Hammerfall - Threshold - Nuclear Blast Records 2006
Running Time: 50:15
An over-synthesized and obviously dialed-in male chorus leads us into the title track, kicking off Threshold in appropriately pompous fashion, which is nothing new in the case of Hammerfall. Still, the fullness of sound achieved by the band this time around is another step in the right direction after last year's Chapter V: Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken. Say what you (or I) will about the 'fall, they've always had decent/killer production with legendary producer Charlie Bauerfiend, and Threshold may be the most complete effort borne from this relationship. The guitars nearly charge forth from the speakers, giving things a low end missing from early albums. Joacim Cans has grown into a decent vocalist from his solo effort (released during the band's injury-imposed hiatus) onward, neither straining to hit stratospheric highs, nor attempting the more traditionally rough inflections of American power metal. He's a man who knows his strengths and limitations, using them wisely, and working well within his comfort range, which contributes to the surprising memorability of the tune. Hammerfall could really, really, really do without the gang vocals of "Fire! Burns!", setting off "The Fire Burns Forever", but apparently they don't feel the same. It's a theme they'll stick with throughout the song, and it crops up here and there on Threshold, much to my ears' dismay. There's a bit of Graham Bonnet in Cans' delivery here, Hammerfall musically recalling a slightly more amped Alcatrazz from time to time, making the gang vox even more out of place. Not that "The Fire Burns Forever" is a total buzzkill, mind. While I'd prefer the more speed-friendly attack of Nocturnal Rites or the more aggressive tone of Nevermore and Communic, for hard rock, the band's doing a decent job, and a Hell of a lot better than anything Seven Witches has done of late.
Hammerfall ballads have long been a target of derision and contention, so I was fairly sure I was due for another few minutes of sap in the vein of "Always Will Be" when "Rebel Inside" began. Thankfully, the groove of this number is far from sappy, sturdy guitars slamming above a nearly perfect mix. Again, with the background vocals, guys? Leave those out, and "Rebel Inside" wouldn't be bad at all, though things do drag a bit after a mellow bridge revisiting the opening theme is allowed to build back up for another run-through of the chorus. As a non-fan slowly being converted as the band grows, it seems that "Rebel Inside" could've ended with the reappearance of the opening notes with no harm done. Far too predictable, nothing in "Natural High" really reached up and grabbed me at first. Where the song did save itself for me, though, was in the clear tone of Magnus Rosen's bass and the guitar duo of Dronjak/Elmgren, who toss off some insanely catchy leads in the course of the song. Ah, here's that ballad I've been fearing up to this point, but turns out, "Dark Wings, Dark Words" is one of the best, most solid songs I've heard from Hammerfall in…ever. Lyrically, "Dark Wings, Dark Words" could've been drawn from Uriah Heep's monumental Demons And Wizards, and for once the background vocals seem to fit the mood of the song, instead of just being thrown in to beef up a sound that didn't need it in the first place. With stellar guitarwork and a decidedly epic flair, I'll likely be spinning "Dark Wings, Dark Words" a bit in the coming winter months, almost now upon me. A laughable title and lyrics fit for an Edguy album make "Howlin' With The 'Pac" an exercise in boredom from the start. Not that "Howlin'…" is awful, per se; more just a letdown after the previous high point. If anyone knows what a "'Pac" is, please…never tell me.
"Shadow Empire" takes up the slack from "Howlin'..." quite nicely, and with Anders Johansson's drumming being particularly noteworthy here, the chorus is sure to get the German fists a-pumping in true metal glory. Pounding into the downbeat of the middle section, Johansson snaps back to his days with a certain guitarist bearing the last name of Malmsteen, whose first efforts were the blueprint of much of what comes from European power metal these days. Hammerfall are all about the singalong choruses, and "Carved In Stone" is no exception. My only gripe is that if you're going to slow things down to this degree, please have enough going on besides the main riff to hold my interest. A decent solo can be found herein, but in all, this sounds like it would've been perfect exit music to a film like The Goonies. Don't get me wrong, I'm all about the triumphing over the odds and the underdog winning in the end, but it's just the feeling I got. After the filler instrumental "Reign Of The Hammer", "Genocide" reveals a positively combustible Hammerfall. Wailing leadwork and rolling, tumbling bass push the energy level to the redline, Rosen following the spot-on drums of Johansson through what will likely be another album favourite. "Titan" brings Threshold to a close, and is actually a song I'd consider worth the price of admission to see performed live. Overflowing with astronomical imagery, "Titan" is the second song where the ever-present background vocals sound like a perfect fit, and is a damn fine ending to an album leagues better than I'd expected it to be.
I won't say I'm anywhere near joining up with the Templars Of Steel or anything, but if Hammerfall keep cranking out albums like Threshold, who knows what the future holds.