Power metal doesn't seem to grab U.S. listeners. Maybe it's because American metal fans think of themselves as badasses unwilling to be seen smiling as they head bang. Or maybe because of an aversion to keyboard solos and upper-register vocals, bands like Helloween or Sonata Arctica never quite graduate to Ozzfest-headliner status. The ceiling seems to be large clubs and/or theaters. England's DragonForce is the rare power-metal band that's reached a sizable U.S. audience, but it's done so by embracing novelty status and letting the audience know the band is in on the joke. They smile a lot onstage and banter with the crowd, and their breakout video, "Through the Fire and Flames," is full of self-deprecating humor.
Swedish power-metal band HammerFall is equally adept at lightening the mood. You'll never catch founding guitarist Oscar Dronjak saying something as pompous as Manowar leader Joey DeMaio's infamous quote, "I'm prepared to die for metal. Are you?" Instead, the group filmed a 2006 video for their song "Hearts on Fire" (originally released on 2002's Crimson Thunder) co-starring the Swedish women's curling team, which got a fresh burst of exposure during the recent Winter Olympics, when it seemed like the weird shuffleboard-on-ice sport was broadcast six hours every day.
HammerFall have also recorded an astonishing number of cover songs, most of which were gathered on the 2008 compilation Masterpieces. The band throws itself headlong into Rainbow's "Man on the Silver Mountain," Skid Row's "Youth Gone Wild" and Kiss' "Detroit Rock City." But they also tackle relative obscurities like Twisted Sister's "We're Gonna Make It" and "När Vindarna Viskar Mitt Namn" by Roger Pontare (Sweden's entry in the 2000 EuroVision Song Contest; the title translates to "When Spirits Are Calling My Name"). Occasionally, they bring in guests: Accept's Udo Dirkschneider sang on HammerFall's cover of Accept's "Head Over Heels," and Helloween singer-guitarist Kai Hansen sang and played on "I Want Out."
"We like these songs," says drummer Anders Johansson. There's a more pragmatic reason for the covers, though. He explains, "In this band, basically one of the guitar players writes all the music. So since it's one guy doing everything, he has a hard time coming up with stuff, and there are always too few songs for an album. So he has to come up with something."
The idea of compiling the covers was a response to fan requests, says Johansson. "A lot of people would ask, Where can I get this track, where can I get that? So we put them on one album." Of course, the true connoisseur of HammerFall cover songs will have to buy the group's 2009 effort No Sacrifice, No Victory, which includes an absurd, shredtastic (two guitar solos) version of the Knack's "My Sharona."
Johansson has been HammerFall's drummer for 10 years — "11 in April," he says. He appears on every HammerFall album except the first two, and while he admits the band's sound is pretty much what it's always been, he says that's a good thing. "I think that we have matured a little bit, but then again, not that much," he says. "I don't think the band has changed extremely much. Maybe some of the arrangements, and some of the vocals with choirs, and things like that. But in general, it's basically like it's always been. People know what they're getting. If you change too much, people lose interest, it seems."
Of course, in America the problem isn't keeping people from losing interest — it's attracting their interest in the first place. "In the States, we play really small venues, small clubs, which, of course, is hard in a way," says Johansson. "The economics is not there. That's why we're not there so often. But you have to start somewhere, I guess."
He believes that your average, Cannibal Corpse T-shirt-wearing American teenager could be turned on to power metal, if only he or she were exposed to it. "If they know what heavy metal is, I would say [to them that] it's heavy metal, but it's faster sometimes," he says. "I like the American style of metal. But I like all styles of metal."
Johansson loves playing in the U.S., even if the venues are a little smaller. "The people that do come to the shows, they're really dedicated and really into it," he says. "The atmosphere's really great. If you have 500 crazy Americans, they have a lot easier time showing emotion. In Europe, people are a little more reserved. So 500 Americans sound louder than 1,500 Germans."
The one thing fans shouldn't expect at a HammerFall show is a drum solo. When it's pointed out that on the group's 2003 live album, One Crimson Night, the band's guitarists got two solos each, but the drummer got no spotlight time, Johansson has mixed feelings.
"I've never even thought about it," he says. "I'm a fusion drummer originally, so I could play a half-hour drum solos if people were interested. In metal clubs, it seems like they don't really want it so much anymore. When I used to play with Yngwie Malmsteen's band in the '80s, it was natural to play drum solos. And on the last tour, I had one, but now [the other guys] decided they don't want them again. I think there was one review that said, 'Oh, they had a typical long, tedious drum solo,' and the guys were reading this, and they decided to kick out the drum solo. I play drum solos in the songs sometimes, to make up for it."