Review Summary: Tight, instantly recognizable guitar riffs coupled with an uncanny aptitude for crafting great melodies without losing the sense of dread make for an excellent heavy metal album.
Old-school heavy metal might be considered a rather stale genre these days. Done to perfection many a time before by the likes of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, the confines of the genre are rather limited. The Swedish trio, Grand Magus, fronted by Janne ''JB'' Christoffersson of Spiritual Beggars' fame, doesn't make any effort to expand on the old formula at all. Their newest album, "Hammer Of The North" is a collection of songs that abounds with entirely fresh, seductive hooks. It also showcases the band's complete departure from their doom metal roots making a strong case for rock-solid songwriting prominent here more than on the group's previous outings. Although the fans may not be pleased with the act's transformation, it's safe to say that "Hammer Of The North" is easily the most consistent material Grand Magus have released thus far.
Tight, instantly recognizable guitar riffs coupled with an uncanny aptitude for crafting great melodies without losing the sense of dread are the album's selling points. No matter if it's technical riffing of "Mountains Be My Throne" or a more traditional melodic approach of "Northern Star," almost every track feels solid, featuring distinguishable, if totally traditional riffing. Janne Christoffersson himself can be described as a metal dynamo. Aside from exquisite guitarwork, he delivers a powerhouse vocal performance that feels both self-assured and unforced. He may resemble Rob Halford in his low range, but the strong sense of melody seems entirely his own. Many songs on the album contain shrewdly constructed sing-along choruses. "Black Sails" and "The Lord Of Lies" are arguably the standouts in this field, both benefiting a great deal from infectious melody lines.
The only weakness of "Hammer Of The North," which ironically stems from the band's decision to firmly keep to the only one subgenre of music, is the lack of diversity. This is chiefly apparent in the second half of the album when Grand Magus tend to emulate their previous ideas to the point when the songs begin to blend together seamlessly. One or two mellower, more varied tracks would certainly solve this problem. The only notable composition that does so in a way is "The Lord Of Lies" with its atmospheric beginning. Other than that, there is no fault to be found in the crystal-clear production nor Pagan-inspired lyrics. The disc has a much better, stronger and more selective sound than its predecessor, "Iron Will". As regards the lyrical content, Christoffersson focuses on the Pagan history of Scandinavia, occultism as well as explores anti-Christian undercurrents, which provides a welcome deviation in the heavy metal subgenre that often produces silly lyrics about dragons and elves.
Even if some fans of the band's previous doom metal offerings may remain reluctant, there is no doubt that "Hammer Of The North" contains all the necessary ingredients to make for an excellent traditional heavy metal album and thus brings Grand Magus even closer to the cult status they will certainly gain in the near future. It's one of the very best metal releases of the year.