When hair metal was struck dead by grunge and alternatively at the turn of the 90s, traditional heavy metal also found itself on the chopping block. Histrionics and songs about warriors and wizards were about as far from cool as you could get in 1993, but that didn’t stop Sweden’s Hammerfall from leading the charge for a new generation of heavy metal stars to proudly proclaim their allegiance to the metal gods of old.
“Heavy metal is a powerful force,” says Hammerfall guitarist Oscar Dronjak. “It’s great to see it back… maybe not ‘in fashion’, but at least respected because it was very, very much disrespected for a long time.”
That in mind, we got Oscar to pick out ten records that kept the spirit of heavy metal alive during the genre’s darkest days…
1. Judas Priest – Painkiller (1990)
“Painkiller by Judas Priest was a genre-defining album that came out maybe a little bit too late to be as successful as it deserves. But also, if it had come a year or two after I don’t think it would be as big as it is. Painkiller still to this day, stands out as one of the most complete heavy metal albums ever released.
Even back as far as Ram It Downthere’s a few songs that would have a great impact if they’d been on Painkillerbut they’d also got songs more towards the Turbo side of things too. But you know, I was never one of those guys saying, ‘oh, they’re using synthesizer so I don’t like this’ – I love everything they do, every album. They’re all excellent.”
2. Widowmaker – Blood And Bullets (1992)
“Dee Snider is a personal hero of mine and he really means something special to heavy metal. I couldn’t really pick a Twisted Sister record seeing as they didn’t release anything after 1987, but Widowmaker came out right before I formed Hammerfall, making the album Blood And Bullets. It was the first Dee Snider album we’d got in a long while and I was blown away by the album.
It’s just 12 really, really good songs with one of the most inspirational people in the whole music business. For me, Dee Snider’s influence isn’t just from his music or lyrics, but how you should approach life in general. Snider taught me that you shouldn’t give a shit about what other people think, basically! He embodies the spirit of heavy metal for me more than anybody else.”
3. Accept – Objection Overruled (1993)
“Accept are one of my main influences, and they are still flying the flag today. At the beginning of the 90s, heavy metal wasn’t getting any space anywhere – nobody really wanted to do give it any attention. When accept released Objection Overruled I was floored. That was also the reunion with Udo [Dirkschneider, vocals] which for me was the biggest deal ever. They also hadn’t released anything since ’89 I think, when they changed singers and that became a big thing.
Unfortunately for them it came at the wrong time and under the wrong circumstances as heavy metal didn’t really have a place at that point, even if they did have Udo back on vocals. They tried to incorporate more of a 90s sound on the following two albums Death Row and Predator and like a lot of the bands that I liked from the 80s and 70s when they tried to adapt to the 90s it didn’t really go so well.”
4. Mercyful Fate – In The Shadows (1993)
“Mercyful Fate are another one of those bands that have influenced me so much, but it doesn’t always show so much in the actual music. We don’t sound anything like Mercyful Fate, but the spirit is there and the approach to songwriting has always been there. And of course King Diamond’s vocals are utterly unparalleled, that’s another factor. But I also like the guitar work very much, Michael Denner and Hank Sherman, I think they create some really cool things together.
In The Shadows is another reunion type record like Accept and came out in the same year. Mercyful Fate hadn’t been around since ’85 or thereabouts so it was a big thing that they came up with a new album. And not only that, they came out with a fantastic new album. This album is so good and I hold it in as much regard as I do the first two. Plus there was a Swedish guy drumming in Snowy Shaw, which is kind of cool!”
5. Gamma Ray – Land Of The Free (1995)
“Gamma Ray’s Land Of The Free had a really big impact on Hammerfall as a band. It came out at a time where nobody was really doing that sort of thing, or at least not new bands. I hadn’t really gotten into Gamma Ray before, so for me, it was like ‘oh wow, there’s a band that still make this kind of music’ and it made me go back and check out all the other albums they had done.
That was a huge revelation for me and Land Of The Free is such a great album too. For me it came at just the right moment, though maybe not for them! It reinforced the beliefs I had about the music that was I was playing at that point, as there was no question in my mind about what kind of music we should make.”
6. Manowar – Louder Than Hell (1996)
“When Hammerfall formed, there really weren’t that many new releases of heavy metal albums. The first big one I remember coming out though was Manowar’s Louder Than Hell. I mean, I’m a big fan of Manowar anyway, but what they did with Louder Than Hell surpassed even the classic 80s albums for me.
If you look at Manowar in ’82, or again in ’96 or even in 2022, they’re still saying the same things. They’ve kept the same approach to what they’re doing and I love that. Nothing that has happened over the course of their whole career has changed their attitude towards the music they play and I feel I can connect with that a lot.”
7. Stratovarius – Destiny (1998)
“I discovered Stratovarius through the album Destiny. I’d never heard of them before, but they had just signed to Nuclear Blast so while we were at this music fair in Cologne, Germany I picked up their CD. It was so chock full of melodies I just couldn’t believe it. It really hit me and since then I’ve checked out the whole Stratovarius catalog.
Of course we also later toured with them and I got to know them, then a year after that album came out we got Jens Johansson’s brother Anders in on drums, so we had a lot in common with them after that. They were doing exactly what we were doing; bringing back the melodies into metal music and I don’t think you can overstate how important they were to so many different countries, especially those in the south like Italy, Spain and Greece.”
8. Iron Maiden – Brave New World (2000)
Hammerfall played a role in bringing this style of music back, but the reunion of Iron Maiden and Bruce Dickinson for Brave New World in 2000 was extremely important for heavy metal to not just come back, but grow. Again, it doesn’t hurt that Brave New World a really, really, really good album too. They did everything right and that’s a big part of why the musical climate is what it is today.
Maiden were a really big name in the 80s, but I remember they came to Sweden with Blaze Bayley and were playing to 800 people or so, which was very different to the 12,000 per show tours they were doing with Bruce. Which isn’t to say anything against Blaze Bayley – those were just the times. But when Bruce came back it was big news.”
9. Hammerfall – Renegade (2000)
“The same year Bruce came back to Iron Maiden, Hammerfall also released Renegade, our third album. We even had some singles out at the same time! With Legacy Of Kings and Glory To The Brave we had great audiences, but they were all kind of our age. With Renegade There were teenagers who maybe had never even heard of heavy metal before that got into us.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that over the years, people come up to me and say, ‘hey man, your album was what got me into metal’. No matter which album that is, it makes me so damn proud. I’ve always known that heavy metal is powerful music and if you expose people to it even a little bit, they’ll want more. It’s a true and honest form of music and that I think captures a lot of people too.”
10. Sabaton – Carolus Rex (2012)
“Sabaton have done something incredible in the last 10 years or so, going back to Carolus Rex. I think that was the point where people really started realising ‘wow, this is a really big band’ and since then they’ve just grown. It’s funny, they were our special guests in 2009 on the European tour we did. It was a whole Swedish band tour. By then they had existed for a while, but they hadn’t had that much success, but they were growing for a while and I think it was bubbling under the surface.
We got along really well and then the roles were reversed when we toured with them in North America in 2019, when we were the special guests. I thought that was really cool. We hadn’t necessarily kept in touch over the years, but we can safely say we’re really good friends. It was fun seeing how much they’d changed – in 2009 it was evident they’d got something, and that they wanted to be big but were still making their way there, so to see them become really big is fantastic.”
Hammerfall’s new album Hammer Of Dawn is out now via Napalm