Style: Power Metal
Release Date: 16 Aug 2019
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It's oddly appropriate for HammerFall to release their eleventh album right after Sabaton's eighth, because the two best known power metal bands Sweden has gifted the world are worthy of comparison, not only because the opening track here is all about war, Sabaton's one only lyrical subject.
HammerFall are an older band, having been formed in 1993, six years earlier than their fellow countrymen. They're more varied, combining a few obvious influences into their own recognisable sound but ably moving back and forth between them across different tracks. However, they're also less consistent, each album featuring killer highlights but also filler tracks. They're less reliable too, a fantastic start to their career fading over time with a few ill advised musical choices.
And this album, coming three years after Built to Last, with, appropriately enough, the same line up, is no exception though it's arguably a firm step up from the last few. It certainly begins gloriously, with three wonderful tracks to get proceedings underway.
Never Forgive, Never Forget may have Scorpions-style bookends but we're not in for a Swedish take on Still Loving You, we're going to quickly ratchet up the power. This is textbook heavy metal, quite clearly sourced in the Judas Priest school but with a friendlier tone reminiscent of Helloween because of the charming and effortless vocals of Joacim Cans. Testify follows suit.
In between the two is the title track, which starts out in Accept territory but brings in some Queensrÿche too. It features a particularly strong riff and another effortless vocal. Cans hits some fantastic notes here and he's a natural who makes it seem as easy as it is for Jon Anderson.
Thus far, we're in for a real classic of an album, but it starts to slip at this point. One Against the World is decent enough (a term I realise I use a lot when digging into HammerFall albums) but it feels like it's being played in slow motion. It's also pretty generic, as is (We Make) Sweden Rock, to be honest, though it's a perky enough piece obviously aimed to emulate a Saxon crowdpleaser. The problem with songs like this is that they need to define a point in time, like Denim and Leather, or they'll just seem cheesy.
My least favourite aspect of HammerFall albums is always the ballads. Second to One (not Second to None from their last album) is decent enough (there I go again) if you like that sort of song, but I couldn't fail to notice that they'd just got through telling us that they make Sweden rock, which they do not do here. No, HammerFall, you're not my everlasting flame. Please leave this sort of thing to the Scorpions. I have to mention a gorgeous moment for guitars just before the three minute mark though. That touched me!
Scars of a Generation is more like it, kicking off the second side with the same panache as Never Forgive, Never Forget kicked off the first. What I'm struggling with is the next few tracks, such as Dead by Dawn. I enjoy all of these, even on a third or fourth time through. They have enjoyable hooks and riffs. They're solid power metal. However, my memory wasn't letting go of a couple of earlier songs and often stubbornly replayed them in my head over the songs I was listening to. Does that mean that these are decent enough or that the earlier ones are just that fantastic? That's a good question.
I think what it means is that this is a better HammerFall album than we've been given in a while. I'm expecting the home stretch to be enjoyable filler but it's more worthy than that. It does, of course, take a dive at the end with a fresh ballad, but it may be that the second side is more consistent than the first. This is a return of form in many ways for HammerFall and it would be an 8/10 for sure, if it wasn't for those ballads and a couple of missteps on the first side. I think that it bodes very well for their next album in two or three years from now.