I'll admit right off the bat that I am not a big fan of the latest HammerFall record _Renegade_. It just doesn't sit well with me. I am not sure why it really is, but I think one of the reasons is that unlike the band's blistering 1997 Nuclear Blast debut _Glory to the Brave_, or its mediocre follow-up _Legacy of Kings_ (1998), _Renegade_ lacks momentum and attitude. The once vibrant "heavy metal" cause has been downsized, replaced by more melodies and some slow and often unnecessary ballads. No balls this time out and that is not a good warning sign for things to come, is it?
But you can't write things off right away (unless of course your band name is Mortification), and so the phone call comes in from guitarist Oscar Dronjak to talk about the new disc (and hopefully explain it a bit better for me) and life in HammerFall. We begin...
"This album is a definite continuation of what we started with HammerFall", says Dronjak. "This record is a lot more professional and more polished. This is a mature version of the band, I think. We got a lot of experience making records and going out touring and all that and it just made its way into the record. We took all of what we learned and brought that into the songwriting. The experience we have had is the key factor with this record." He states, "We put a lot of heart and soul into the work we do and I think each record has shown that. We believe in what we are doing."
And what about the experience of working with high-profile producer Michael Wagner (Alice Cooper / Skid Row / Motley Crue) and recording on US soil in Nashville -- what was that like?
"He is so down to earth and easily the coolest person that you could meet", says Dronjak with enthusiasm. "He brought a great atmosphere into the studio and it just made everyone so relaxed. He just wanted us to be ourselves and come in and play the music. He is really good at getting material out of people, especially the vocalist. This relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere just made it a lot of fun to work on this disc and I think it shows."
And why Michael Wagner? "Because of his track record. He was everything we expected him to be. We wanted to have a big producer to help and coach us, with vocals and the guitar work. We wanted a producer that would help us make music to the best of our ability. Michael has produced a lot of varied styles of music over his career and we thought that him working with us would be the perfect match. He told us that he was looking forward to working with us. He is into heavy metal. Even though he has produced the likes of Janet Jackson and a string of other acts, he was interested in working with HammerFall."
The band -- rounded out by singer Joacim Cans, guitarist Stefan Elmgren, bassist Magnus Rosen and drummer Anders Johannson -- really made a name for themselves in 1997 with the release of the debut record [note: Chronicles of Chaos did the band's first-ever interview in CoC #21]. Not for the fact that the record was a solid piece of music, but for the fact that the band championed bands to bring back the heavy metal sound of past and have fun playing guitar solos and having melody. They made heavy metal return to the scene with vibrance and wicked guitar solos. It was a lot of fun and it seems to have spawned a vast amount of new bands to pop up and join the heavy metal cause. How does Dronjak feel about the movement and the bands that have surfaced?
"I think it is great that there are many other bands playing this type of music. In order for the sound of heavy metal to have some longevity, we need more bands playing this type of music. It is important. Bands like Iron Maiden or Judas Priest can't carry the torch [of heavy metal] for the next twenty years. They are getting old. Bands like HammerFall won't be around forever either. We need all of these new bands playing heavy metal and getting more and more people into this genre of music." He adds: "It is good to see that a lot of magazines and labels have opened their eyes to this type of music and realized that it is not just the same old thing with each band. There is a lot of good stuff out there."
One thing that has been always affiliated with HammerFall is the amazing and detailed artwork that accompanies each record. All three records have sported this towering knight, clad in armour and wielding a massive weapon. The warrior is ready for battle and ready to defend the cause of heavy metal. I have always wondered, "Do you see the artwork before or after you write the material? If so, are you inspired to write a theme to correspond with the artwork?"
"What we do is: we pick song titles to use for the record, then we pick the album title from that and then we come up with an idea for the artwork and what we want to see on the cover. We do a sketch and a description of what we want to see and then we send it Nuclear Blast for them to forward it to the artist, Andreas Marshall. His work is truly amazing and it captures the real passion of HammerFall and what we sing and play about."
Seeing that the band has stuck to their same heavy metal sound for three records, and plan to do so for the rest of their career from the sound of it, I ask Dronjak if the band has ever thought of incorporating new sounds/styles into their music. He answers: "We will always play music like this. We'll keep it heavy metal. We always are trying to go out there and make the ultimate music and the ultimate record. That is the goal for us. I mean, we'll never make the perfect album, 'cause if we did we might as well stop playing music. We know what we want with HammerFall and that doesn't include orchestrations or death growls. That is not what we want with HammerFall." He continues: "If we were to bring another style into the band and change things up, that would not only be betrayal for us as a band, but we would be betraying our fans as well. This is what we do. This is heavy metal. Any new incorporation of new sounds and styles for HammerFall would be a definite step down for us."
In closing, I ask Dronjak about heavy metal in today's music scene and how he rates it. "Heavy metal is as strong as it has ever been. Actually, that is not true. It was the strongest in the '80s because it was the only thing. Heavy metal now has been the strongest since the '80s and it just seems to be growing. I see the future of heavy metal and it is a bright one, especially with all of these great new bands coming up and playing good music. If there are ten bands playing this music or 100 bands, that is a good sign. Of course, I'd like to have five good bands playing this type of music rather than fifteen so-so bands playing it. I think a lot of people nowadays are pretty well informed and know just who is playing the good stuff and what they should buy."
As I hang up the phone I admire the vision that Dronjak has cast upon heavy metal music with his band, but I can only hope (and pray) that next opus HammerFall returns with a mighty crush, rather than a polished mediocre offering. The passion is there, let's hope it gets used more next time.