Words by Jon Garcia
It’s rare for anyone’s first real band to make much of a dent in the world. Most end before there’s ever a note played, and many more fizzle and fade over time.
But three young brothers from Kansas City are trying to prove an exception to the rule, thanks to a bit of a head start.
Hammerhedd’s fin has been spotted in the metal scene’s waters off and on over the last few years, garnering attention for two things: their riffs and their age.
The Ismert brothers currently range from 16 to 21. The youngest, Abe, plays bass, Eli sits behind the drums, and oldest brother Henry handles guitar and vocal duties. The trio have been playing together since they were each single digit years old: four, seven, and nine, according to their Metal Archives page.
They play a groovy, chunky style of metal that flirts with progressive song structures, heavily influenced from their first musical obsessions: Metallica, Meshuggah, Gojira and Mastodon.
What started as a group of adolescent brothers jamming in their basement and playing at barbecues, has evolved into the beginnings of a full fledged career in heavy metal. Last year, they joined In Flames, Born of Osiris, and Darkest Hour for a nine-date tour, and this year their sophomore album Nonetheless will drop on February 24th.
“It was mostly a good thing that we started young because you’re kinda in a kid way, a good way, delusional,” Henry Ismert said with a smile. “You think you sound good. No matter what. We would copy Metallica songs and write our own songs that sounded exactly the same. We weren’t really aware of how, probably, horrendous it sounded to everyone else.
“But that was a good thing, because we always just thought about it as this is what we’re going to do.”
Brothers in Metal
The Ismert brothers grew up around blues and classic rock. Eventually, their dad introduced them to Metallica, and that was the spark that lit the powder keg of passion.
Henry Ismert remembers the first songs they heard: Master of Puppets. Fade to Black. Enter Sandman. For Whom the Bell Tolls. Like many fledgling metalheads over the last four decades, the Ismert brothers sat dumbfounded at what they were hearing.
“Those live videos: Moscow 91, Seattle 89, that was all I wanted to do. That’s all I still want to do. That’s what it was.”
They went to work relentlessly practicing their instruments, rehearsing note-perfect renditions of Metallica songs, and writing original songs that at first sounded more like their influences than themselves. But learning those riffs and finding not only what they could use, but how to use it, allowed them to develop their chunky sound.
They first popped onto the metal radar with videos from sets at local festivals and even playing on the street. The tight, intricate music betrays the raw youth seen playing it.
A 2017 video on their YouTube channel called “Hammerhedd Live - Original Song” has 2 million views. From out of a community center garage, three kids that look like they were just picked up from basketball practice rip through complex, beefy guitar riffs, blinding fast drums and harsh vocals.
“We are Hammerhedd from Prairie Village Kansas, and here we go, man,” a nonchalant Henry Ismert, then around 15, says before the band starts. Even their stage presence goes beyond their years.
They gained attention from metal and hard rock publications like Loudwire and MetalSucks and even recognition of Metallica themselves. A 2018 Metal Injection article has the headline, “HAMMERHEDD Is A Band of Kids And They’re Way, Way Heavier Than You.”
But as much as they’ve appreciated the attention and the kind words, Hammerhedd knows they have their work cut out for them, and they’re just getting started.
“We’re just trying to make the transition from kid band to real band. Which is slow, and people can always remember us for stuff like that.”
“We never wanted our music to be ‘good for a kid band’”
Ismert said the band turned down several opportunities to grab the limelight early: appearances on ELLEN and America’s Got Talent among others. But those would have only cemented Hammerhedd as “that one kid band.”
“You don’t want to be the kid that went on ELLEN. We probably would have just cringed at ourselves even a year later. Also, we never wanted our music to be ‘good for a kid band,’ you know?”
While they know they’ve certainly benefited from their youth, they’re also aware it can only take you so far. “Once you’re 20, or 18 or whatever arbitrary number, people don’t care anymore. You’re on an even playing field,” Ismert said. They want the music to speak for itself.
Thankfully for Hammerhedd, the draw isn’t just “they’re good for a kid band,” but they actually know how to riff. They understand groove and how to build up an idea into a momentous payoff.
Their intricate rhythms and progressive song structures are tightened by the hours an hours they spend jamming together in their basement. The Ismerts just look at is as if they got a bit of a head start.
They were able to jam, write, play live shows and record all before they could vote — Abe still can’t vote. But the band was never just some after school hobby, and the members have worked to turn this into their entire career.
“In the last few years, we’ve had to make some actual decisions,” Ismert said. “I dropped out of college, I work now. Eli didn’t go to college. Those decisions just cement the fact that we’re working towards full time Hammerhedd.”
Despite that head start, Ismert said their latest album, Nonetheless, is step-one on Hammerhedd’s journey. Their sophomore record is the first one getting the full release treatment: through a management company with actual marketing and singles, with plans to hit the road as soon as its out.
It’s also their first album where Abe has become “a total one-third of the band,” spending a lot more time writing with his brothers and adding keys and synths to the album.
Though most bands go through changes and evolutions as the years go on, Hammerhedd is unique in that the world is watching them discover and define who they are while the musicians themselves figure out who they are.
“The people that have been here since the beginning just get to see us evolve into our own sound, hopefully,” Ismert said. “Nonetheless is just one step further towards that. Even as much as we would like to make the perfect album right now, our perfect album won’t happen until the next three, four, five albums. It’s a journey.”
Coming to Fruition
The Ismerts know they have a long way to go on that journey.
Hammerhedd is not the finished item just yet, but Nonetheless is certainly a peek into their ambition. Several songs eclipse the seven-minute mark, and they lean more into creating abstract rhythms and developing ideas over time, only to explode into a full-throated musical payoff. They play with ambience and synths more. Then there are songs like the title track, that honor the likes of Meshuggah with dizzying staccato picking and unhinged drumming.
The downside of getting discovered so young is the heightened expectation to perform, and Henry Ismert is honest about the ongoing test to filter out the noise and attention to focus on just themselves. It’s something they’re still working on.
But they’re ready to play the long game, knowing that each album is a way to plant seeds in the minds of people who may be crossing their path over the next few years.
“For the people that are hearing us for the first time … take away one or two songs you like and if you like what Nonetheless is about, we’re going to expand upon it and grow into our own. If you think we sound like somebody else, we’re on the journey. We’re getting there.”
Even if they don’t win over listeners right now, the Ismerts are happy if people come away from their music thinking they can’t wait to hear what Hammerhedd sounds like in five or 10 years.
After all, despite two albums, and EP and a tour with one of the most prominent metal bands in the genre, Hammerhedd is just getting started.
The latest album from Hammerhedd, Nonetheless, drops February 24th. Order it - HERE