Nashville. Home of country music, Stetson hats, cowboy boots and belt buckles that put WWE champions to shame. Thankfully, none of that has anything to do with these Swedish power metallers returning to Tennessee. Although founder/guitarist Oscar Dronjak might like one of those buckles, as on his sinewy frame it would look like the mixed martial arts belt he train for, if not writing catchy metal riffs. Upon my arrival, everything’s askew (it’s only rock n roll!). My contact, the band’s manager, is stuck in a NYC airport and the listening session is delayed, as Joacim Cans is still recording vocals for two songs. They were pushed further behind schedule with the online Q&A chat earlier that morning. Bassist Fredrik Larsson, who used air miles to join Cans and Dronjak oversee the final mile, was drafted into chaperone duties. He and I killed time before the listening session by going out for sushi, right up the street from the Longhorn steakhouse where they celebrated Oscar’s 39th birthday, on the twentieth of January.
The first time HAMMERFALL was here, eleven years ago, it was for the recording of Renegade at Michael Wagner’s studio, adjacent to ACCEPT guitarist Wolf Hoffmann’s farm. Instead of a classic metal tunesmith, the Hammers have opted for a contemporary, some might say cutting edge, producer, in SIXX: A.M. singer James Michael (PAPA ROACH, TRAPT, SALIVA). The choice raised eyebrows and an undercurrent of worry rippled though the HammerFaithful. This time, with only two days off (taking in the new Coen brothers movie, True Grit and wardrobe shopping at Walmart: Oscar bought several shirts, despite his initial protests of being unable to find clothes at the discount store), the band recorded 11:30am-3pm daily, allowing Michael to do his magic throughout the night. He was still tinkering, dialling in sounds during our playback. The producer felt many of the lyrics stand on their own, as poetry, and opted for a “guerilla attitude, a spontaneity to just go for it,” with the vocals. Cans, for one, was ecstatic with the results.
“On a personal level, I’m really happy we’re here. As a singer, it was nice to have someone who I look up to (his vocal skills) standing in the studio, trading ideas. Sometimes it was only diction, or how to hit a certain note, or phrasing, but he built up my self-esteem, so that when I went in (to record), I’m loving it. If we work together again, maybe we’ll bring him in earlier in the pre-production and give him a little more room (for ideas). I don’t know exactly where the idea to use James came from, but I’m so into Sixx: A.M. Then I found out he’s not only the singer, but the songwriter and producer. I envisioned this album in a certain way and wondered what a guy like James could do with HammerFall. We have our sound, our songs…what could he do with a heavy metal album to make it modern, without losing the soul? I wanted to open up HammerFall, make it a bit more interesting. We’ve been working with (producer) Charlie Bauerfeind since 2002. I wanted to make a different record, one that sounds different to everything else (in our catalog).” They admit, Dronjak needed some convincing, but it was mainly down to familiarity. “I didn’t really know much about (James) before this. Before this, I didn’t know the other stuff he’d done."
No it wasn’t the vaunted Waffle House, a nostalgic breakfast chain the band virtually lived in on their initial US tour, opening for DEATH, but at a local sports bar, around a table littered with beer glasses, chicken wings, bowls of chili and the odd hamburger, the Hammer trio discussed the still unnamed opus I’d been privy to hear (well, half of the eleven still-to-be-finished tracks). I must thank them for their trust in our long friendship, for letting me into the recording process so early. It’s rare bands let anyone hear material in such an incomplete state! The band began working on the album in late November, when drums and initial guitar recordings were done at home, in Gothenburg. “Pretty early on, we decided we wanted to record most of this ourselves,” begins the singer. “With Pontus (Norgren, guitar) in the band, he’s very talented as front of house soundman and studio technician.” “He’s the mastermind of how/where to set up the microphones,” says his fellow string-bender. “He did a good job capturing the live, rawer (guitar) sound we were after. We’ve been trying for years to get back that energy we had on Glory To The Brave.” Cans rejoined the conversation, “Many producers want to have a ‘fat’ guitar sound, so they layer guitar (track) on top of guitar. We decided to let the guitar work on its own. It’s raw and sounds bigger without anything.”
That would account for the screaming solos and lead work heard on the likes of ‘Día De Los Muertos’ (Spanish for Day Of The Dead), which jumps right into a swift, old-school gallop that’s been sorely missed. Laughing, Dronjak related the tale how he and neighbour Larsson (who has moved just a few hundred meters from the guitarist, in Gothenburg) recorded the main riff, long ago. Re-examining his computer files of potential riffs for the upcoming album, Oscar was surprised to hear the melody. Initially unable to play it, he relearned the passage and was eager to show it to the bassist, who said, “Hey, I wrote that!” Our table erupts in laughter, before returning attention to said tune, which features Cans’ try, albeit brief, at Spanish. “Life is best enjoyed after death,” says the chorus, bookended between lost of guitars and drums. Speaking of drums, Oscar makes the observation that, “(Previously), Anders (Johansson), how he plays, has been controlled a bit by me and Charlie A lot of modern drummer listen to their parts, know exactly how to play it, beat for beat, then go in (to the studio) and reproduce it. We did that with Anders for years. He wasn’t very happy with having to work that way. Now, we let him do his thing. He plays by feel. We tried to give him lots more freedom. Whatever he feels like playing, he does.”
