Sound — 7
Power metal veterans HammerFall have been one of the most steadfastly unchanging power metal bands out there. Since their 1997 debut, "Glory to the Brave," the closest thing to a deviation has been 2011's "Infected," whose only crime really seemed to be removing the band's mascot, Hector, from the cover, only before sharply returning to form (with Hector back on the cover) with 2014's "(r)Evolution." Despite a large number of lineup changes, vocalist Joacim Cans and guitarist Oscar Dronjak have formed the core of the lineup since their debut, and their core sound hasn't really changed at all over the years. That sound is a classic power metal sound that references (rather, all but rips off) Iron Maiden and Queensrÿche, complete with speedy tempos, massive-sounding guitar riffs, twin-guitar leads, pounding drums, shred solos, and soaring vocals. Taken seriously, this band comes off as super cheesy and dated, but it's all in good fun, and that's one thing I can say about this band's sound: that it's quite fun.
In the opener, "Bring It!," the band is anchored to a hard-rocking riff that seems like it could have come straight out of the 1980s, with Joacim's trademark vocals soaring over top, and a gang-chant of "Bring it! Just bring it!" for a chorus. It's a fist-pumping anthem that's a bit of an adrenaline rush, and a great way to open the album. "Hammer High" opens with a sort of drinking-song feel, and this definitely feels like the kind of power metal song that will definitely make you want to get your MMORPG guild together at the local inn (in-game, of course) and throw back a couple of ales before you're off again to slay some orcs. And I mean this really is the kind of album that seems musically geared to the fantasy MMORPG-playing type (while reviewing the album, my girlfriend actually happened to be playing "World of Warcraft," and I considered this the perfect soundtrack for what I was watching on her screen!). Most of the tracks on here are very similar in tone to these two songs, either with energetic guitar riffs and Iron Maiden-style tempos and vocals, or melodic power metal shanties designed to make you feel like you're drinking with medieval elves. There are also plenty of power ballads on the album, such as "Twilight Princess" (which not only shares a title with a "Legend of Zelda" game, but feels like it would make a perfect song to listen to while playing that game, making me wonder if it's more than coincidence...), and the symphonic-sounding album closer "Second to None."
The playing throughout the album is top-notch, but rather typical as one would expect from the genre. Oscar Drojnak and Pontus Nordren both perform some excellent riffs and solos throughout the album. Bassist Fredrik Larsson and new drummer David Wallin (who joined the band in 2014, after the release of "(r)Evolution") form a pretty typical power metal rhythm section, mostly propelling the band through its high tempos without doing much to get in the way (they definitely seem to have read that "101 rules of power metal" article on Metalstorm. Specifically rule 21 and rule 38...). "Twilight Princess" features some rather pretty flute playing as well, keeping with the tropes of the genre.
Surprisingly, for a power metal album, the production is rather light. While Drojnak also performs keyboard parts for the band, they're usually relegated to deep in the background, and it's rare for the band to have too many layers of vocal or keyboard or symphonic cheese, usually choosing to focus on a bare-bones band arrangement. Even "Twilight Princess," the album's resident power ballad, keeps the additional layers to the background as much as possible. It's actually quite a good listen from a production standpoint.
Lyrics — 7
Hahaha, look at you, reading the lyrics section of a power metal review, as if you're expecting me to tell you that you're not going to hear a single reference to "dragons," "hammers," "glory," "battles" or "metal." Well, too bad. This album has it all. I mean, they are practically a walking power metal trope. Every song is a glorious battle, an epic for the ages, with swords clashing and thunder crashing. You just know that the band is lyrically rolling 20s at all times, like the truest of warriors. They ride their steeds and slay their foes on the battlefield for metal, and they're not afraid to let you know that.
So no, there's not a lot of lyrical depth to this album. You get a lot of lyrics like this from "Hammer High": "Hammer high this is a freedom cry!/Hammer high, no one should ask me why!/It's my life - tell me I will defy!/Hammer high until I die!/The rapid fire pounding/To the beat of my heart/Let's make a stand/True to till the end/Warrior under command." Pretty typical for the genre. In "The Sacred Vow," the band proclaims "Fear the sound of metal/The sweetest sound of all/We're flying high up in the sky/A mighty fireball/We are defenders, the almighty/We stomp the trail where no one dares to go/We are the brave, let's keep on fighting/Protect the sacred vow," which pretty much sums up the lyrical themes of this album: fighting, battling, and a near-overdose of "heavy metal." It's all rather tasteless, but that's part of the appeal of this band, being so over-the-top and unflinching in their commitment to the themes at hand. There's no room for politics or introspection in this band, because anything like that would not be metal enough.
It's all delivered by one of the best Bruce Dickinson impersonaters out there, Joacim Cans, whose epic pipes can actually convince you of the sincerity of the band's message. Like any self-respecting power metal band out there, Joacim is an incredible vocalist, who tends to rely mostly on the upper range of his voice, and sings entirely cleanly throughout.
Overall Impression — 7
This is about as typical as a power metal album gets in this day and age. Pretty much every check box can be marked off: dragons? Check. Guitarists picking the lowest notes of a chord as 16th notes for entire bars at a time? Check. Soaring epic vocals? Check and mate. There's nothing about this band's sound that suggests any evolution from their earliest works, and nothing that suggests a need for it. This is what this band is good at, and they've had absolutely no need to mess with this formula. This isn't an album that's going to appeal to anyone but the nerdy MMORPG or "Dungeons & Dragons" players, but it's still quite an enjoyable album if you're not into any of that. The production is good, and the playing is on par with any other band in their genre. It's a good, fun power metal album, and nothing more or less than that. Even if the band does wear its Iron Maiden influence on its sleeve a bit too much at times, there's still a lot of quality here. It's probably not going to be my favourite album this year by a long shot, but if you're just looking for a good, solid power metal release that doesn't screw around with experimentation (like Sonata Arctica's recent "The Ninth Hour" release), this is as safe of a bet as it gets.