Grand Magus - Hammer of the North (2010)
Grand Magus are one of my absolute favourite metal bands (I have physical copies of every one of their albums) and are also one of the world's great underrated trad metal outfits, continuously losing out to the next over-hyped darling that the metal labels or music press want to foist on us. The Swedes' consistency since the turn of the century has been exceptional and their run of albums from 2008's Iron Will, through Hammer of the North to 2012's The Hunt would stack up against any three-album run in my book. They make fantastic, hook-laden and memorable metal tunes that I often find come unbidden into my mind and end up with me singing them along to myself (and thoroughly enjoying it too)! - I, the Jury, Mountains Be My Throne, The Lord of Lies and At Midnight They'll Get Wise are all sing-along classics for me.
GM's downtuned guitar sound often has them associated with doom metal, but they have not really played any doom outside of 2001's self-titled debut, although it does have an influence - particularly from bands like Gates of Slumber. JB Christoffersson's vocals are great - no histrionics, just decent, solid, metal singing with a decent range where, unusually, every single lyric can be heard. None of the trio will probably ever be singled out for their technical skills (although they are all extremely proficient) but GM's strength lies in their ability to craft memorable heavy metal tunes and their tight performances. With these guys there is no showiness, no unnecessary gimmicks, just honest, fist-pumping, horns-in-the-air exhortations to the Elder Gods of Metal. Most of the tracks are medium-paced, but when they do speed things up, such as on I, the Jury and At Midnight They'll Get Wise then they have a real 70's Judas Priest vibe. The lyrics on Hammer of the North are very Scandinavian - tales of mountains, sea-raiders and ravens are staples of scandi-metal and should appeal to any red-blooded metal fan. The production is crisp and allows the songs to shine with a clarity that is to be applauded.
I don't listen to a huge amount of modern trad metal, to be honest, but Grand Magus are one of those bands whose latest album I would buy blind, because I know exactly what to expect and just how damn good it is likely to be. Unfortunately the band are largely ignored by most metal influencers so don't really get the recognition they deserve, but those in the know realise just what a great band they are - one of metal's best kept secrets.
I haven't been giving Heavy Metal the respect it deserves. As someone who has been enjoying all sorts of Power Metal for quite some time now, I always felt like Heavy Metal as a modern genre has been lagging behind in terms of creativity and skill in comparison. Most of the Heavy Metal albums I stumble upon and end up enjoying seem to stray a bit too far away from traditionalism for me to really consider them as a purely Heavy Metal album, like Ravening Iron from Eternal Champion, Forged by Fire by Firewind, or even Le dernier rempart by Herzel. I think at the end of the day I've found Heavy Metal to be a tough sell amidst the other insane genres that Metal has to offer, even though Heavy Metal is the cornerstone of said insanity. It doesn't help that it seems like the innovators, namely Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, were able to squeeze so much creativity out of the formula that they didn't exactly leave too much room for their successors on the surface. Sabbath reigned supreme over the slower, more evil style of Metal and Judas Priest came ripping into the scene with their faster, more energetic take on the traditional chug riffs, making it so most Heavy Metal that gets released nowadays sounds like a rehash of something these two bands had done 30+ years ago. Thankfully, bands like Grand Magus pop up every now and again to remind me that even the most apparently stale genres can have life breathed back into them with the help of a few killer riffs and some inspired songwriting.
Grand Magus had undergone some shifts in style leading up to Hammer of the North though, with the band beginning as a sludgy, more Stoner Metal sounding project on their self-titled debut and sophomore album Monument. Monument had some truly monumental riffs and while it failed to capture me in the same way as Hammer of the North managed to, it set the stage for the band’s slow but steady evolution away from the massively distorted chugs and lagging tempos that defined their earlier material. Monument’s spirit never truly left as Grand Magus transitioned into more up-tempo Heavy Metal songwriting since Hammer of the North still contains expertly written chug riffs that just sound and feel right despite the lightening of the guitar tone overall. Although their earlier material may be heftier in general, there’s something about the atmosphere and fusion of styles that has really drawn me to Hammer of the North, with the doom and gloom being offset by energetic, hard rocking riffs as the album progresses. The overall flow and transitions on this record are incredibly tight and some of the best I’ve heard outside of concept albums as it effortlessly moves between slower, more Doom-centric tracks and quicker, more energetic ones that keep the album pushing forward.
The more traditional Doom Metal influences on Hammer of the North help to make all the transitions possible, helping to elevate otherwise weaker tracks like “Black Sails” or “Bond Of Blood” and setting up the tracks that push the tempo more, like “Northern Star” or “At Midnight They’ll Get Wise”. Grand Magus do a great job of writing Heavy Metal riffs that have a distinct sense of progression and energy, making what would be generic Heavy Metal chugging sound fresh and unique to themselves. Even when there’s a slightly dull power chord focused chorus, like in “Mountains Be My Throne” or “I, The Jury”, the vocal melodies and the way the riff is resolved before and after ties everything together nicely. Add in the beefy tone of the bass in the background and it’s a recipe for some incredibly hard-hitting sections. “The Lord Of Lies” has to be the overall highlight for me though, with its slow, methodical Doom riffs and addictive chorus giving way to an awesome tempo shift and solo that ends up perfectly transitioning into the quicker “At Midnight They’ll Get Wise”. The short sections with the choir, distant guitar plucking and grumbling bass encapsulate a perfect atmosphere for Hammer of the North in my opinion as well.
