Hammers of Misfortune

Fields/Church of Broken Glass

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While few rock bands even bother to produce a concept album during their careers, Hammers of Misfortune have never attempted anything but; with three full-lengths already under their belts, dealing in everything from dungeons and dragons-type fantasy to intra-dimensional chicanery to political allegory -- and all of them set to consistently stunning and inventive heavy metal, to boot. But after experiencing a rather traumatizing bout of musician turnover following 2006's arguable career best, The Locust Years (namely losing vocalist/guitarist Mike Scalzi and bassist Jamie Myers), one would have readily forgiven bandleader, guitarist, and songwriter John Cobbett for taking the easier, concept-free route whilst penning the next wave of HoM songs. Instead, Cobbett went above and beyond reasonable expectations, breaking in new bandmembers Jesse Quattro (vocals), Patrick Goodwin (guitar/vocals), and Ron Nichols (bass) with, not one, but two separate, yet thematically intertwined long-players entitled Fields and Church of Broken Glass. Released as a double-gatefold CD set in the fall of 2008, both LPs summed up to a very reasonable 70 minutes in length, and like two faces of a coin, contrasted pastoral and urban imagery veiled behind Cobbett's typically elliptical prose. But since neither Quattro (the owner of a restrained '60s folk nymph croon) nor Goodwin (far less forceful than the departed Scalzi) seemed capable of leaving a strong imprint on HoM's sound, as yet, the most prominent characteristics of both albums fell to the band's instrumentalists. Among these, special mention was deserved by keyboardist Sigrid Shele, who was apparently rewarded for sticking around by having her organ riffs and solos assuming a more prominent instrumental role alongside Cobbett's guitar, thereby heightening the albums' '70s-progressive rock feel. This general sonic shift will surely take some getting used to for longtime HoM fans -- particularly during the largely bombast-free Fields, which initially coasted along to a slightly tentative and contemplative, mid-paced gait, and only cranking up a little heavy rock urgency (see "Rats' Assembly" and the foreboding and explosive "Always Looking Down") after the rousing, Pink Floyd-like climax of "Motorcade," halfway through. Probably the better of the two, Church of Broken Glass was, by comparison, generally more dynamically and emotionally diverse; alternating energetic numbers like the momentum-gaining "Almost (Left Without You)" and the hard-driving "Train" (recalling Thin Lizzy and Deep Purple, among others) with slower fare such as the mournfully majestic title track and the epic funeral dirge, "Butchertown," which elicited additional Floyd-ian references (this time from The Wall) while showcasing Shele's piano, work, unfolding like petals on a flower. Given all this evidence, one can't help but wonder whether Hammers of Misfortune Mark III would have been better served by cherry-picking the best tracks from Fields and Church of Broken Glass and reshuffling them into a shorter, single album -- especially during this transition phase. But of course taking the safe route is simply not in Cobbett's DNA, and thus refusing to abandon the ambitious concept album template that defined HoM's career thus far will probably prove the wise choice in the end, growing pains and all.

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