Released by: Napalm Records
Release Date: November 4th, 2016
Genre: Heavy/Power Metal
Joacim Cans – Vocals
Oscar Dronjak – Guitars
Pontus Norgren – Guitars
Fredrik Larsson – Bass
David Wallin – Drums
1. Bring It!
2. Hammer High
3. The Sacred Vow
4. Dethrone and Defy
5. Twilight Princess
7. Built to Last
8. Star of Home
9. New Breed
10. Second to None
Over the years, I’ve discovered that I tend to have some unique opinions on metal that differ wildly from most fans, and one of the best examples of this is with Swedish band Hammerfall. The band started out in the 90’s as a mostly pure, old school power metal band which should have been perfect for my tastes, and yet for some reason the primitive, basic songwriting of their debut Glory to the Brave, for all the energy it had in its speediest moments, never really grabbed me the way some of their more polished efforts like Renegade and Crimson Thunder did, despite the fact that many consider it to be their best album.
Likewise, in 2011 when the band made the zombie themed Infected, an album that moved away from their typical blend of epic, upbeat power metal and old school heavy metal into a darker, harder hitting and more modern-sounding heavy metal album with only occasional bursts of speed (also their one and only album to not feature their mascot Hector on the cover art) and the majority of their fans hated it, I was largely impressed. In fact, that album still stands as my favorite in their discography due to its unique feel, its powerful riffs and how much it stands out when compared to the rest of their work, which aside from that release I usually tend to judge not on which albums I like the most overall, but on which albums have more highlights. Unsurprisingly, when the band attempted something of a return to the roots on their previous album, (r)Evolution, and many of their fans thought of it as their best in years, I was left with mixed feelings. So suffice to say, I was a little bit nervous when it came time to hear their tenth full-length album, Built to Last, but against all my expectations it has ended up as one of my favorite heavy/power metal albums of the year, and I like it almost as much as Infected.
Don’t let that last part serve as a warning, though, because this album definitely isn’t similar to Infected at all. In fact, one of my complaints about (r)Evolution was that it felt like the band was stuck in a spot where part of them wanted to go back to their early sound, while another part wanted to stick to their modern sound, and so it ended up feeling like a weird mishmash between the two, with even some songs like “Wildfire” feeling like failed attempts to do speedy power metal while incorporating modern elements, and things fell apart quickly. The highlight of that album was the lead single “Hector’s Hymn”, a track which along with “Bushido” felt like classic Hammerfall at their best, and so I was hoping the band would commit one way or another this time around, either going fully back to their roots or continuing with their modern sound. Thankfully, they did, and they made a decision I’m sure longtime fans will be pleased with: They’ve made a full on return to their classic sound, with a blend of epic speedy power metal and catchy old school heavy metal tracks, in a release that stylistically falls somewhere in between Renegade and Crimson Thunder, my two favorites from their early years, leaving very little trace of the sound found on Infected and, to a lesser extent, its predecessor No Sacrifice, No Victory.
Now that I’ve gotten that long introduction out of the way, let’s move on to the fun part. Musically the band sounds tighter and more energetic than they’ve been years, with the fast parts having more energy than they did on the previous few albums, and there are some very nice melodies and guitar solos to be found throughout. At the same time, the slower tracks are also equal parts more fun and more inventive than on the previous album, while being much lighter than Infected or its predecessor. Vocally, Joacim Cans sounds as strong as ever, and he hits some pretty high notes on a couple tracks, showing he still has it in him to deliver huge choruses the way he could in the late 90’s/early 2000’s. More importantly, the songwriting is very consistent across the board, as there’s only one less than the great track to be found (which I’ll get to in a bit). In fact, while Infected is my favorite Hammerfall album stylistically when it comes to pure songwriting quality, I’d put this right up there with Crimson Thunder as the band’s best work to date.
Things get off to a rocking start with “Bring It!”, a fast paced track with a bit of a heavy metal edge to its guitar riffs during the verses, and while its chorus falls victim to the kind of basic songwriting found on their debut, here it’s delivered with so much energy from the choirs that it ends up working in a kind of weird way. One thing’s for sure: If you listen to the song even a couple times, you’ll get that chorus stuck in your head for a long time. Next up is “Hammer High”, a slower track which starts off with nice drumming, before settling into its slow but steady verses, which then give way to the first big chorus of the album, where both Joacim and the choirs deliver some deliver some epic vocals. It’s the first of many tracks on the album that instantly gives the feeling of classic Hammerfall, and this feeling continues on the next track “The Sacred Vow”. After a brief but nice acoustic section, the song speeds up for the verses, which have nice riffs going on, before slowing down for another huge chorus where Joacim delivers some huge high notes. That chorus is possibly the catchiest on the album, and that along with a calm vocal section before the solo section are easily the highlights of the track.
After a strong start, the rest of the album settles into the kind of pattern you’d expect from the band, mixing up fast and slower songs as it goes along. Out of the speedier tracks, “Dethrone and Defy” immediately impresses with its heavy riffs and super speedy verses, while “Stormbreaker” is almost the reverse of “The Sacred Vow”, with slow, heavy verses giving way to a very fast and epic chorus, while “The Star of Home” is a more melodic track, and it has some nice melodies and a huge chorus that would fit in on any classic Hammerfall album. All three of these are equally strong and show the band at their best. The one slight oddity here is “New Breed”, a faster track which has very small traces of the most modern sound found on their later albums, especially with how the riffs sound during the verses, though it too has a very addictive chorus.
Out of the slower tracks, “Hammer High” is probably my favorite, though the title track is also great. Right from its opening melody it grabs the listener, and its verses move at a slow but steady pace that keeps you hooked in until the chorus comes in with its very creative and addictive vocal melodies. It’s equal parts cheesy and fun, which makes it the perfect title track for a Hammerfall album, especially one that represents a successful return to their roots. Out of the two ballads, closing track “Second to None” is an instant winner, hooking you in with its verses and chorus, before exploding during an epic speedy section in the second half, which eventually leads to an even more awesome speedy run through the chorus. Between that and a great use of keyboards, the track makes for an excellent end to the album, Unfortunately, the other ballad “Twilight Princess” is the one weak spot on the album and it simply doesn’t fit in at all. Following a nice intro, the track turns into a full ballad with only acoustic guitars and vocals, and while it has a nice guitar solo in the middle, the vocal melodies are surprisingly bland and boring compared to anything else on the album, and the lyrics are repetitive but not in the fun way listeners would expect, instead become really boring and irritating quickly. By the end of the track, one can’t help but be equal parts annoyed by what they’ve just sat through and relieved that it’s finally over.
Outside of that one misstep, Built to Last is an excellent album that shows Hammerfall pulling off what they attempted but failed with (r)Evolution: They’ve brought back the energy and feel of their early albums. While I’ll admit to being an unlikely source of helpful news for longtime fans of the band, just going on everything I wrote in the first two paragraphs, I highly expect this to be a well-received album for the band, and I definitely think it’s one of their most consistently entertaining albums to date, featuring the expert blend of power metal and heavy metal I’ve come to expect from the band, and doing a great job of it. Highly recommended for all fans of heavy metal and power metal, and I’d say even for people who have never heard the band’s previous work, this would be a much better starting point than any of their previous few albums, maybe even since Crimson Thunder.
Reviewer: Travis Green