Band: Hammers of Misfortune
Album: Dead Revolution (2016)
Genre: Progressive heavy metal
Where to buy: Bandcamp
In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron released “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and Bob Dylan released Self Portrait. With a knowing and sardonic tone, Scott-Heron called explicitly for a black nationalism that self-identified as a minority movement, consciously aligned against the primary contradiction of white supremacy and the distractions of materialistic capitalism, which he saw as tools for placating and subduing the oppressed. Dylan’s album was lambasted for not meeting the expectations of his fans; yet, Dylan himself indicated that the album can be read as a critique of consumers’ reliance on and base lionization of celebrities, turning their idols into products consumed on a price point spectrum. Over their long careers, both Scott-Heron and Dylan created anthems and rallying cries for the counter-culture and social movements of the later 20th century, and despite all the rousing lyrics and iconic cultural production of the period, here in 2017 we still face white supremacy and crass materialism, bolstered now by decades of wage stagnation, the greatest economic inequality in a century, and the alienation that accompanies neoliberal individuality. The revolutions were soundly defeated by the capitalist project. This is where Dead Revolution, Hammers of Misfortune’s 2016 album, picks up.
“Socially conscious” is not a description of this genre I get to use very frequently. A lot of metal is content to avoid social issues entirely – think of bands that write about hard drinking (Lemmy’s entire catalogue) and going fast (Metallica’s “Fuel”) and dying in the featureless expanse of space (Mastodon’s “Oblivion”) and so on. These are great subjects for metal and I have no quarrel with them. On the other hand, some metal does make motions towards social issues but is more likely to be satisfied with merely mentioning a particular topic than putting forth any real analysis. Countless songs are based on the premise of, for example, war, or insanity, or domestic abuse, but there is rarely an argument behind these songs; they are descriptive but shallow. There’s also nothing wrong with this, either. So when I first listened to Dead Revolution, I was stunned. The heaviness, the polish in production, the songwriting, the seamless blend of styles, the vocals, everything here fits just right. The songs are grand, orchestral, and contemplative. They’re lengthy, and there’s real meat here; in fact, the entire album builds a sense of tremendous and somber effort. The tracks are battles (or laments) and getting through them is pleasurable work, for both the band and we lucky listeners. But even better and more important is the content of the work: Dead Revolution is Hammers’s commentary on the state of socioeconomic stratification and the resulting depression and degradation that affects the masses. This is not subtext, this is explicit in theme and content. This is one of the few metal albums I’d unhesitatingly call socially conscious.
I should be clear that I do not believe metal should be straight-faced and serious all or even most of the time. The depth or political consciousness of a song frequently has no relationship to its quality, or at best a tenuous one. Plus, one of the best things about the genre is its willingness to self-parody, to point its irreverence at itself. But it’s a treat to find an album that can turn actual social commentary into excellent metal.
The album title sets the tone for the sort of class analysis it sets out to do. Dead Revolution points to the failure and eventual co-option of the underground and counter-culture movements on the 20th century, a connection reinforced by the final track, a cover of a cover that exists in the cultural zeitgeist thanks mostly to Dylan. The title track describes our “exhausted future,” warns that “the tyrrany is coming from the inside,” and asks the participants of dead and dying social movements, “Are you still waiting for your invitation?” No embossed letters are forthcoming (Gil Scott-Heron remains unsurprised), because the only recourse now is to either clean up the detritus of gentrification, or to unite the masses and clean out the gentrifiers. Hammers is based in San Francisco, symbolic home of the counter-culture and a front-row seat to some of the most extreme economic disparity in the country. The longest track and album centerpiece, “The Precipice (Waiting for the Crash)” rhetorically aligns the left with a setting sun, mentions an abattoir that leaves none behind, describes us walking to a ledge with eyes focused on the horizon and not on the (economic) drop. “Sea of Heroes” emphasizes the alienation consequent of our ossified neoliberal capitalism. “Flying Alone” does two jobs, using weird imagery to lampoon the ultrawealthy who think they can “leave this disaster behind” in their futuristic flying machines, and reminding us that the acceleration of our manifold inequities have us on a crash course with the nearest mountain range. Paging Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and your ilk: you’re needed in line at the abattoir.
Dead Revolution is also musically beautiful. When the album begins, you get the immediate sense it’s trying to melt your face off with hard-charging guitars, but then the vocals croon at you, slowly recruiting you as an accomplice to the ambition of this album. And ambitious it is. The first track, “The Velvet Inquisition,” inhabits a complex structure of musical strata, shuttling you between verses and choruses with low-string gallops and a thrum of double-bass, on top of which the flanged vocals warble and wail in an irresistable capitulation. Just when you think you can predict what’s coming next, the phrasing changes, and you’re carted off to the next destination on this journey. The journey is comfortable, though, because the sound is so warm and clean. I was reminded at various points of playing Doom in the mid-90s, of the best parts of Muse and Mastodon and Megadeth, of the Beatles and Thin Lizzy and Pink Floyd. Melodies are memorable and the drums are as much a lead instrument as any guitar here. “Here Comes the Sky” starts like a Beatles-like ballad, then turns up the distortion and becomes part Mastodon opus, part Yes, and finally, part Ennio Morricone (really). There is so much creativity here and all of it works well.
The vocals do a lot of this work. They are haunting and eerie, with a lightly sandy overdrive. Joe Hutton, Leila Abdul-Rauf (with apologies to Leila’s mother for the initial misspelling!), and Sigrid Sheie complement each other and the instruments so well I that I can’t imagine any other vocal style working for these songs as well as theirs. They plead, they howl, they keen, they chorus together desperately and beautifully. The effect would be right at home in a horror movie montage. The ghostly oohs and spectral aahs are disquieting, edging each track closer to a sort of last rite: better listen up, because this might be the last song you hear! Again, I point to the theme of struggle in the face of overwhelming power levied by economic superstructures, which comes through every lyric and musical layer, all while subverting expectations with melancholy industriousness.
My only musical criticism of the album falls to the final track, the aforementioned cover of the traditional folk song “Days of ’49.” Bob Dylan released his version on Self Portrait. As with much American folk, the song’s provenance is somewhat contentious and the lyrics shift from version to version. Hammers of Misfortune stick pretty close to the Dylan version with a few minor lyrical changes, though nothing of consequence. “Days” therefore is merely a metal cover of a folk song, leaving only the musical context in which to find new meaning. Dylan’s version was criticized as being overlong – five and a half minutes on an album of mostly two- to three-minute songs; the structure is also uninteresting, with six verses each followed by a repetition of the chorus. The gold rush miners in the song all die the ignoble deaths of the disaffected and alienated labor class. It is clear that Hammers’s version is a modern incantation to the rise of said alienated labor in the American workforce. The lament for Tom Moore’s lost comrades echoes the tone of rest of the album. In reference to his own album, Dylan intimated that the song’s inclusion is possibly satirical, meant to chastise those who see the past only in rosy-red; this calls to Hammers’s own address to the same demographic of activists-turned-establishment. American labor itself has become the dead revolution, at the mercy of the increasingly-wealthy controller class. As in the Dylan version, this version does go on a bit too long (nearly eight minutes), an effect magnified by the complexity of the rest of the songs on Dead Revolution, some of which are just as long but far more engrossing. “Days of ’49” is not a bad tune, but the rest of the album sets such a high bar that it feels lackluster in contrast.
So sit down and give Dead Revolution a few listens. The songs explore a combination of unusual structure, multifaceted layerings, and powerful vocals that speak directly to our current socioecnomic woes. This is the product of a band that has something important to say, and it’s worth our while to listen.