Following up the work of insane genius that was "The August Engine", a fixture on many Top Ten lists in 2003, San Francisco's cult avant-metal weirdoes HAMMERS OF MISFORTUNE confound the listener still further here. "The Locust Years" is a grandiose, ambitious and sprawling work, a bit less immediate than the band's previous efforts, but still full of the band's trademark perverse grandeur and theatrical metal.
This is a no less than a progressive metal opera, with elements of '80s trad-metal, JETHRO TULL folk-rock, and '70s prog all colliding into one improbable masterpiece. SLOUGH FEG frontman Mike Scalzi again contributes the male vocals, while Jamie Myers and Sigrid Sheie add female singing and portray characters of their own, their soaring voices dominating many of the tracks.
And while the band's musical focus is as otherworldly as ever, "The Locust Years" seems very rooted in the here and now — "Trot Out the Dead", without naming names, is the most scathingly political song to emerge in some time. The whole album is a soundtrack for the chaos that is enveloping the globe, a musical play-by-play of what could be a bloody final act on the world's stage. Fittingly, the music has a bombastic, apocalyptic feel, with classic metal riffs soaring, laced with swelling Hammond organ lines.
The opening title track is an epic — "please hold your applause, though you may pause for genuflection," Scalzi intones, in the character of the one putting on this hellish endtime show. "Please remain seated as the spectacle repeats itself ad nauseum… don't you lose your focus as we orchestrate these locust years." Even if you're not following the story, the riffing here is incredible, mainman John Cobbett able to toss off vital, urgent metal that sounds thoroughly modern and straight out of 1983 at the same time. This song, the even-better "Trot Out the Dead" (the best song you'll hear this year) and the instrumental "Election Day" are pure adrenaline in audio form, metal the way it was meant to be.
But it's not all raging riffs here. The four horsemen of the apocalypse make an appearance in the haunting acoustic ballad "Famine's Lamp", while Myers and Sheie soar in the staid, mournful "We Are the Widows". "Chastity Rides", the other best song you'll hear all year, puts it all together in a tense, atmospheric buildup from a whisper to a raging metal chorus, all three vocalists calling down the thunder with an intensity that'll give you goosebumps.
HAMMERS OF MISFORTUNE are commercially damned because they don't fit into any category — they're a little too weird and iconoclastic to fit in with power metallers, they're too defiantly old-school and stubbornly creative to become some retro sensation, and they're so violently unfashionable, they're a genre unto themselves. The fact that they pull off Cobbett's grandiose vision without ever getting bogged down in layers of pretension or theatrical overkill is a striking feat – this is a metal opera that fucking rocks unashamedly, dexterous virtuoso metal that never forgets hooks and heart.
Notoriety and record sales be damned, I don't think there's a better band out there right now than HAMMERS OF MISFORTUNE. "The Locust Years" is the kind of record that will be talked about fifty years from now — provided, of course, that the tale told in its lyrics doesn't come true.