Several heavy metal albums have poked their head up throughout this list already - often getting tapped back down for coming off as forced and artificially "retro." Now, Grand Magus is no wannabe band looking to make their name with yet another uninspired Iron Maiden clone (come to think of it, Maiden made an appearance way down at the bottom of this thing already, didn't they?). For those paying attention, Grand Magus have already released four great albums prior to this one, which stood at the three-way intersection of stoner, heavy and doom metal. On Hammer of the North, Grand Magus have done away with much of the first genre, opting to go for a more traditional heavy/doom sound on this outing. As much as I love their earlier albums, I have to say that I like this change. The writing here seems far more focused and consistent than ever before - there really are no weak points in this set of songs. Every track sports crunchy, classic heavy metal riffs and excellent vocal work from Janne Christoffersson.
Speaking of Janne, he may not be nearly as technically skilled as Halford, Dio, Dickinson, et al... but at this point I'm willing to throw my vote his way for inclusion in the pantheon of heavy metal vocalists. Whether he's channeling Rob Halford ("I, the Jury") or Rob Lowe ("The Lord of Lies"), the performance is top notch and perfectly befitting the material. Think about that for a second - how many bands (much less vocalists) are out there today that can channel Judas Priest and Candlemass on the same album and make it entirely their own? I honestly can't think of anyone else off the top of my head, though I would certainly welcome being proven wrong. As much as I've talked up Janne Christoffersson's vocal performance, I really don't want to sell his axe skills (or his band members' performances) short. For the most part the rhythm section isn't doing anything particularly mind-blowing, but they do their job to complement the riffs and perfect that infectious groove that permeates the album. Just for good measure, and to complete the full heavy metal experience, Janne throws some pretty sweet solos into the mix. Grand Magus has gone pretty under appreciated for the early part of their career, hopefully they'll maintain this level of quality and ride their new deal with Roadrunner to the accolades that they richly deserve.
Best Tracks: I, the Jury, At Midnight They'll Get Wise