After a long tenure on Rise Above, “Hammer of the North” is the first Magus release for Roadrunner, nudging them closer to the mainstream.
Having long since abandoned the doomier aspects of their sound in favour of a purer HM direction, Grand Magus are a band that could conceivably achieve wider success without compromising their style, which is accessible enough as it is.
Approaching this album, it’s natural to worry how the new deal might affect the music.
Luckily, the video for the title track (with copious use of dry ice and a perfunctory wolf), is the most awkward manifestation of big-label transition syndrome. The sound is a bit smoother than before, and the bassier guitar sound is notable, but thankfully the production (by Entombed’s Nico Elgstrand) achieves analogue-sounding warmth rather going for an over-compressed nightmare.
The no-frills power trio dynamic remains intact, with Seb’s bass nicely audible throughout. Perhaps we can take JB’s prominently displayed Venom pendant in the band photos as a reassuring gesture.
Anyone familiar with “Wolf’s Return” or “Iron Will” will find little in the way of surprises here – this is very much a more refined application of the template used on those albums.
The most positive development is in the songwriting – this is the strongest and most consistent set of songs they’ve produced, with no real weak moments. All ten are individually strong and memorable, and seem to demand the consumption of alcohol and the Company of Fellow Men, on a mountaintop if at all possible.
This is a very vocal-led album, and the melodies are better than ever. JB, of course, is one of the best melodic metal singers currently active.
Though the predominance of the usual Nordic buzzwords might seem predictable, the lyrics possess a Dio-like metaphorical weight: good honest stuff from a band that manage to utilise the most traditional metal tropes without causing the listener a hint of embarrassment.
The default pace is leisurely, though with no real semblance of the band’s more doom-orientated past. Therefore the occasional uptempo tracks (the best of these being ‘At Midnight They’ll Get Wise’) are vital.
Highlights include the title track, which is built on a instantly addictive riff and finds its way into a solo section reminiscent of ‘Beyond the Realms of Death’. ‘Black Sails’ is irresistibly rousing and epic, like pre-lobotomy Manowar with an added sense of subtlety. And instead of a dip in quality late in the album, ‘Savage Tales’ erupts into a mighty motivational refrain: “Those who walk against the wind will always walk alone”.
On the first few listens, I thought the album could have done with a bit more intensity and variety here and there, but it’s turned out to be a serious grower.
In the face of such solid, deeply satisfying metal, criticism feels like nitpicking. ‘Hammer of the North’ may not immediately leave you in slack-jawed awe, but spend a few days spinning it and you won’t want to do without it.
4.3 / 5 – Paul Condon ::: 20/07/10