Grand Magus - Hammer of the north 4.5/5

Reviewed: 12-1-10


1. I, the jury
2. Hammer of the north
3. Black sails
4. Mountains be my throne
5. Northern star
6. The lord of lies
7. At midnight they'll get wise
8. Bond of blood
9. Savage tales
10. Ravens guide our way

Swedish trio Grand Magus delivered an absolute hammerblow with their 4th CD, 'Iron will', in 2008. Continuing their steady evolution from humble stoner beginnings to a genuine doom/classic metal juggernaut, Grand Magus finally perfected their sound with the staggeringly good 'Iron will'. The band were rewarded for this creative breakthrough with a contract from the powerful (not to say prestigious) Roadrunner Records, and 'Hammer of the north' represents their debut offering for that label. Sadly, the suit-and-tie pinheads at Roadrunner decided in their infinite wisdom that 'Hammer of the north' was suitable only for a European release, so American metalheads must resort to expensive import distribution channels to obtain a physical copy.

Pretty much everything I loved about 'Iron will' may be found on 'Hammer of the north'. As before, the rhythm section of bassist Fox and drummer Seb is rock-solid, but the bald, goateed guitarist/vocalist J.B. is the undisputed star of the show, dishing out one towering, monolithic, doomtastic riff after another while pouring his soul into every syllable he sings. J.B. may not have the most versatile range or the most dazzling technical skills, but the sheer emotional power of his voice is both undeniable and compelling. I defy anyone not to get chills upon hearing him belt out the coda, "Those who walk against the wind/will always walk alone," at the end of "Savage tales", for example. J.B.'s voice suits these tunes to perfection, and oh what glorious tunes they are. Grand Magus achieves an intoxicating balance of inspiring classic metal (think early Manowar) and chest-rattling doom (circa Candlemass and early Trouble). From uptempo catchy numbers like the ingeniously titled "At midnight they'll get wise" to the anthemic marching lurch of "Black sails" (yeah, it's about pirates, but this ain't no trend-hopping bandwagon-jumping here) to the brilliant sing-a-long of "Bond of blood", to the superb doom/traditional crunch of "Hammer of the north" or "Ravens guide our way", Grand Magus present a diverse batch of outstanding songs that all fit neatly within their sonic framework while still sounding different from each other. There's even a track, "Mountains be my throne", with a totally fuzzed-out riffing part to throw a bone to devotees of the band's stoner roots.

The short synopsis is that anyone who loved 'Iron will' can expect a similarly high level of quality on 'Hammer of the north'. For this kind of straightforward, no-frills, old-fashioned, doomy heavy metal, Grand Magus are absolute masters of their craft. Just as 'Iron will' was firmly ensconced in my top CDs list for 2008, so will 'Hammer of the north' find a similar place of honor for 2010. If anything, 'Hammer of the north' is a mite better than 'Iron will'. Whereas the latter's too-brief running time left the listener feeling somehow incomplete, 'Hammer of the north' gives us 10 fully fleshed-out songs spanning just shy of 48 minutes, without a single second of wasted space. When this CD ends, you may want to push "play" again immediately, but you won't feel like you weren't given enough material to justify plunking down $18 or more for an import.

I recognize that if you run a Google search, it's not difficult to find reviews that cast 'Hammer of the north' in a less-than-glowing light. But these dissenting views can largely be chalked up to a pair of explanations. It's important to remember that Grand Magus are playing a decidedly old-fashioned style of heavy metal that is not now (and probably never really has been) in vogue. This isn't retrothrash or speedy 80s traditional metal or symphonic power metal. So Grand Magus's appeal is by definition going to be narrow because their niche is not a kind of music that finds a wide audience in even underground metal circles. And, it's probably also fair to say, many fans who Grand Magus hooked during their early days now feel betrayed by the stylistic change away from the stoner/biker realm and into this classic/doom amalgam. I'm not part of that faction, but it's certainly understandable that whenever a band changes styles as Grand Magus has, even if it's done gradually, organically and from the heart, there will be folks who are rubbed the wrong way.

If one discounts the opinions of those who don't "get" this type of metal, as well as those who want Grand Magus to sound like their first 2 CDs forever, what you're left with is a CD of astonishingly high quality. For the sheer power of a killer Iommi-inspired guitar riff, with a locked-in rhythm section underneath and an impassioned vocal line laid over the top, 'Hammer of the north' is an absolute no brainer. As the song says, Grand Magus are indeed cunning, and ravens guide their way.




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