Grand Magus, Hammer of the North: Those Who Walk Against the Wind

Swedish trio Grand Magus are a long, long way from where they started out 12 years ago. The doom of their earliest demos and 2001 self-titled debut is long gone, as over time and the course of their four subsequent albums, vocalist/guitarist Janne “JB” Christofferson, bassist Fox Skinner (bonus points for awesome name) and drummer Sebastian “Seb” Sippola – who came aboard between 2005’s Wolf’s Return and 2008’s Iron Will – have evolved into a genuine beast of epic metal. Not power metal, at least not in terms of the dramatic elements that genre designation carries with it, but still definitively epic, taking cues from Judas Priest and the best of the British New Wave and blending lyrical themes from Scandinavian paganism to concoct a sound almost completely their own. On their latest and fifth offering, Hammer of the North (released physically in Europe last year on Roadrunner and in the US digitally via the same label at the end of January), Grand Magus make yet another step in their charted progression. The US version of the album collects 11 tracks to cover 52:32, and though it’s not without its filler, the level of songwriting across the board is stellar and the performances throughout harness the hair-raising power of heavy metal as only the greatest of practitioners can.

The production, it’s worth noting, is unrepentantly modern. Though the underground metal climate in the US has largely turned against digital recording methods – in ideology if not always in practice – in Europe, Grand Magus has genuine mainstream viability, and as such it makes sense for Hammer of the North to be produced as it is. The album begins with one of its several memorable tracks, “I, The Jury,” on which the trio starts in barn-burning fashion. Sippola proves as he did on Iron Will that he’s a fantastic drummer, changing at a moment’s notice into half-time grooves and keeping the footwork both tasteful and exciting (even if his drums are probably triggered), and Christofferson elicits a solo from the ether that enhances the song, rather than coming off as forced. “Hammer of the North,” which follows, brings out some of the heathen lyricism and anti-Christian thematics – “We trample the cross” – but these aren’t overdone either, and it’s clear that Hammer of the North is going to be a classy affair throughout. Grand Magus, in fashion true to the first part of their name, have set a stately tone, and are firmly in command of their sound. The quiet outro of the title-track and chanting lead-in for “Black Sails” – an understated Viking ode that only gets better with volume – makes for a smooth transition, but make no mistake, Hammer of the North is very much song-based. It’s not like Grand Magus sat down and wrote it all as one piece, and ultimately it’s because of the strength of its individual parts that the whole stands out.

That’s not to say it carries a feel like it was written for radio hits or something like that. Even in the more metal-friendly European musical climate, I don’t know how huge this stuff is in terms of sales – at least as compares to the more swoopy-haired, breakdown-laden “hardcore” that seems to have taken over the universe in the last several years – but Grand Magus’ natural strength is undoubtedly in writing traditional verse/chorus structures. Both “Black Sails” and “Mountains be My Throne” are straightforward and unpretentious, but filled with a kind of stylistic grandeur that sets them apart from other works of classic metal. Credit for this has to go to Christofferson, who is probably one of the best working vocalists in heavy metal today. Backed by Skinner, the singing on Hammer of the North is the source of some of its greatest appeal, and even on the head-down forward-drive of “Northern Star,” they find room for a fantastic chorus. There’s layering throughout in the voices, as with the guitar – the solo of “Northern Star” being a rare misstep both in terms of production and execution – but they’re not quite at Blind Guardian levels yet. Again, classy. All of Hammer of the North has a metallic sheen, and it works greatly to the songs’ benefit.

Another chanting opening, different from “Black Sails,” opens “The Lord of Lies,” itself the kickoff to the second half of Hammer of the North and the longest cut at 6:16. It’s darker atmospherically, though not much doomer, with more excellent vocal layering. Christofferson shows off a bit of the lower end of his range, and overall the song adds dynamics to Grand Magus circa 2010/2011 without that being its only overt purpose. Something else it does, though, is set up the single-worthy “At Midnight They’ll Get Wise” (one assumes they won’t have to be old to be wise as well), which, starting with the guitar and tense drum hits from Sippola, brings back the adrenaline of “I, The Jury.” Sippola again goes to half-time in the chorus and it works splendidly offset by his fills and ride work during Christofferson’s guitar solo. More than some of the material on Hammer of the North (“The Lord of Lies,” for example), “At Midnight They’ll Get Wise” sounds stage-ready. “Bond of Blood,” which follows, brings down the energy some with a start-stop riff and less remarkable chorus than some of its predecessors, but taken out of the context of the album as a whole, it still shows the strength of Grand Magus’ songwriting.

Christofferson says the name of the song during the intro to “Savage Tales,” which is both a classic metal move and fucking awesome. As the entry to Hammer of the North’s closing section, it’s a return to the ultra-memorable lyrics, the line “Those who walk against the wind will always walk alone” being a standout both within the track and of the album as a whole. With background “ohhs” behind, the epic side is played up as the song fades to sampled wind and Skinner’s bass introduces “Ravens Guide Our Way,” which closed the original version of Hammer of the North and works very much on that level. At a slower pace, Grand Magus channels Dio’s “Holy Diver” riff progression without sounding foolish doing so, and “Ravens Guide Our Way” proves a late-album highlight. “Crown of Iron,” which was included as a bonus track for the Japanese version of Hammer of the North, appears on the American digital edition as well, and though it’s well done, it doesn’t really offer anything Grand Magus haven’t already shown, which is probably why it wasn’t included in the European release in the first place. Whatever. One more Grand Magus song. I’ll take it.

Hammer of the North is going to be too clean for some, and there will always be those who curmudgeonly bemoan Grand Magus’ shift away from doom, but if you miss out on the quality execution and formidable presence of this album, you’re really only hurting yourself. It’s the best metal I’ve heard in a long time, and I only wish the band would book an American tour so I could catch them live at the top of their game and see for myself how this material translates to the stage. For now, though, Hammer of the North provides a fix for the epic that few bands can satisfy, and where I felt that Iron Will held onto just enough of the band’s past to be called “power doom,” this one is in a stylistic mode all its own. Grand Magus. Worthy of every fist you have to throw in the air.

Grand Magus’ website

Roadrunner Records

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3 Responses to “Grand Magus, Hammer of the North: Those Who Walk Against the Wind”

  1. Mike H says:

    I like.

  2. Jay says:

    As big fan of this record, I think the review is pretty spot on!

  3. I like this record a lot.

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