Grand Magus is one of the best examples I’ve found so far of how to take the traditional Metal styles, whether that be Doom or Heavy Metal, and combine them in a way that sounds not only memorable but natural as well. Their progression from a more sludgy, darker Doom Metal based band is immediately showcased in their expert riff writing and satisfyingly hefty choruses. Despite keeping the Doom Metal influence around Hammer of the North is able to bring a ton of energy to the table, which is why I think I prefer it over their previous album Iron Will. It’s a fantastic blending of styles that I’ve been more or less addicted to for quite some time now, which is why I think I owe Heavy Metal a bit of an apology. Sure, Sabbath and Priest did a ton of legwork to refine our expectations of what a more traditional take on the Metal genre should be, but groups like Grand Magus are still pushing the envelope in ways that are unique to them. Albums like Hammer of the North may be few and far between in the world of modern, traditional Heavy Metal, but abandoning the search because of the notion that the genre is old and tired was a massive mistake of mine. I’m sure I’ll come across more than a few Sabbath or Priest clones as Heavy and Doom Metal continue to progress, but Grand Magus have shown me that the less extreme styles of Metal still have plenty of teeth and energy left in them.
No matter how much of a devoted metal obsessive you might be, there’s always going to those bands whose names are very familiar yet you’ve somehow managed to completely overlook over many years & Swedish heavy metal outfit Grand Magus are one of those for me personally. I guess it mainly comes down to my preference for the more extreme end of metal but I’m still fairly familiar with most other prominent heavy metal bands so it’s more likely just coincidence as there’s certainly not been anything intentional about it. Still… the band’s reputation as a high-quality heavy metal act with a strong front man & a hard-hitting sound was certainly something I’ve been aware of for some time so I went into 2010’s “Hammer Of The North” was a reasonable level of expectation.
My immediate first impression of Grand Magus’ sound was a resounding positive. The production job on “Hammer Of The North” is really full, really heavy & metal as fuck. Plus, front man Janne "JB" Christoffersson is a genuine talent & possesses a wonderfully powerful voice that’s tailor-made for classic metal. Sure, the riffage on display is nothing revelational but the whole album has a professionalism & class about it that’s hard to deny. The band hit onto a groove & know exactly how to milk it for all its worth as they’re as tight a unit as you’ll find. The word “solid” continually comes to mind actually. Solid song-writing, solid production, solid performances, just…… solid all round I guess. The overall heaviness is no doubt strengthened by the band’s tendency to down-tune their guitars & this is probably a contributing factor in Grand Magus’ links with doom metal along with their slow-to-mid-range tempos although there’s not really any genuine doom metal tracks on offer here. The faster material showcases a strong 70’s Judas Priest influence with opener “I, The Jury” being a fine example as it seems pay homage to “Dissident Aggressor” pretty obviously to me. Some of the more lumbering tracks bring to mind a band like Manowar & this is accentuated further by the lyrical direction.
Christoffersson’s vocal performance is a clear focal point of “Hammer Of The North” as he’s a rare talent in my opinion. I’d describe his tone & attitude as sitting somewhere between Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell & Armored Saint/Anthrax front man John Bush & that comparison can only be a complement as far as I’m concerned as I hold those two in very high regard indeed. (In fact, Cornell is my all-time favourite singer.) JB really does give some of the less exciting song-writing a greater level of appeal than it probably had any right to command & I get the feeling that it’d probably be pretty hard for Grand Magus not to give me some level of enjoyment even at their weakest moments as long as he’s behind the microphone & the production is so thick & heavy. As a result, there are no failures amongst the ten tracks on offer with even the less impressive numbers still managing to leave me feeling well satisfied. Once again, it’s a “solid” tracklisting. That word just keeps popping back into my head when I reflect on “Hammer Of The North” & I think that’s a reflection of the fact that the whole record is of a high quality however it rarely reaches the upper echelons of the top tier through truly transcendent hooks. Yep, it’s a great little record but it’s just lacking that elusive x-factor in the song-writing that can take a “solid” record & make it into a genuine classic. Only album highlight “The Lord of Lies” sees me taken to those places & I’d need a couple more songs of that quality for me to be reaching for the higher scores. As it is, I find it to be a very enjoyable example of modern heavy metal & would be quite surprised if it failed to impress any fan of the genre.
For fans of Judas Priest, Manowar & Atlantean Kodex.
