Friday, October 21, 2016

HammerFall – Built To Last

For the fourth consecutive release, HammerFall has an intriguing story to their new album. With “No Sacrifice, No Victory”, many fans wondered how the band would fare without longtime members Stefan Elmgren and Magnus Rosen. “Infected” saw the band ditching Hector and making a slight change in musical direction (one which was grossly exaggerated by many listeners, but it did exist). “(r)Evolution” raised questions about whether or not the band could recapture their former glory. But “Built To Last” might have the most important storyline of all: where does the band go from here? It wasn’t a surprise that “(r)Evolution” was an incredible record when you consider that HammerFall took a year off before the record, giving them plenty of time to work on the album. But just two years later, the band is ready to give the Templars of Steel another record, and this will be the album that reveals if “(r)Evolution” was a fluke, or if HammerFall will continue to put out great albums for the foreseeable future.

Built To Last” places the band firmly in the latter category. Make no mistake, this album is on par with the band’s previous release. In general, it tends to have more consistency at the expense of major highlights. In other words, the best songs on this album don’t necessarily stand up to “Hector’s Hymn”, “Wildfire”, or “Bushido”, but there aren’t any clunkers on the record, nor even any weak tracks at all. From start to finish, “Built to Last” is an album that will do just as the title states: last forever.

Much like on their early albums, HammerFall continues to shine when they play their fastest. Tracks like “Dethrone and Defy”, “Stormbreaker”, and especially “The Star of Home” show that the band isn’t content with mid-tempo, or even upbeat songs. The riffs on these songs hit hard and move fast. “Dethrone and Defy” in particular has plenty of flashy fretwork from lead axeman Pontus Norgren. This song also utilizes the classic “whoa-oh” sections that used to dominate the band’s music. There are a lot of fans who stopped following the band after the first two or three records; if you fall into that category, these are the songs to check out, as they are definitely the most similar to “Glory to the Brave” and “Legacy of Kings”. Even “The Sacred Vow” might be worth a shot, as some of the chords used in this song bring back memories of the first album.

There are plenty of songs on this album that also resemble the post-“Legacy of Kings” sound of the band. “Hammer High” is a mid-tempo anthemic track, driven by plenty of backing vocals (a common theme on this record). Its drum intro is not particularly original, and to be completely honest, not that impactful the first time you hear the song. But with repeated listens, and especially in the context of the album (following the opening track “Bring It!”), “Hammer High” is much more effective. Another more modern-sounding song is “New Breed”. This charging track is all about the glory of metal, and it is another song ruled by gang vocals in the chorus. The combination of Joacim Cans and the rest of the band during this chorus is reminiscent of a track like “Howlin’ With the Pac”.

Speaking of Joacim… he is the star of this album. There was a time not too long ago when it felt like he might no longer be at the peak of his career (though he certainly hadn’t fallen off too hard), but on “Built to Last”, Joacim delivers his best performance to date. There is not a single song, or even a single vocal line that is anything other than brilliant. Even on the ballad, “Twilight Princess”, Joacim manages to carry an otherwise predictable and unexciting tune to respectable heights. HammerFall has only a few truly great ballads, and while this is not one of them, it is leagues ahead of the previous album’s “Winter Is Coming” because of Joacim entirely. He is great on the record as a whole partly because he hits notes that are higher than ever before (“The Sacred Vow” comes to mind), but also because he sounds more comfortable in general. The aforementioned “The Star of Home” is another one of his finest efforts, as his voice melds perfectly with the speedy approach this song takes. He transcends into another realm during the chorus of this song: it first features ringing out chords before some alternate picking leads to Joacim elevating his game even further.

Putting aside my major fanboyism towards my favourite band for a moment, there are a couple of tracks that might not draw a lot of attention from fans. “Bring It!” does kick the album off with strong energy and enthusiasm, but the chorus feels less effective than it should be. It consists entirely of a huge chorus of gang vocals shouting the title, followed by “just bring it!” the next time around. One can’t help but feel that after doing that one or two times, Joacim should have come in to trade off with the backing vocals. By no means is this a bad song, but it doesn’t stand out the way some of the other tunes do. Similarly, “Built To Last”, is simply a good HammerFall song. Its moderate tempo does nothing to stand out amongst many HammerFall tracks that move along at a similar pace. It gets catchier with each listen, but is by no means a highlight. The only perplexing thing about these two songs is the fact that the band drew so much attention to them, by making them the opening song and title track respectively, while a stronger cut like “Dethrone and Defy” is hidden after the two singles.

The only song that hasn’t been mentioned yet is the closer, “Second To None”. Every once in a while, HammerFall has a song that stands out for being just a little bit different, while still retaining the band’s classic sound. Tracks like “A Legend Reborn”, “Hero’s Return”, and “No Sacrifice, No Victory” come to mind, and “Second To None” is similar in that regard. It doesn’t mean this song sounds like those other three; in fact, this track is actually a semi-ballad. But it does feel distinct from the nine songs preceding it. Since it is slower and more melodic than a lot of the other songs, Joacim does much of the heavy lifting (and hits the most inspiring and impressive vocal line of the album with “my heart is torn between heaven and hell”), and as noted above, this means a good result.

One slight elephant in the room at this point is the lyrical content. From the debut through “Threshold”, the band never wavered for a moment with their themes: standing up for your beliefs, going into battle, Templars, glory, fire, and much more. The next couple of records showed some slight experimentation outside of this, and “(r)Evolution” very fairly returned to the band’s roots. But “Built To Last” sometimes gets too close to self-plagiarism for comfort. “The Sacred Vow” and the title track in particular have a couple of lines that it feels like we’ve heard too many times before. This is not a pervasive problem on the album: songs like “Stormbreaker”, “The Star of Home”, and “New Breed” continue to put a refreshing spin on HammerFall’s common tropes, but it is something that could be concerning for the future. As long as the band does not pay too much homage to their previous work, their lyrics shouldn’t feel stale, but “Built To Last” marks a turning point for the band in that they appear firmly planted in forging onwards with this sound, and so it is the logical point where their records might start to sound identical.

In the context of HammerFall’s career, “Built To Last” is perhaps most similar to “Threshold” in terms of its quality. It is consistently great, lacks a true “hit” or two, but has several deep cuts that are absolutely essential for all fans of the band. It is a much more even listen than “(r)Evolution”, and is therefore likely to be in your rotation more often. The record will not change anyone’s opinion of the band, but it should satisfy all fans. As someone that sunk far too much money into crazy wooden box edition of this record, and that plans to travel many hours to see them in 3 cities on their upcoming North America tour, I could not be happier with this release! “Built To Last” is not only a great collection of songs, but also a stellar album as a whole. As long as HammerFall continues to carry on, the power metal world is in a great place!    

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"Hammer High"
"The Sacred Vow"
"Dethrone and Defy"
"The Star of Home"
"New Breed"

Final Rating
4.75/5 or 95%. 

Written by Scott  

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