th Street is largely about loss. That doesn’t mean that there’s no obscurity. As Cobbet explains: “It's not uncommon for me to write lyrics about several different things at the same time. I feel that this makes it easier for the listener to get whatever meaning he or she needs from the song.”
As mentioned, this is an adventurous record that won’t be for everyone. “317,” the opening track, sets up with a thud of metal that feels pulled out of the best of British heavy metal. The riffs mesh with Sheie’s Hammond and we’re off to an anthemic, triumphant start.
Hammers of Misfortune don’t shy from displaying their technical or dramatic proficiencies, such as on the rapid twin riffs of the title track or the awesomely gaudy Webber/Queen mash-up of “Summer Tears.”
The piano factors in greatly on the thumping “The Day the City Died,” a song that stuns and lunges like a prize fighter really into Broadway.
The high sense of drama permeates every track on the record and that can make things a bit soppy at times, like with the aforementioned “Summer Tears” with its “now she knows what eyes are for, now she knows what tears are for” lyrics. At the same time, 17th Street is just too unusually stunning not to enjoy.