Hammers of Misfortune - The August Engine
Cruz Del Sur Music
Progressive Heavy Metal
7 songs (44'30")
Release year: 2003
Hammers of Misfortune, Cruz Del Sur Music
Reviewed by Adam
Archive review
A magnum opus is a term reserved for the most complete and outstanding work of a musical artist. Most bands have one, though generally the album that deserves this moniker is open for debate. Though I consider their whole discography outstanding, with their most recent album claiming my personal top spot for 2008, the magnum opus of San Francisco’s Hammers of Misfortune remains 2003’s The August Engine to my ears. Its grandiose, engaging, and most of all spectacularly written. Its an experience unlike any other in the metal landscape.

As I alluded to in my review of Fields/Church of Broken Glass, John Cobbett is the heart and soul of this band. His creative songwriting is the, ahem, engine behind Hammers of Misfortune. The opening instrumental, Part 1 of the title track, is a precisely emitted guitar gallop, containing thrash riffs and guitar harmonies that more than grab your attention. I would say if this display doesn’t fuel your appetite for what is to come, you just don’t like traditional heavy metal guitar playing. This was my first foray into HoM, so I was in absolute awe. On the strength of that instrumental performance, I thought that could very well be the album's highlight, even without vocals. I will say now that I could not have been more wrong. The soft acoustic and piano balladry of Rainfall are the perfect fit for the almost angelic vocal wisps of guest Lorraine Rath. While quite a change from the opening track and not at all what I was expecting for vocals, this song is an outstanding segue between charging metal tracks. On the other side of this bridge is A Room and a Riddle. This marks the introduction of vocals by one Mike Scalzi. Some may know his work in the same capacity with The Lord Weird Slough Feg. Simply put, he is easily the freshest voice in the metal landscape of this new millennium. His voice has a timbre and charismatic tone that I cannot do justice to with words. A Room and a Riddle is where it really set in how amazing this album was and is for me. Scalzi is the ideal compliment to Cobbett’s dynamic traditionally influenced songwriting and the result is both captivating and empowering. On the other side of this apex (and A Room and a Riddle is assuredly that) is Part 2 of the title track. The tone is mainly a variation Part 1, though a little slower with a lesser volume of thrashy riffs. However, this second part is armed with Scalzi’s vocals, which are frequently harmonized, as well as harmonized female vocals. The scale of the second part is much grander as well, nearly doubling the length of the first. Cobbett’s guitar escapade on the closing few minutes is also worth noting. Insect also repeats many of the riffs from the opening portions of the title track, after a dark folk acoustic intro with vocals by bassist Janis Tanaka. The crashing guitar and drum blast which transitions from this intro to the meat of the song is masterful. The amazing thing to me is how Cobbett incorporates something like a blatantly recycled riff and manages to throw in enough nuances to make it sound fresh and new, even though you just heard it 15 minutes ago. Because of this, the first 5 songs feel like suites of one grand master track. The beginning of the second act, Doomed Parade, is undoubtedly the most emotionally charged of the tracks on the album. Scalzi and Tanaka combine for vocals which sound almost like cries over another first rate dark melody by Cobbett. It sounds as if they are calling out to each other, and gives it a tortured love song vibe. Tanaka really shines in her solo vocal portions, but it is on the closing epic The Trial and the Grave that her saddened vocals are fully showcased. The song is yet another style for Cobbett, this time an emotional doom riff with harmonized leads that cry out above Tanaka’s middle register layered croon. It is a cathartic eleven minute journey of a track and closes out The August Engine in style.

This is one of those albums where everything clicked with me. The songwriting, the vocals, even the order of the tracks, all of it really resonated with me and still does. My opinion is far from universal, as I have seen and heard people refer to this album as “wankery” and "disjointed". It hit me just the right way, though, and I encourage anyone who enjoys old school heavy metal to give Hammers of Misfortune a listen as they, more than anyone else I have heard, have been successful at putting a modern spin on their roots.
Killing Songs :
A Room and a Riddle, The August Engine Part 1, Doomed Parade
Adam quoted 97 / 100
Other albums by Hammers of Misfortune that we have reviewed:
Hammers of Misfortune - Fields/Church of Broken Glass reviewed by Adam and quoted 94 / 100
Hammers of Misfortune - The Locust Years reviewed by Alex and quoted 92 / 100
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