Review by Xephyr for Grand Magus - Hammer of the North (2010)
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.