Tuesday, September 16, 2014

HammerFall – (r)Evolution

There are few metal bands I feel are as underappreciated as HammerFall. To most of the metal community, they’re that band that made 2 cool albums (or potentially 3 or 4 depending on where you draw the line) and then fell apart. As an avid fanboy of the band, this is a difficult viewpoint for me to accept because, while I agree the first albums are the best, their 4 most recent records have some of the band’s strongest material. Irrespective of where you fall in the HammerFall appreciation continuum, it’s hard to deny that “Infected” was considerably different from the 7 preceding records. For that reason, it is appropriate that the band took some time off to recharge, and the resulting album, “(r)Evolution”, is the band’s strongest in several years.

The album starts with an ode to the band’s familiar mascot who makes his return on this album cover. “Hector’s Hymn” is an upbeat, energetic track that immediately recalls “The Metal Age” from the first album. The chorus is a bit simplistic for the band, but nonetheless quite catchy. This song already feels more inspired than many songs from the band in the last decade or so. It has a couple of high-points. The first is that it brings back the “whoa-oh” concept. While I don’t attribute the decline of these sections with a drop in quality of HammerFall’s music, there is no doubt that they’re always a hit live and plenty of fun even on the record. The other highlight is the work of lead guitarist Pontus Norgren. Out of every trial and tribulation HammerFall has ever faced, none worried me more than the departure of former axeman Stefan Elmgren. He had an incredibly unique style that was particularly prevalent when sweeping. We’re three albums into the Pontus Norgren era, and the man continues to get more impressive each time. This song features several solos, all of which are incredibly captivating throughout.

The praise above is primarily based on one song, but the good news is that “(r)Evolution” is filled with awesome metal anthems. Ever since “Crimson Thunder”, it appears the band is determined to create another single like “Hearts on Fire”. This album’s attempt is “Bushido”, which is quite possibly the strongest song on the record. The chorus displays vocalist Joacim Cans’ unbelievably melodic and soothing voice at its best. Though the entire band doesn’t go full-blast during the opening verse, this contrast with the chorus shows a lot of dynamic range within the song. Much like “Blood Bound”, “Bushido” is a HammerFall single that manages to surpass “Hearts On Fire”.

With the two singles out of the way, there is still plenty more to enjoy on this album. Surprisingly, the title track is probably one of the weakest cuts. While by no means bad, the chorus seems a bit strange for HammerFall. Its use of backing vocals is nothing new for the band, but the phrasing makes it sound more like a Running Wild song than a HammerFall one. Nevertheless, this track is a grower. The verses prove to be incredibly potent, as they’re once again guided by Joacim Cans, who is making much better use of his vocal range on this album than on other recent HammerFall records.

After the self-indulgent (but still great) “B.Y.H.” from “Infected”, many may worry over a song called “Live Life Loud”, but even if metal-praising lyrics aren’t your thing, this song proves it is much more than a party anthem. After a short intro, the song delivers the most potent riff of the album, and the track quickly sees drummer Anders Johannsson do an emphatic buildup on his snare drum before the band launches into a riff that will leave no head motionless. Even the simplistic shouts of the title manage to be rather infectious. This song is sure to be a live hit.

One issue of contention I sometimes find with HammerFall is the inclusion of a ballad. Even when they’re great, they can feel forced. In the band’s entire discography, the only ballad that fits into the flow of the album perfectly is “Remember Yesterday”. This is why the “ballad” of this record is so brilliant. Much like on “Threshold”, HammerFall’s ballad on “(r)Evolution” is really just a slow, heavy track. “Winter Is Coming” is a nice change from the fist-pumping anthems, as it puts a more somber tone to the album. This song also shows the full force of Cans’ range, as he hits some notes that we haven’t heard on a HammerFall record in a while.

Many of the tracks that haven’t been mentioned are more modern-era HammerFall: they relatively mid-paced, but filled with great riffs, catchy melodies, and are ultimately a lot of fun. “Ex Inferis” and “Evil Incarnate” actually show the band going in a darker, more sinister direction. Both tracks lean towards the slow side of things, but feature incredibly heavy riffs. To balance things out, there are still two other songs that go absolutely full-force: “Origins” and “Wildfire”. The former opens with a Stratovarius-like riff (seriously, did Timo Tolkki help write this riff?), before launching into a more standard, upbeat HammerFall track. It is “Wildfire”, however, that truly is a masterpiece. This song makes incredible use of backing vocals in its chorus that is all too short. “Wildfire” isn’t good because it’s fast (though that formula does work for the band); it’s good because it sounds truly inspired. This track fits in with any work the band did on their first two albums, and it’s difficult to see how any fan of the band’s early work could dislike the song.

It’s easy to discredit all this praise as the ramblings of a fanboy. To some extent, that is true. Tracks like “(r)Evolution”, “We Won’t Back Down”, or “Winter Is Coming” might not be enjoyed by all, as they are not particularly different from anything HammerFall has done in recent years. I do have one legitimate criticism of this album though: the lyrics. HammerFall is at a spot where their lyrical approach is largely well-defined, and if they went in a different direction, I would be disappointed. Unfortunately, this album seems to use far too many clichés and common phrases in the lyrics. This alone isn’t a problem, but there are certain songs where it feels like the band combines these clichés together, to the point where it doesn’t seem like they’re using them to actually say anything meaningful in a song. This problem is not necessarily pervasive, as some songs don’t display this at all, but it’s the first time I’ve ever had this issue with the band, despite all of their albums being relatively similar lyrically.

That comment aside, “(r)Evolution” is everything I could have hoped for and more. This is the most excited the band has sounded in years. I don’t feel “Infected” was as weak as most metal fans say, and it wasn’t necessarily a huge departure from their previous work (check out “Dia De Los Muertos”, “Immortalized”, and “Let’s Get It On” for a few examples), but there’s no doubt that “(r)Evolution” is much more in line with the vision of HammerFall. This album is filled with charging riffs, emotional and powerful vocals, and ultimately, it’s on a mission to remind everyone that HammerFall is still a very relevant force in power metal in 2014.

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"Hector's Hymn"
"Live Life Loud"

Final Rating
4.8/5 or 96%. 

Written by Scott 

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