Here we are at the part of this grand journey that has fueled up its purpose; reviewing this month's Guardians feature release, the 5th Grand Magus album Hammer of the North! To be honest, I think their previous album Iron Will is the pinnacle of their career and shows their balance of genres to be equal, resulting in many excellent tunes. For this album Hammer of the North, well... let's find out whether or not this album can reach the same height, shall we?
Grand Magus are really great and had a consistent winning streak going on with most of their albums. It feels a little strange how amazing these Swedes can be at getting their material right for our excitement with barely any plaguing problems. They really nail their songs! I think it's their unique mix of classic heavy metal and doom metal. Many of their songs are either one of those genres, and while this might cause confusion to some listeners, it establishes the overall stylistic path they're going for; mostly slow heavy metal with powerful vocals, a nice break from the driving extreme aggression that can get the heavier metalheads beyond excited.
"I, the Jury" immediately plunges the listener headfirst into a moshpit where you have to raise your fist while running with the current if you don't wanna get stampeded. The instrumentation isn't anything better than the previous album and isn't complex in any way, but it's essential. The title track is a killer highlight that will get you headbanging for sure. "Black Sails" isn't bad but doesn't have much impact. This doomy marching pace lacks the crushing heaviness or atmosphere most other albums' songs have.
"Mountains Be My Throne" continues the classic heavy metal style with simple ideas such as the power chords in the verses. "Northern Star" has a speedier style than anything the band has done so far, and it might've inspired Mastodon to adopt the more simple sound in their fifth album The Hunter. I love the brooding "The Lord of Lies", and it's almost better than a couple of the other songs in the album so far, but its slowness doesn't stand out as well as the fast-paced songs here. "At Midnight They'll Get Wise" is something the faster metalheads are bound to like.
In "Bond of Blood", the rhythms aren't so special at this point in the album, but the nice bass enhances the guitar work. There are also catchy yet simple riffs, plus soloing that's exciting but not enough. What works well is the chorus of "Savage Tales", which is not too slow but not too fast either, just right! The closing track "Ravens Guide Our Way" is slightly forgettable, but it's a nice way to end the album.
With that, Hammer of the North is really enjoyable (What Grand Magus album isn't??). Sure this band doesn't plan on reinventing their metal wheel, but it's often what people (including myself) like about this album, though there are a few clichés. Nothing too serious to expect, but I'm positive that this oldie-sounding metal sound is worth it....
Favorites: "Hammer of the North", "Northern Star", "The Lord of Lies", "At Midnight They'll Get Wise", "Savage Tales"
So, in terms of context for why I chose this as my featured release for this month, back when I was a consultant working the length and breadth of the British Isles I found myself working for a number of weeks in a place called Milton Keynes which is a short train ride out of London (for the uninitiated). Given hotel prices in London, I opted to stay the other side of Milton Keynes in a place called Northampton in a hotel near the train station. Each day on my commute to Milton Keynes on the train I would be making that soulless journey to the tune of Hammer of the North, raising my spirits with the rousing metal of one of Sweden's finest exports.
As such, this album holds a particular nostalgic place in my heart for accompanying me through a time when I was far away from home and encouraged to imagine places even further away thanks to the amazing imagery conjured by the fantastical lyrics of JB Christoffersson. As a side note I was bitterly disappointed during my research for this review to find that the digital copy I owned (?) has disappeared from my music stream and also other popular streaming services. As much as I am a fan of the physical formats of albums, my overarching experience of this album was on digital format and it is a little disappointing to see it absent from immediate access outlets due to whatever bullshit politics goes on between streaming services and record labels.
Anyway, the main thing I like about this record is that (in the main) it encapsulates everything I got into metal for in the first place. Memorable songs, hooks that bury themselves so deep into your flesh they pierce internal organs, an aggressive and gruff style that make the music seem inaccessible despite it being one of the more immediate releases I owned (shakes fist at the internet), melodic yet never flashy leads and song writing so catchy it is fucking criminal. At the same time you will notice a less than five star rating because I honestly can see the limitations of the record despite all that I love about it. It is an album that tries to be nothing other than what it is; a record made by genuine fans of heavy metal that may be more than a little guilty of flogging the same ideas more than once, yet it does this so well it is near impossible to resist it's charms.
If you read my reviews with any regularity on here you will pick up that I note the quality levels of a record by how well I can recite the tracks in my head without having to listen to the album itself. Needless to say I can do at least seven of the ten tracks here from start to finish in my head - despite all the other shit that is in there at any given time that occupies valuable brain space. The album just rewards you after one listen, balancing melody and rampant rhythms perfectly as the simplicity of tracks such as the title track, Black Sails, Mountains Be My Throne, The Lord of Lies and Ravens Guide Our Way layer themselves in your memory banks, track after track.
As I go off to buy a physical copy of the album, I leave you with the notion that if all artists recorded albums like this (you know what I mean; throw caution to the wind, fuck what's cool today and lets just do what we like mentality) then the world would be a much better place. I have increased my rating by a half star during this review, just because I can.