‘BYH’ stands for Bang Your Head, a tribute to the German festival, but since QUIET RIOT and Swedish countrymen DREAM EVIL both have already utilized the same title (hated to tell Oscar, but there’s several more after those two, including another group of Swedes, BULLET), HammerFall opted for the abbreviated version. After a screaming guitar intro, the lyrics to this upbeat number, with softer mid-section, include: “Flashback to the '80s. It made us rock. It made us lose self control. Bang your head. Stand united!” The first newfangled tune was ‘I Refuse’, opening with a bluesy riff that finally is joined by the entire band. It’s a '70s rock n roll sound, slow to mid-tempo thumper (think ‘Metal Gods’), the repeated title phrase comprising the majority of the chorus. The solo is down and dirty blues, topped by hammering drums and it all ends with more groove.
‘Patient Zero’ is a zombie tune (the term refers to the initial person infected by any disease). All the guys are big fans of the TV series The Walking Dead. Strangely, the band found a book by the same name in a Nashville store. The track features drums and heavy, plodding bottom end. There are some keys, but the backbone is the thunderous bass/drum stomp. Unexpectedly, it breaks into an aggressive frenetic riffing, unheard elsewhere on that song, before returning to the concluding mid-tempo pace. Sticking with the new leaves overturned, there’s the acoustic cover ballad, ‘Hol Van A Szo’, from Pokolggep. While the Hungarian band’s linguistic twists have given way to English, Joacim admits it’s not verbatim, “First I had a friend translate it into Swedish, so I could get some of the idioms. Then it was translated into English, but the phrasing could not be exact. It’s inspired by the original, but in a HammerFall-ish way.” About half way through, the full band joins the lone acoustic guitar and vocals, ending much the way it started.
Norgren helped pen ‘Outlaw’, which kicks off with fast, aggressive picking. It has something of heretic/damnation angle to it: “Disturbing dreams of the future. Seven flights of imagination. Bring out the outlaw. How do you plea? Charges decree, eternal damnation.” James Michael cued up ‘Redemption’, but after the grand liturgical pipe organ intro, he nixed the playback, since the vocals were not ready. Around the dinner table, asked what memories the title evokes, Dronjak offered, “This is the first time we’ve talked about these songs, in an official way. I like it! That’s the second song we wrote. ‘Patient Zero’ was first. After this one, we took a break from songwriting (in early 2010), then we were doing festivals. ‘Redemption’ is a long song, almost seven minutes long. It’s got a clean, ballad sounding verse, but the rest is powerful,”
‘Let’s Get It On’ is a nod to the guitarist’s mixed martial art passion. “You’re right, it’s one of my MMA things,” Oscar concurs. Big John McCarthy is a referee. UFC has been around since ’93 and I’ve wanted to do this for ten years. This guy was on the first 70 or more events. He was more important than some of the fighters. At the start, when they check to see each fighter is ready, then he’d say, ‘Let’s get it on!’ He was a former police officer or something, so there’s this authority in his voice. The ideal thing would be to have him intro the song (which may still happen).” The guitarist calls ‘One More Time’ a triplet song, sort of shuffle (Cans produces his I-phone and plays a few bars of the staccato demo). I’m going to get shit for this, but I’d describe it as a mix between HammerFall, MANOWAR, RAMMSTEIN and MARILYN MANSON! It’s got a balance. That’s what I like. It has it’s Rammstein-ish moments, then it goes into HammerFall-land.” The jokester Cans can’t resist needling, “Yeah, the vocals come in and ruin it.” These guys are really in a jovial mood these days.
Which might explain the freedom to try something like ‘666: The Enemy Within’. “This story is about a guy,” begins the singer, “who wakes up, goes to the bathroom mirror and sees a wound on his neck. It grows bigger and into the shape of three sixes. He’s battling with this and it takes him down to Hades, where he must cross the river Styx and throw in a crucifix. I love this song!” Dronjak continues, “It’s very different. Parts that were supposed to be guitars are now going to be done by a brass orchestra. I know it sounds strange, but when you hear it, it will sound great.” “Like RIOT’s Privilege Of Power using TOWER OF POWER (horns) for the whole album,” ends Cans.
‘Immortalized’, my uneducated guess for the eventual album title (assuming it’s selected from the song titles, like usual) is actually an old track, the first half of the original ‘HammerFall’, written by Dronjak 18 years ago, when he was in CEREMONIAL OATH (actually, after his departure from that death metal outfit, they released a track of the same name on their Carpet album). “It was really hard for me,” admits the singer. “I kept remembering the vocal line from 1996. It took a while, but it’s probably the most high pitched vocals I’ve ever sung in my career. It’s a horrible song (he jokes).” “Normally, the highest notes on the album are not something he wrote,” says the guitarist of his friend. “It’s me!”
The joshing continued, even when James Michael (alter-ego “Pig Boy”) joined us, for a rare couple of hours outside his gated community mansion. He invited everyone back to the studio, for a listen to the new Sixx: A.M. CD (which he’s working on concurrently, like HammerFall’s disc, due for release in May). Having already heard the title track (‘This Is Gonna Hurt’), I opted to let the working team bond without “the press” nosing about (despite both parties’ protests). I’ll see HammerFall again soon, be it the European festival season, which will kick off their world tour, and probably a proposed late 2011 return to North America. In the meantime, like many of you, I anxiously await the (complete) full-length!