Review by Nick on June 29, 2008.
The words accomplished and steadfast are used far too liberally in the metal world. Reviewers alike constantly praise artists for being either of the aforementioned because they simply are heavy and conform to a “traditional” death metal mold -- the embodiment of a faster-and-louder-is-better viewpoint -- or they have been around for a certain length of time. Speed, volume, age and adherence to a template, my cohorts in darkness, do not alone make one accomplished or steadfast. Artists that consistently continue to achieve what they set out to achieve, upholding the basic principles of metal (or any genre), without changing course and unswayed by critics or current musical trends – and do so with a cohesive and loyal following -- are not abundant. They are rare. Unleashed, however, is a prime example of a true pillar of metal dogma. In their lengthy history, relative by death metal standards, Unleashed have refused to decelerate, quiet, compromise or change. With Hammer Battalion, the band’s ninth studio album, Unleashed proves that they are both accomplished and steadfast.
My first experience with these Swedish metallers was 1992’s Shadows In The Deep. The opening track, “The Final Silence,” immediately demonstrated to me what the band was all about. Johnny Hedlund’s primal growl in the beginning of that track made me want to braid my goatee and pillage the nearest town…until I realized that people don’t really pillage anymore. Hammer Battalion’s first track, “The Greatest of all Lies,” is eerily similar to Shadows’ opener. Hedlund sounds exactly like he did 16 years ago, excreting vocals that are inhumanely guttural and angst-ridden. The guitars chug along the familiar thrash-constructed tracks that previous Unleashed albums traversed, complete with a sonically-ubiquitous bass layer that could shake Dante’s ninth circle of Hell.
“Long Before Winter’s Call” takes over where “The Greatest of all Lies” ends, which would be at a rest stop somewhere between furious and livid. The song starts out with a fierce riff that recalls something of a ménage a trois between the Sex Pistols, Dismember and Emperor. Anders Schultz’s percussion, which has never been extraordinary, is notable on this track. Schultz displays an ability to perform metronome-like double-bass rhythms and Carcass-influenced blast beats that pummel as much as they impress. As much as early grindcore seems to be an influence, there is a presence of 70’s punk and 80’s thrash.
Lyrically, Unleashed have always been a bit archaic, incorporating about as much cheese as a chef salad. I do think that is part of their appeal, however. The scope of their songs is as unchanged from 1991 as their use of themes of war and Viking imagery. No song in Unleashed’s history is more characteristic of this than “Hammer Battalion.” “The order is to kill, fire at will, the order is to kill, fire at will, Hammer Battalion unleashed.” Simple, yes…cliché, maybe…but as metal as metal gets.
Beyond the slight banality of their lyrical concepts and imagery, Hedlund and co. are musical pioneers. Unleashed is to death metal what Mario and Luigi are to video games – basic but original, old-school yet classic, purveyors, innovators, perseveres and poster-boys of a simpler version. “This Day Belongs to Me” and “Marching off to War” are solid middle arrangements and exemplify this originality in simplicity. Both offer a strong dose of Where No Life Dwells-era Unleashed goodness, with a touch of melody.
“Black Horizon” is a black metal song trapped in a death metal body, while “Carved in Stone” is a lesson in frigid Scandinavian metal. Both tracks are inspired, creative and, dare I say….fresh?! Repeated listening to this album, especially to these two tracks, made me realize that after such a long tenure at the forefront of the death metal scene, Unleashed have as much inspiration and metallic ingenuity as ever before. With their penchant for live albums, I cannot wait to hear these songs in a live environment, with venom-spewing fans chanting in the background.
Hammer’s tenth track, “Warriors of Midgard,” is a speed metal song with more remarkable moments from behind the drum kit. The guitars are acute and unrelenting, force-feeding the listening one harmful riff after another. “Midsummer Solstice” is its predecessor’s sequel, musically, building on “Warrior’s” ruthless riffage, but with a black metal element. I’m not sure what the foursome has been listening to between Midvinterblot and Hammer, but Emperor and Mayhem seem to be somewhere in the mix of Hammer inspirers.
The album’s closers, “Home of the Brave” and “I Want You Dead,” are more typical Unleashed songs, encompassing the detuned thrashing that one would expect from the Swedes. Evident by the closing tracks, this band has an uncanny knack for creating a dark, ominous sound, allowing one to feel the adrenaline of a Viking on his way to desecrate. Hammer closes with “I Want You Dead” fading into oblivion, leaving the prey consumed and digested.
Hammer Battalion is a triumphant album, not just in the scope of Unleashed’s discography, but in the genre of death metal. It proves that metal is far from deceased and that Unleashed, as long as they are inspired and able, will be a leader in supplying Grade-A metal. For those with a preconception of what modern metal should be, suspend your notions, close your eyes and let the boys transport you to the icy fjords of the north. Hammer is quintessential Unleashed and the foursome at their finest, possibly the tastiest slab since Victory.
Categorical Rating Breakdown
Rating: 8 out of 10