Thursday, September 6, 2012

Ensiferum - Unsung Heroes

Hold B to stop evolution!

*hums tune to "Stone Cold Metal"*

You're all humming it now too, aren't you?  That song is a very special one within Ensiferum's catalog because it shows that they can retain their trademark hooks and over-the-top theatrics while still trying something new.  The Old West style saloon feel of that song really makes it stand out as one of their best, with the whistles and piano and twanging banjos replacing the more traditional folk instruments and symphonic ensembles that the band normally utilizes.  It showed they can branch out from their comfort zone and make awesome, folksy power metal wherever they go, no matter how they try to do it.  While some of the experiments on the previous album, From Afar, didn't really work as well as they'd hoped, the effort was clearly there, and it signified the dawn of a new era within Ensiferum's history. 

And that is precisely what makes 2012's Unsung Heroes such a bloody kick in the nards.  This is a very, very lame and uninspired regression back to the Victory Songs era, and just plain reeks of the band phoning it in.  And when I say it goes back to Victory Songs, I really mean it goes back to the ideas of one track on that album, the ballad, "Wanderer".  That is my favorite Ensiferum album and I think "Wanderer" is a great track, but one of the reasons it is so good is because it's the only track of its kind on the album.  It stands as a unique look at the loneliness that these mythic warriors embarking on epic, world spanning quests that they normally write about really go through.  It's a look on the more melancholy side of adventuring, and the music reflects the tone of the lyrics.  It works great for what it is, a more restrained ode to our heroes.  The issue with Unsung Heroes is that nearly 80% of the album follows the formulas set by "Wanderer" and the various other slow songs on the first two albums.  If y'all don't remember, those have always been my least favorite aspects of the early albums.  The plodding ballady songs that dominate nearly half of the self titled and break the flow of the otherwise stellar Iron.  With Unsung Heroes, it's nearly the only kind of song on display.

I once again feel the need to point out the intro track, as I've noticed that my enjoyment of the album as a whole seems to be directly proportional to how much I like the signature folk intro track.  All the previous ones have carried a nice melody or a sense of foreboding or urgency, whereas "Symbols" here goes in one ear and out a nostril.  The pattern continues when "In My Sword I Trust" marches in.  This seems to be the fan favorite on the album, with even the numerous vocal detractors that they album has garnered claiming this to be the most in tune with the spirit of the band's previous works.  The chorus is a nice, rousing affair, I won't lie, and the solo is very flashy and entertaining, but otherwise it's a mid paced trot through a rather uninteresting area we've visited plenty of times before.  The main riff also reminds me of "Tie Your Mother Down" by Queen, which is pretty cool I guess, anything that reminds me of Queen is a winner in my book, but that's always been a pretty good signal of quality.  If the best things remind you of something better, it's a pretty good indication that what you're listening to probably doesn't have a whole lot of interesting things to say on their own.  And with tracks like "Last Breath", "Burning Leaves", "Unsung Heroes", and the two "Celestial Bond" songs in addition to that opening song, it just cements the problem with the album.  They all recall "Lost in Despair" or "Old Man" or "Eternal Wait" or "Tears" from previous albums.  Essentially, they hearken back to the half of their old dichotomy that always bored me shitless.  I can admit that the melodious female vocals in "Celestial Bond" are very pleasant and the male counterpart in "Star Queen" matches them in terms of smoothness, but the songs themselves just drag like an anchor behind a bicycle with no tires.

Basically what this album lacks is energy.  One thing you could never take away from the band was their dedication to the pomp and bombast that permeates all of their best songs.  Ensiferum was always on top of their game when cranking out high tempo rockers with very strikingly thick symphonics and Finnish folk melodies.  Even songs that featured slower, folkier parts would build into a victorious fanfare that made the slow parts worth it, as the payoff would be nothing with out it (See "Lai Lai Hei" and "Victory Song" for prime examples).  Everything would build and explode, or it would leave the gate in a sprint and not slow down until long after it had crossed the logical finish line.  Now with Unsung Heroes, we're treated to a host of dull sightseeing tours, with the band trolling along at a slow pace, occasionally pointing at things and saying "Isn't that pretty?".  It's lame, it's not fun, it's not even interesting, the lack of conviction really makes it feel like the band didn't give much of a shit when it came to this album.  It's a series of mainly inconsequential, low tempo dullards with nothing interesting happening inside, even if Markus Toivonen is finally getting more and more opportunities to sing.

Now this album isn't without its merits, there are a couple songs I have yet to mention.  "Pohjola" is also a midpaced track, but unlike the previous treks, this one has some bounce and energy to it.  The folky overtones complement the strong guitar work and actually manage to capture some of the lost fire that this album sorely lacks.  There's also a small segment of narration, and the narrator sounds like Christopher Lee.  I know I just said that it's bad when the good things remind you of something better, but there's a charm about hearing Saruman describe epic battles over bombastic power metal that I'll adore no matter who he's rambling over.  The 17 minute epic track, "Passion Proof Power" is also surprisingly well done after an album full of lifeless slumps, as it manages to build itself up to a fun climax on more than one occasion.  Essentially every idea the album toys with is fully realized within this closing epic, and if the energy and dedication that the band put into this track had been prominent throughout the previous 45 minutes, you'd be looking at a much more generous score at the bottom of the page here, even if it does end roughly five minutes after it should.  And then there's "Retribution Shall Be Mine", which is this album's answer to "Slayer of Light", "The New Dawn", and "Elusive Reaches".  It retains the bludgeoning aggression of those previous tracks, but fleshes it out amongst a much longer span of time and keeps the folk elements higher and the guitar with some much freer noodling.  The guitar soloing is actually a bit of an anomaly within Unsung Heroes actually, as it really stands out as a greater cog in the gears that make the album tick.  It was never a huge, prominent feature with Ensiferum previously, but it is here, and it's a nice touch that keeps the album listenable during the dull songs that take up so much of the time.

Essentially, there are only three tracks out of nine proper that contain anything enjoyable, and they're all in the latter half of the album.  It takes nearly 23 minutes before the first worthwhile track rears its head.  And the best track is honestly the bonus track, "Bamboleo".  It's a Gypsy Kings cover, whom I've never heard of, nor have I ever heard the original version of this song, but if I gave any less of a shit about that, I'd be taking one.  The song is presented in a straight up death metal fashion, chock full of blast beats and the harsh vocals consisting entirely of low death growls (which I honestly though Petri was always pretty good at pulling off), with a fun mariachi style chorus.  It's by far the most memorable track on the album, hands down, and even if you hate the song I find it hard to disagree with that.  At least something happens in it.

Unsung Heroes is easily the least interesting, and overall most disappointing Ensiferum album to date.  I don't blame the departure of Jari Maenpaa for this like so many others have been doing across the internet, as this has really always been Toivonen's band, and he fared very well for the first two albums with Petri.  I just think that the band as a whole is running out of ideas, as this entire album feels phoned-in and obligatory, as opposed to the band being excited about writing new songs they were proud of.  So yes, the popular opinion is right on the money here.  If you're new to the band, start with any of the first three albums, if you're an established fan, feel free to listen to this but be prepared for the album to finish with you scratching your head, wondering where Ensiferum went.

RATING - 44%

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