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Hammers of Misfortune
17th Street Brad Sanders , October 31st, 2011 11:54

This recession has been brutal for a lot of people, but few have reacted with art more poignant than Hammers of Misfortune's John Cobbett. A ruptured appendix in 2010 left the uninsured guitarist to pay for expensive surgeries through special merch sales and donations, and his brilliant black metal band Ludicra very publicly called it quits a year later. Lately, he's become actively involved in the Occupy protests both on Twitter and on the ground in his native San Francisco. Unlike some of the movement's ill-informed participants, it's always felt like he has the experience to add weight to his participation.

If Ludicra's 2010 album The Tenant was black metal's treatise on this shit economy and the anxiety it has bred, then 17th Street, the fifth and latest LP from Hammers of Misfortune, is traditional metal's answer. It's no coincidence that both records are essential documents of our times. Cobbett's ability to reflect the unbearable darkness of the modern world in song is peerless.

The harrowing shrieks and icy production that made The Tenant such a profound piece of recession lore are entirely absent from 17th Street, but it's no less powerful for it. From the same kinds of guitar harmonies that Thin Lizzy and Judas Priest made headbanging anthems out of, Cobbett and fellow axe-slinger Leila Abdul-Rauf pull heart-wrenching emotion. This is a guitar album, but that's far from the only instrument that shines: On the two songs with the best guitar harmonies, the jagged prog metal epic 'The Grain' and near-power ballad 'Summer Tears', bass and piano respectively dominate the intros and lend the biggest melodies. It's thanks to touches like that that 17th Street feels like a truly collaborative effort rather than simply a vanity project for Cobbett.

Not that he'd know vanity if it punched him in the appendix. This is a humble record, through and through. Take album highlight 'The Day the City Died', for example. New Hammers vocalist Joe Hutton croons Cobbett's lyrics about how gentrification has started forcing artists out of San Francisco just like it did in Manhattan, and a real fear lingers around the song's edges that someday, they too will no longer be able to afford to live in their own city. "This one's called I'm getting addicted / This one's called I'm getting evicted / This one's called another one moving away," goes one of the tune's veritable angling shop of hooks. Cold, harsh reality never sounded so smooth.

Cobbett's crisp, old-school production job only accentuates the band's tightness and songwriting prowess. Every guitar solo, drum fill, and soaring vocal part is warmly and tastefully presented in the mix. It's a rare modern metal album (especially on the generally complacent Metal Blade Records) that sounds as good on mp3 as it would live.

If there's anything wrong with 17th Street, it's that it's sometimes too bleak. For all that sucks about living in America in 2011, there are bright spots, too. With the versatile songwriting chops that Hammers of Misfortune's members possess, it wouldn't be hard to call attention to some of those.

At the same time, perhaps that wouldn't be a true picture of life on 17th Street. It's an ugly fucking world out there. It's nice to know even guitar gods share the misery.