Life may be good, but it also subjects us to those unavoidable bitches like death, taxes, hangovers and back hair. One of the very worst of said bitches is the dreaded Law of Diminishing Returns. Few bands better exemplify the havoc this truism can create than Hammerfall. When they fired the opening salvo of the retro metal crusade back in 1997 with their Glory to the Brave debut, their fusion of Euro-power and traditional metal felt familiar, but somehow new and exciting and the song craft was above reproach. Follow up Legacy of Kings was less impactful but still fun, exuberant and catchy as crabs. Then, tragedy struck. Each successive album was weaker, less interesting and less credible, with only a few scattered winners to remind the listener how great things started out. This culminated with the very non-infectious slog of 2011s Infected and it looked as if Hammerfall was in free fall. Buzz has been buzzing that (r)Evolution would be a return to those sword in the air glory days that fans pined for as they LARPed and rolled the many sided die of destiny. Is this the album where these hard luck cheese whizzards stop the diminishing, or is it a step deeper into the metal abyss?
Things open with one of the best songs the band has penned since Clinton was playing hide the salami in the White House. “Hector’s Hymn” incorporates everything that made Glory to the Brave such an easy listen and adds healthy doses of Manowar brand testosterone and muscle oil along with a dollop of Rhapsody of Fire bombastic pomp. It’s energetic, addicting and just plan fun in an utterly cheeseball way. “Live Life Loud” is an unapologetic metal anthem with every known cliché crammed in and you know what? It works. The simple, thunderous drumming and big, pumping riffs team perfectly with Joachim Can’s high-pitched, crystal-clear vocals and you’ll be caught in its mindless spell, powerless to resist its metal fist. Also quite respectable is “We Won’t Back Down,” where Cans sings of standing one’s ground and not backing down over the top of crisp, zippy riffing and a somewhat urgent tempo. Original it is not, yet enjoyable it is.
Sadly, the Hammer doesn’t continue to hit that sweet spot. There are a host of decent, but unexceptional tunes littering (r)Evolution and while none made me want to cry, neither did they make me want to hear them again. The title track is decent as braindead metal anthems go, but it feels tired like much of their recent output. “Ex Inferis” sounds like an outtake from Crimson Thunder and though it strives for big and epic, it delivers dull and slow. When I saw they had a song called “Winter is Coming” I expected a dark, brooding, Stark approved yarn full of dread and menace. What I got was a power ballad with pirate beshirted hard rock tendencies. It isn’t awful, but it never seems to get going and it isn’t memorable or engaging. Worst of the bunch is closer “Wildfire,” which drops a weird, symphonic chorus that belongs on an Epica album or a B-side from early Tristania. It doesn’t fit and it’s rather annoying.
And so goes the rest of (r)Evolution. Much of it is lightweight and inoffensive piffle, neither good or particularly bad, existing in that grey limbo where songs go to wait for replays that never come. So light is much of the material that at times I felt I was listening to Stryper‘s early works (especially on “Bushido”). The bigger problem is that like much of their product after Legacy of Kings, this stuff feels stale, a little soulless and contrived, and that’s a tough thing to overlook.
That’s certainly not to say these guys can’t cut the mustard musically. Cans is the very model of a modern major Euro-power singer and his vocals are always pleasant and bright, maybe even too much so at times. The guitar work from Oscar Dronjak and Pontus Norgren is slick and professional, if unoriginal and clichéd. They toss out some sweet solos at times and their industry standard Maiden-esque gallops are more than adequate for this kind of simplistic material.
Sound-wide this is one of the most overproduced, commercial sounding albums I’ve heard in forever. Cans is way up in the mix and the overly booming, reverbed drums are also mixed very loudly, no doubt to make unheavy music sound heavier. The production only adds to that soulless vibe the band gives off these days.
This is a step up from Infected, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is a Pax Romana. There was nowhere to go from their last turkey but up and even with the temporary power boost evident here, the Law is still the Law and the returns are still diminishing. As with the last six albums, poach the best, forget the rest and watch the Hammer…fall.