In my opinion, most live releases fall into one of the two categories. There are packages that attempt to convey the feeling of actually being present at the artist's show, presenting blistering versions of familiar songs and perhaps even bringing new life to tried-and-true tracks through experimentation, alternate arrangements, or energy superseding the studio versions. Iron Maiden's "Live After Death" and Judas Priest's "Unleashed in the East" stand as two of the most celebrated live albums of all time because of this synergy between powerful setlists, audience participation, and inspired performances by band firing on all cylinders.
And then, there are albums released to fill a void in the artist's discography between proper releases, to document a particularly notable event in the artist's history, to present an alternate version of "best-of" package, or, worse yet, to fulfill contractual obligations. While Hammerfall's "Gates of Dalhalla" aspires to greatness, its polished nature works against it, sometimes making it sound more like a greatest hits package and ultimately resulting in an enjoyable, but not essential release.
From the beginnings of Hammerfall's rise to prominence in the late 1990s, the band has excelled at taking every cliché of power and traditional metal and tweaking the result just enough to result in a fresh, original sound. Fifteen years and eight full-length albums later, the formula still works, as evidenced by the band's continued popularity, and the song selection on "Gates of Dalhalla" is a testament to the music's staying power. The show's setlist reads like a collection of Hammerfall's greatest hits, representing all eight albums with favorites such as "Heeding the Call", "Glory to the Brave", "Fury of the Wild", and many others played alongside material from the band's most recent album "Infected". If anything, the placement of songs proves that the core style of Hammerfall did not change all that much since 1997, with the sole exception being the opener "Patient Zero" due to its brooding, doom-infused bulk.
The band plays like consummate professionals, and the crystal-clear sound makes most performances almost indistinguishable from studio versions. Vocalist Joacim Cans is in fine form, effortlessly reaching for the high notes and even leading a choir on rendition of classical piece "O Fortuna". For this performance, the band was able to secure guest appearances from several former members, including former In Flames guitarist Jesper Stormblad, former Hammerfall guitarist Stefan Elmgren, and vocalist Mikael Stanne of Dark Tranquillity (who, as I understand, was the original Hammerfall vocalist). Stanne's takeover of lead vocal duty for "Steel Meets Steel" results in an interesting version of a classic track, as his more aggressive (yet still mostly sung) approach turns up the song's energy.
Unfortunately, herein lies the biggest problem of "Gates of Dalhalla". There are not enough moments where the band completely lets loose and adds something new to the songs, instead opting for faithfully recreating the album. My version of "Gates of Dalhalla" is audio-only, so this issue might be less prominent on a DVD/Blu-Ray release, but the live album sounds so polished that it fails to convey the energy one must have felt at that show. The audience participation parts are mixed so low that crowd sing-alongs are almost inaudible in some parts, and stage banter is kept to a minimum until fairly late in the show. As a result, album does not convey the feeling of an interactive presentation. Some songs actually fade in at the beginning or fade out at the end, furthering the atmosphere of a greatest hits package.
As a best-of collection, "Gates of Dalhalla" is more than satisfactory. It is a good starting point for anyone curious about Hammerfall, and is a solid career retrospective and a historical memento for the band. As a live album, it falls short of greatness, although it does have several interesting moments and nods to the band's past. While not an essential purchase, "Gates of Dalhalla" is a great alternative to a greatest hits package, and an entertaining release in its own right.