I’m sure most people reading this aren’t going to be familiar with US power metallers Omen at all. They’re not a name that exactly broke out of the metal underground, with little-to-nothing that made an impact on any charts, and they’re not a name that tends to be brought up when people talk about 80s metal bands. Combine this with a long period of time between studio recordings (with their last album, Eternal Black Dawn, being released in 2003) and one would be forgiven, even as a huge metal fan, for not having heard of the band. This isn’t to say the band have completely been forgotten, though: fans of the video game Brutal Legend (which might be the most metal video game ever made…seriously, metal fans, if you haven’t heard of it, do go look it up, you’ll not be disappointed!) may have heard of them due to their song ‘The Axeman’ (from their debut album, 1984’s Battle Cry) appearing on it.
So, while you probably have gathered a decent amount about the band from all of that, let’s actually take a few seconds to make sure we’re all up to date on the band. Forming in 1983 in Los Angeles, California, they were then most well known for their lead guitarist Kenny Powell and drummer Steve Wittig (both of whom are still in the band to this day, though Wittig would depart from the band a year before their break-up in 1988 and didn’t return until 2012) being former members of the band Savage Grace (which wasn’t saying much: Savage Grace’s only releases up until Powell’s departure were a demo and an appearance on Metal Massacre II in 1982 and an EP in 1983 and Wittig didn’t play on anything recorded by the band, having only been part of the band in 1981). The band’s past members have included some interesting names, but the ones which may surprise longtime metal fans are that current Emerald vocalist (among others) George Call was the band’s vocalist from 2009 to 2011 and a then-mostly unknown Coburn Pharr (yes, the guy who would go on to sing on Annihilator’s Never, Neverland!) was the band’s vocalist when they recorded their 1988 record Escape to Nowhere. The band’s current bassist is Andy Haas (who was with Powell in the band Step Child in the mid-90s) and their current vocalist is Kevin Goocher, who should be familiar to fans of Phantom-X due to also being their vocalist (as well as the band Perpetual, though he has not performed on any of their studio material). The band’s six previous studio albums are 1984’s Battle Cry, 1985’s Warning of Danger, 1986’s The Curse, 1988’s Escape to Nowhere, 1997’s Reopening the Gates and 2003’s Eternal Black Dawn.
So, with all of that information out of the way, how does Hammer Damage sound? Well…it’s a decent record, but I feel it has issues which hurt it more than it should do and it’s going to be a hard sell if you’re not already on board with the band’s style of music already.
Let me get the issues out of the way now: the production irritates my ears, and it’s not because of the mastering or the mixing of the instruments. Something about the frequencies of it seems to have been handled poorly and it badly irritates my ears even on short listens to the album. It’s a similar issue to what DragonForce’s Inhuman Rampage does to my ears, which leads me to suspect it’s an equalization issue, but the exact issue isn’t one I can place for definite. It’s weird, because, on paper, the production should be fine with me: the mastering is fairly reasonable, being loud enough to work with the music without coming at the cost of audio quality, the mixing is pretty reasonable (the bass is fairly audible without dominating the rest of the record and all of the other instruments don’t feel like they’ve been pushed too far forward in the mix) and the audio quality of the instruments is clearly done by people who know what they’re doing. Unfortunately, all of that is kind of undone by the fact that I can’t listen to the record for long periods of time because of whatever issue is upsetting my ears!
The other issue is that the songwriting, while solid, doesn’t really spring out on first listen as anything all that impressive. Now, in fairness, the record does grow on you and there’s nothing it does wrong on the songwriting front, so I’m probably being a bit harsh when I say this, but I just feel that the record suffers from a lack of immediacy to the hooks which means that you’re going to need to give it a few listens before you really click with it. This isn’t a flaw in and of itself, but it’s certainly something that could make the record harder to enjoy for those who are expecting something like ‘The Trooper’ to stand out to you on the first listen.
Still, those issues don’t completely detract from the fact that there’s a decent amount to enjoy about this record if you’re a fan of US power metal. As I mentioned, the songwriting, while lacking an immediacy to it, is still solid despite the lack of anything especially unconventional about it, with some songs like ‘Cry Havoc’ and ‘Eulogy for a Warrior’ being quite enjoyable once you’ve let the record grow upon you. The band’s sound is hardly going to win points for originality (it’s pretty much what you’d expect from a speed metal band, just with more than a dash of influence from US power metal), but it fits in with what you’d expect to hear from the genre and, well, the band WERE around when the scene first came together properly in the US, so it’s hard to complain too much about it!
The performances on the record are also decent in a “nothing new, but still solid for the genre” kind of way. Wittig’s drumming is fairly decent, with a good amount of skill being showcased that, while not pushing him to the heights of Nicko McBrain, certainly shows a musician who knows how to play to the strengths of the music. Haas’ bass is actually not too bad, despite him not really having a huge presence overall, as he confidently provides a base upon which the rest of the record is built and even gets a few moments where he does some stuff that, while hardly prog levels of skill, shows he has more to offer than on first listen. Powell’s guitar playing is fairly decent, with a respectable amount of skill on display that shows that he knows what he’s doing without pushing the record into prog territory. He won’t challenge musicians like Jon Schaffer in the genre in terms of skill, but he certainly gives a performance that is better than one might expect from a musician who is 62 this year! Goocher’s vocal are interesting: he manages to sound a bit like a more nasal Bob Mitchell without necessarily copying him! I’ll admit, it took me a listen or two to really come to enjoy his vocals, but I genuinely now can’t think of anyone else who I’d want singing with the band, as he manages to give it a rougher edge while still giving a performance that is recognisably melodic.
Ultimately, Hammer Damage is a decent record. There’s nothing that’s really BAD about it, I’ll admit, and I can definitely see people enjoying it who are huge fans of this style of music. Unfortunately, I think the production issue I mentioned hampers my personal enjoyment of the record more than it should do and I feel the lack of immediacy to the material makes it hard to recommend to anyone who isn’t already into this style of music, as it won’t grab them enough to want to stick with it. Put this one down as “for fans of the genre only” and seek out or avoid as appropriate.
Hammer Damage will be released on the 27th of May by Pure Steel Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.