Thursday, 15 December 2016

HammerFall's 'Built to Last' - Album Review

HammerFall are one of those bands who are always enjoyable but rarely spectacular. They have been churning out quality power metal albums since their 1997 debut album Glory to the Brave, with albums coming along regularly ever since. In my opinion, the band have never really released a bad album, with all of them containing enough strong songs to merit a purchase. This is helped by the fact that the band have stuck to the same musical formula since forming in 1993, with very little deviation since. When HammerFall are at their best, they are a great band. Fast-paced power metal, with an emphasis on the 'metal' aspect of the genre, with big guitar riffs, plenty of gang vocals, and catchy choruses to really sink your teeth into. HammerFall are at their best when they speed things up, and this is something that made their early work so strong. The band's first four albums are easily their best, but that is not to say that what has come since is in any way bad. The seems to favour the more mid-paced side of their sound these days however, and this does make their more recent work seem less interesting in some ways. After a short hiatus, HammerFall returned in 2014 with (r)Evolution (which I reviewed here), an album I enjoyed a lot at the time but have revisited it very little since. (r)Evolution was a deliberate attempt by the band to recapture their early sound, after many fans had found 2011's Infected, a gritty album that shook of the fantasy sheen that is the band's trademark, to not be to their taste. In truth, Infected is not all that different from any other HammerFall album, besides the zombie apocalypse album artwork and themes in some of the songs, but as usual a large portion of the metal community who are resistant to change dismissed it. Ironically, I think Infected is probably the band's most interesting and enjoyable album since 2002's Crimson Thunder, with a heavier overall sound that was a good change from the norm while still containing plenty of storming power metal anthems within. (r)Evolution served it's purpose however, and many of the fans that were turned off by Infected were back on board. Two years on and, after breaking with their long-time record label home Nuclear Blast, HammerFall are back with Built to Last, their 10th album. Like (r)Evolution, this is a conscious return to the band's trademark power metal sheen. While on the surface this seems like another solid HammerFall album, digging deeper reveals there is very little substance here and this is one of the biggest musical disappointments of the year in my opinion. I feel this is the band's least interesting album yet, and really just feels like a rehash of everything we have heard before, just without the soaring melodies and crunching riffs that have made all of the rest of the band's albums enjoyable spins.

The album starts off with the lively Bring It!, one of the album's better songs, to prove there are still moments worth digesting here. The song has a traditional muscular riff that races out of the blocks like a freight train, and frontman Joacim Cans is in typically strong vocal form. He is an extremely reliable power metal singer, and always turns in a quality performance no matter what. The chorus is extremely memorable too, with lots of gang vocals to bulk it out, and it is one of the album's catchiest moments. Founding member Oscar Dronjak, traditionally the band's rhythm guitarist, takes the bulk of the solo here, which is traditional power metal fare. This is a song that recalls the glory days of HammerFall, and is a great way for the album to start. Unfortunately Hammer High, which was chosen for the album's music video, is a real mid-paced plod that never really gets going. The opening drum beat, courtesy of new drummer David Wallin (Stormwind; Pain) who replaced long-time member Anders Johansson in 2014, is ripped straight out of Gary Moore's Over the Hills and Far Away, and the song lacks any true power. The chorus is extremely weak, with a chanted style that becomes nothing more than a drone, and the song's title and main refrain and taken right from Hector's Hymn from (r)Evolution. I heard this song before the album was released, and the seed of doubt was already sewn by the time I got Built to Last. Unfortunately this song is typical of most of the songs here. The Sacred Vow is better however. It opens with a lovely clean guitar melody, before a triumphant main riff kicks in that is backed up by some excellent bass playing from Fredrik Larsson. The verses are quite fast, with Cans' vocals having some grit to them that recalls the style he adopted on Infected. Despite the chorus slowing things down to a mid-pace, it is packed full of hooks and power that make it extremely memorable. It is one of the album's best moments, and sees Cans hit some pretty impressive high notes towards to the end - not something he is particularly know for. This has all the marks of HammerFall's best work, and is a shining light on a painfully average album. Dethrone and Defy is not bad either, and is a fairly decent fast-paced piece of power metal. I like the pre-chorus particularly, which has some excellent vocal melodies from Cans. There is also a pretty impressive dual solo between Dronjak and Pontus Norgren which is full of classic heavy metal energy. The chorus is a little lacklustre however, with far less power than is required for a song of this nature. Overall it is not bad however, and is certainly enjoyable. Twilight Princess is the album's ballad and this one is really weak. Joakim Svalberg (Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force; Opeth) provides keyboards for the song, but I am not sure why as the keyboards sound no different to the basic efforts that Dronjak and Norgren provide on the rest of the album's songs. There is a flute intro too, which is rather worthless, and the song overall just fails to excite. In fairness, ballads have never been HammerFall's strong point, but it is a metal tradition for at least one to appear on every album. Dronjak's solo is pretty good however, and is the song's best moment.

Stormbreaker regains the album some credibility, and opens with a surprisingly heavy riff that is held together by Larsson's bass rumble. It is the one of the album's catchiest riff, and the song overall is pretty strong. Cans' vocals are excellent as always, and I really like the way the rhythm section lock in together during the verses. Wallin's drumbeat is excellent, and is a little different from the norm, and he speeds up for the choruses with ease. Sadly, this is probably the last truly enjoyable song on the album, as the songwriting takes a bit of a dive after this and the album really starts to drag. The title track is next, and the over-reliance on gang vocals returns from Hammer High. Once again, the song crawls along at a mid-pace, with no standout riffs or interesting melodies. The chorus is a little better, but the call-and-response style using gang vocals has been used to death now, and just fails to excite me anymore. This song just generates no energy whatsoever for me and shows the band scraping the barrel somewhat. The Star of Home is better, and easily the most interesting of the album's closing sections. Norgren co-wrote the song, his only songwriting contribution on this album, and delivered a great solo towards the end. Most of the HammerFall songs that Norgren has co-written so far have been strong, so I feel Dronjak and Cans need to bring him into the band's inner circle more as he clearly has a lot to offer in that department. The song's chorus actually soars, with some excellent vocals from Cans, and the whole song is a showcase for Wallin who shows that he is more than a suitable replacement for Johansson. New Breed is just bland, and is let down even further by some really bad lyrics. The chorus lyrics are borderline embarrassing, sub-Manowar rubbish that really should have never got past demo stage. They just make me unable to take the song seriously, and the lacklustre music fails to spark much excitement anyway. File under 'best forgotten'. Second to None is certainly better than New Breed, but it does little to rescue the end of the album from tailing off into obscurity. The opening harpsichord melody is pretty good though, and shows that keyboards can really enhance the band's sound (they are not something the band use very prominently). You can tell that the band really tried to make this song into an epic, but it just fails to live up to the ambition. There are plenty of good ideas here, but for some reason they just do not seem to mesh together properly. The weak chorus does not help, and this is one of those songs that is almost impossible to remember even if you heard it a few minutes previously. Overall, Built to Last is a weak offering from HammerFall who can and often do much better. I cannot see this album getting many more listens from me in the future, which is a shame as a HammerFall album is usually something to celebrate - even if you know what you are going to get. A few really strong songs cannot stop this album from being a bit of a flop, and I hope they manage to improve things next time around.

The album was released on 4th November 2016 via Napalm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Hammer High.

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