Six albums in, and a darker wind seems to be blowing through the HAMMERFALL camp, ruffling the frilliest of shirts and injecting a little minor-chord pomposity into the band's helium odes to how much rocking, well, rocks. Don't get me wrong, the band isn't reinventing their sound, or even trying any harder to disguise their overt '80s metal influences. But there are more majestic riffs, more ominous backing choirs of stern Teutonic voices… the band alternately praised and reviled for being a fun, goofy throwback seems to want to grow up a little bit here.
Of course, "dark" for HAMMERFALL is like ACCEPT shifting from "Midnight Mover" to "Princess of the Dawn" — the temperature may go down a few degrees, but it's still the same soup in the pot. And HAMMERFALL have been reheating the same midtempo fist-in-the-air pop songs since they started, with results that seemed to vary more due to the prevailing attitude of the metal community than in any fluctuation in quality. When they started, power metal was all but dead, and to a whole new generation, they were a silly and kicky nostalgia act. Once a hundred bands followed in their footsteps, and more people went back to the source and discovered the originators of the sound, their luster faded a bit.
But hell, they're still doing good business, and writing themes for Olympic curling teams or some such crap, and there have always been legions of fans in their corner defending them on the grounds that they're entertaining, and what else do you need? You get the ersatz majesty of mini-epics (and you can tell it's a mini-epic by the generic keyboard or acoustic intro) "Carved In Stone" and "Dark Wings, Dark Words", the faster-paced headbanger hits like "Natural High" and the dreadfully corny "Howlin' With the 'Pac", and insistent, double-kick-driven midtempo fist-pumpers like "Shadow Empire".
Through it all, you get stiff and programmed-sounding drums, riffs recycled from the best days of ACCEPT, QUEENSRYCHE, HELLOWEEN and MANOWAR, and enough hokey lyrics about the brotherhood of metal to make the staunchest leather-jacketed German dump out their beer in disgust and go get an emo haircut. But you also get "Genocide", which has the band as fired up as they've ever been and features some pretty impressive guitarwork, and "Titan", sporting the best ACCEPT riff Wolf Hoffman never wrote. You get likely single "The Fire Burns Forever", which is undeniably a good rockin' time, and a short but killer instrumental called (wait for it…) "Reign of the Hammer".
In short, HAMMERFALL are the same bundle of contradictions they've always been. They add absolutely nothing new to the metal gene pool; in fact, they're probably ladling out a few extra scoops of other, better rockers' DNA when no one is looking. But if you don't mind the fact that they're unrepentantly one step from being an '80s cover band, you'll likely have a lot of fun with "Threshold". They're beating a dead horse – you know it, they know it, and they know you know it. But they don't care, and if you don't either, you're likely to be entertained. One of those bands that'll eventually be considered masters of their field simply by outlasting their critics and not dying.