Jaws Theme Swimming: KC’s landlocked Hammerhedd are metal maestros

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The Ismert brothers. // Courtesy Hammerhedd

Suppose you’ve heard the name of Kansas City metal trio Hammerhedd at any point in the last few years. In that case, you’re likely familiar with how the Ismert brothers came to the public consciousness: on a September Sunday in 2016, a shopper on the Country Club Plaza shot a video of bassist Abe, drummer Eli, and guitarist Henry cranking out note-perfect covers of Metallica’s “Eye of the Beholder,” “Blackened,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and “…And Justice for All.” It was seen by Metallica, who shared it themselves, and boom—viral sensation.

The band has since released its debut album, Grand Currents, in 2020. Their latest, Nonetheless, just dropped at the end of February, demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that Hammerhedd has gone from covers to originals and from being “good for their age” to just damned good.

Upon catching up with Henry and Eli (Abe has sports practice after school), they explain that a lot of that growth comes from the fact that they are all family.

“It’s not like we don’t butt heads, but it’s productive most of the time ‘cause you can channel it into the music,” Henry says. “We’re all able to fight—so to speak—and be totally fine in the next five minutes, which is really good for a band’s creative process.”

Because of this sibling bond, the members of Hammerhedd have come to think that, if they’d had friends in the band, the dynamic would’ve been totally different.

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Nonetheless. // Courtesy Hammerhedd

“You couldn’t say exactly what you’re thinking all the time, or you’d have to compromise on stuff. It’s lucky that we’re brothers, and it works like this,” Henry says.

That creative process has been one of growth. Although one might have guessed that the success of that viral video would be what led to the trio exploring original material, the fact is that Hammerhedd has been making original music since a year before their viral success. It’s just that the band needed more original material to fill a 30-minute set without having to play covers at the time.

The reason behind this, Henry says, was that the main aspect of Hammerhedd they wanted to showcase was the tightness of their playing.

“If we were playing our own songs, they just obviously were not as good,” says Henry. “Like, they just sucked back then, so we had to play other people’s songs and showcase the tightness, and it just worked out better for us.”

From there began a transition period to a set with mostly originals. Still, that initial set of Metallica covers seems to stretch its tendrils across the years to what the band has recorded on Nonetheless. There are several songs on this new album that pass the seven-minute mark, which the brothers say is definitely the influence of the album …And Justice For All, but they’re also working toward making it more concise as they get older.

“I think Lars [Ulrich] and James [Hetfield] say the same thing: It’s a lot easier to write a long metal song, for some reason,” says Henry. “It’s counterintuitive, but it’s easier not to have to self-edit, and we’re trying to get better at that.”

Henry self-deprecates in explaining the 10- and 11-minute songs Hammerhedd had on Grand Currents.

“When Metallica does it, it’s badass,” he says. “But usually, when most bands, including us, have done it in the past, it’s just a lack of self-editing. Most songs we write don’t deserve a 10-minute thing, and we’re trying to get away from that.”

That said, the stretching out Hammerhedd achieves on Nonetheless allows the band to get into a groove and ride it longer than most acts might, as well as experimenting with song structure in a way that eschews repetitiveness. There is a lot of jazz that comes through on this new album. On “Richest Man in Town,” there’s a breakdown in the middle in which Eli plays a jazz drum solo overlaid with vinyl crackle. It’s akin to “Deadly Rhythm” by Refused, but it’s not an intro leading into a song. Instead, it’s an integral part of the track itself.

“We had this void in that song that we wanted to fill,” says Eli. “Just jamming around, we were like, ‘Let’s just do something wildly different than we’ve ever done.’ It’s a new direction for us, which is that we’re doing whatever we feel sounds right.”

Henry agrees, describing “Richest Man in Town” as one of their “weird ones.”

“I’m excited to see what people think of it,” says Henry. “Like, a lot of people could hate it, but it felt right.”

The song, with guitar licks falling somewhere between Steely Dan and Dire Straits and the aforementioned drum interlude, prepares whoever’s listening to Nonetheless for “Synthesis Pt. 1” and “Synthesis Pt. 2,” two tracks at the album’s end which say, “All right—if you dig that, you’re gonna love this.” It’s a bold move but one that readily pays off. It’s similar to a metalhead’s take on old-school R&B tunes from the ‘60s, wherein you’d flip the 45 to extend the song for another three minutes.

“When we came up with that little groove that starts for ‘Synthesis Pt. 2,’ instantly in both of our heads, we were like, ‘Yeah, let’s split it there,’” Eli says. “‘These go together. It just feels like a change right there.’”

“A lot of bands we listen to do that,” says Henry, name-dropping acts such as Gojira, Pink Floyd, and Tool.

“I think we really like that the way it sounds, and we’re probably gonna end up doing that in the future just because we like those albums that have that structure,” says Eli. “You can see things changing, but it’s like a flow, you know?”

“There are just songs that, in my head, that are to be played together like [Pink Floyd’s] ‘Time’ and ‘Great Gig in the Sky,’ or ‘Heartbreaker’ and ‘Living Loving Maid’ by Led Zeppelin. Those are just meant to be one-two, bang-bang, and it is a little on the nose when you do part one, part two,” says Henry.

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Courtesy Hammerhedd

The end result of all of this musical camaraderie shared between the Ismert brothers results in Nonetheless being an album that is progressive but not overly technical and leaning into grooves without losing metal’s heavy crunch.

“That’s hours and hours of jam,” Henry says. “That’s the idea. We like a good groove.”

He goes on to say it’s not that the members of Hammerhedd don’t like super-complicated jazz or even progressive metal, like Opeth or Dream Theater, but the fact that music will rapidly switch from 4/4 to 6/4 means that you, the listener, can’t get a head nod going.

“Good grooves get better the longer you play ‘em in, in our opinion,” Henry says. “A good bass groove or a good rhythm section—you wanna hear it for like three, four, five minutes. That’s what makes the songs we love so good—they work for hours to find the good groove that they can ride for that long.”

And that’s how you get Hammerhedd. The trio just jams to the point where they can ride that groove until it builds upon itself, resulting in something new. It means that the band has a warmth that’s lacking in genres like technical metal, where precision outshines everything, resulting in music cold as winter steel.

“Every riff you’re hearing is just me and Henry with each other,” Eli says. “Right when we discover it, we’re like, ‘We love that. That is going on the album.’ I think that adds some energy. The more we work on it, the more Abe’s getting incorporated—it’ll just be more and more lively as time goes on.” 

Nonetheless by Hammerhedd is available now.

Categories: Music