Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Album Review: "Built To Last" by Hammerfall

On November 27, 2002, I had tickets to see Dio perform at Pop's in Sauget, Illinois.  The opening band was a leatherclad powermetal outfit from Sweden called HammerFall, which was heretofore unknown to me, or most of America at the time.  

I had already staked out a spot in the front row in anticipation of Dio when HammerFall hit the stage with such a ferocity, energy and quality of musicianship, they became my favorite band by their third song. 

I have been greatly impressed by an unknown band on several occasions since, but never to this level.  I remember singer Joacim Cans, noting my enthusiasm, and saluting the diehard fans up front.  Joacim was right, I was a diehard, but what he did not know was I had only been one for 15 minutes.

They are now ten studio albums into their career and my enthusiasm for their music has not waned.  Even though I had already received a promotional download of the album for the sake of this review, I still went ahead and confidently preordered the deluxe wooden box edition of the album with band mascot Hector resin figure.  

Maybe, given the above, it is impossible for me to listen to Built To Last objectively.  However, this review could have gone either way, with expectations so high any misstep would be considered a major disappointment.  As I prepared to hit play on the first track I was reminded of walking into the theater to see Episode One back in 1999, when Star Wars still had a perfect track record.  Fortunately, in the case of HammerFall, there are no midiclorians or Jar Jar Binks to be found on Built To Last

The album is amazing.  It is as good as anything they have ever released.  Unlike Star Wars, HammerFall remains perfect.

If someone asked me to play for them the definitive HammerFall song, I could randomly pick any tune from their entire catalogue and be confident it would represent the band at their best.  This is because, in my opinion, they have yet to release a single track which wasn’t excellent.  This consistency remains true with Built To Last.
HammerFall is definitive epic European power metal featuring bombastic, thundering, supreme melodic musicianship with powerful verses and anthemic choruses. The lyrical theme is heavy on historical fantasy elements, with an emphasis on the Crusades.  

HammerFall’s songs are above all allegorical.  On the surface many of their songs are about Christian knights journeying to the Holy Land and the epic battles fought along the way, with the occasional intervention from dragons.  The real meaning however, is about the quest for the preservation and propagation of heavy metal. 

Certain words which appear frequently throughout HammerFall’s music have a secondary meaning. The "Crusades" are a tour.  The "Templars" are metal fans.  "Steel" and "Swords" are  the composite spirit of heavy metal music.  "Infidels" are those who deny us the metal.  The "Holy Land or promised land" is a metal concert, and the "dragons" are all of life’s obstacles.  The "hammer" is the physical manifestation of metal: the music, the chords, the riffs, the drums and the guitars.
Once you know the HammerFall lyrical code, the double meaning of their fantasy tales become all the more powerful.  As stated in one of the albums many standout tracks "Dethrone and Defy":

Ashes to ashes
We'll make them crawl into the dust
The dragon will forge the steel in fire
Never ever rust
No angels will come down
To hold this sacred ground
The anvil starts to glow
Hammer down

Made of Steel, raise your swords to the sky
Charge in battle, dethrone and defy

Every track on the album resonates with this same theme, the defenders of metal uniting against its enemies.  Every song serves as mighty anthem for the genre, shrouded in a knight's quest to slay the dragon. HammerFall delivers again with an avalanche of fist pumping riffs, searing solos, and drums accenting every line like a thunderclap.

The quality is so consistently high throughout, it is difficult to pick a highlight song, but one in particular edges the others.  This is "New Breed", which is an anthem celebrating the unity between generations of metal fans. For the most part, the metal community is a musical landscape which does not suffer from generational dispute, as most other forms of music do.  It is completely acceptable, and even expected, for a thirteen year old metalhead to listen to the same bands as their metalhead parents, and vice versa.  As the chorus proudly shouts:

New breed, old breed
We are all the same breed
Heavy metal running through our veins

I had to listen to this song three times in a row, with the volume a little louder each time.

The power metal masters have created a crushing album, which is sure to exceed the lofty expectations of their fans.  Even if you can live without the resin Hector figurine, your metal collection will be lacking without these tracks.

Genre: Power Metal
Label: Napalm Records
Release Date:  November 4, 2016

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