Hammer Horde - Under the mighty oath 4/5

Reviewed: 7-24-09


1. Storm of pagan skies (prelude)
2. Pierced by Odin's spear
3. Under teh mighty oath
4. In the name of winter's wrath
5. Howl of himinbjorg
6. Farewell to the fallen
7. Triumph of sword and shield
8. Throught celestial seascapes
9. Of legends and lore
10. Seafarer

First things first – when buying self-released CDs, you often have to worry about what you’re going to be getting for your money. There’s nothing worse than shelling out your hard-earned cash only to be left with a cheaply made CD-R or a disc housed in some shoddy packaging. American viking metal band (more on that later) Hammer Horde may have done everything on their debut 'Under the mighty oath' with their own dime, but you’d never guess it to see and hear the final product, as the lush digipack release is one of the most professional looking and sounding self-releases I’ve ever come across.

Along with an impressive advertising blitz that has seen full-page ads in the metal magazines here in the U.K. and even sending the recordings off for mastering to Miko Jussila at Finnvox studios to add a certain Nordic sheen to things, it is clear that Hammer Horde have spared no expense and plainly mean business.

All that would mean less than nothing, of course, if the music wasn’t up to par. The idea of a Norse-themed band from the U.S. (right down to the furs in the photoshoot) no doubt has some people snickering into their sleeves, but that sort of thinking is about the equivalent of saying Iron Maiden had no place writing “Invaders” or “Run to the hills”. Besides, the atmosphere they have created transcends borders and nationalities to create something that sounds as authentic as anything a Scandinavian or Finnish band could have come up with in their place. Taking elements mostly from melodic death rather than the black metal that I suppose constitutes ‘true’ viking metal, they have wound it tightly with powerful, epic guitar melodies and varying harsh and clean vocals (both very impressive) to fashion a CD that is intricate and varied, yet also quite relentless. Jayson Cessna’s drums blast persistently, and there is a severity not found in most of the current wave (ok, trend) of folk metal purveyors, so some caution is to be advised to those of a more sensitive disposition.

A quick description would be to say that they sound like something of a go-between from Ensiferum to Wintersun, with all the swashbuckling grandness of the former coupled with the protracted song lengths, complexities and heaviness of the latter. Maybe the thing that drew me to this comparison the most is the style of vocals, as the blackened rasps against the more occasional baritone singing and strained falsetto wails are reminiscent of Jari Mäenpää's style. Guitarist Derik Smith performs the higher-pitched vocals, but growling frontman Tom Sturniolo also takes care of the lower-range clean singing, so he is due plenty of esteem for his versatility and proficiency in both styles. He also performs the only traditional instrument to be heard on the CD – the ocarina, outlandish even for folk metal – on a couple of tracks. More and more bands are making extensive use of this sort of thing lately, but Hammer Horde’s restraint only makes its use more surprising and less gimmicky. The 2nd of these songs, “Triumph of sword and shield”, is a real cracker, displaying more power metal gallop than the rest of the bunch, and the ocarina is used in a markedly different fashion to its role on the preceding half-acoustic half-ballad “Farewell to the fallen” which features a terrific vocal display from Smith.

Otherwise some tastefully arranged keyboards played by 2nd guitarist Ryan Mininger are the only thing contending with the wall of guitars, rising and falling from the forefront at the most appropriate of times to contribute the chilly, windswept atmospherics.

While the rhythmic onslaught that has the CD charging at full pelt a great deal of the time occasionally blurs the songs together a little, ‘Under the mighty oath’ is most definitely well beyond a promising debut and a fine example of the style in its own right. The amount of graft Hammer Horde have put into this debut is nearly as impressive as the music itself, and with that sort of work ethic they have the potential to go places. Here’s hoping they get the break they deserve.




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