This is... really embarrassing. I've never been an opponent of folk metal (Ensiferum has been one of my favorite bands since Iron came out), but I most certainly have been exceptionally cruel towards Korpiklaani. To me, they were the band that took every negative quality about folk metal and then amplified it to a completely preposterous level. I like "Wooden Pints" and I think "Happy Little Boozer" is pretty catchy, but I can't think of another track of theirs I enjoy on any level besides those two. Around the time of Tales Along this Road, I just gave up listening to them. Clearly they were content with being absolute dorks who had nothing to offer besides shallow bar songs backed by unimaginative and boring polka beats. Finntroll were always the most visible clowns in folk metal, but at the very least they had a level of sincerity within their music (as silly as it may be) that I could respect. They'd at least occasionally crap out a track like "Ellytres" that sounded like there was at least more than five minutes of forethought put into it. Korpiklaani never went that far, they were shallow, goofy, and rarely sober old men who played shitty polka that happened to have distorted guitars in it.
To be 100% honest with you, I first checked out Manala for the same reason I first checked out Winds of Plague, I figured it'd be an easy target that I could easily just make bad jokes about and frame a review around. The difference is that Decimate the Weak was every bit as atrocious as I thought it'd be. Manala on the other hand is... goddamn I'm going to have to revoke even more of my credibility as a metal critic but by Jove this is really good.
I brought up Finntroll earlier, and that's really who Korpiklaani is reminding me of at this point. It took them five years more than their countrymen, but they've finally started taking this whole folk + metal idea seriously. Yeah, the actual metallic aspects of the band have been ramped up considerably this time around. Now that obviously doesn't make a band inherently better (we all saw what happened to Discharge), but here it really helped lend a semblance of honesty to their previously horrawful music. I'm buying what they're selling now, and it's just so strange to be saying that. Instead of stupid, bouncy "hum-pa hum-pa" bullshit, they're shilling out real, honest riffs and melodies and... ya know, things that take effort to do. Even the slower songs like "Dolorous" and "Synkkä" are surprisingly well crafted and very pleasant to listen to.
I think a big part in making the band seem less like a bunch of shitty old men is the fact that they've essentially dropped the idea of singing in English entirely, now opting for their mother tongue of Finnish. This is just a personal preference of mine, since I like the mystique of having almost no idea what bands are saying, but when a band as notoriously shallow as Korpiklaani suddenly veils their assuredly still dicktarded lyrics to a big chunk of their audience, they suddenly become a lot less difficult to take seriously. For all I know, "Kunnia" is just Finnish slang for "DRINK WUDZKA UND FULL DOWN", but as Midwestern American ethnocentric white trash, I couldn't give less of a shit. So yes, perhaps a big part of being able to enjoy this album hinges on you not knowing much Finnish, but clearly the band is more comfortable writing in their native language, so I support this development.
Now since that's admittedly a pretty tenuous reason to suddenly enjoy what I once detested, I feel the need to point out what I brought up earlier, the more pronounced metallic aspects of their sound. "Kunnia", "Petoeläimen Kuola", "Uni", songs like this take the route recently traveled by Finntroll and earlier Asmegin, which is that the folk instruments are used as a means to an end, rather than the ends themselves. The band finally realized that simply having twangy bullshit and whoozhy hurdy gurdys wasn't necessarily enough to base a song around, so now these folk elements are being used to accentuate the melody or propel the songs forward instead of just jumping right out front, sticking their tongues out and shaking their heads going WALALARGHABLARGLALALA like a fucking court jester. Simply reining in the whole obnoxious "Look how quirky we are!" crap really did the band a ton of favors. This is a brilliant example of a band dialing back a quality that was previously abrasive and irritating and in turn pushing forth a more basic, stripped down approach to songwriting. It worked marvelously, and I'm amazed that they managed to sober up long enough to realize that their music was shit, and then actually solved the problem. When they go full folk, they keep it somber and pleasant, and when they kick up the rock n' roll attitude, they keep the folk elements in a supporting role.
And this is the part where I get hypocritical again, because my two favorite tracks are "Rauta" and "Ievan Polkka", which are the two most overt throwbacks to the style I abhor so much. I don't know guys, I just really like them. They're both bouncy, polka influenced numbers like their previous albums, but goddamn they just work. I should hate "Rauta" like it was a douchey kid with snakebites who just knocked up my sister, but damn I can't help but think it's adorable with how it manages to be awful and yet charming at the same time. It seriously says the word "iske" thirty nine times in a row at one point. Oh lord above that is stupid. But... man it's kind of endearing. I know just enough Finnish to know that "rauta" means "iron" and "iske" means "strike", so I'm going to assume that the song is just the Finnish equivalent of Little Bunny Foo Foo, but it's so dorky that I can't help but smile at it. Guess that means I'm gonna turn into a Goon...
Manala is basically just a collection of stupid singalong songs like all of their previous albums, but this one stands out for the added sincerity, variety, and upped dosage of metallic attitude. Turns out that underneath the band's skirt, they carried a pretty hefty set of balls. The gravelly voice that's mumbled out from behind the mountain of grody dreadlocks and the bouncy folkka oompa elements are still there, so maybe I'm just a crazy person for enjoying the hell out of this despite the flaws it still pretty blatantly carries, but I just can't help it. It's stupid and fun and it does what it sets out to do well, unlike the previous efforts that reached for the same endgame but fell flat on their faces.
RATING - 85%
PS - If you google "Manala" you'll get a lot of images of what look like little people made of bread. I don't care what that word means in other languages, because to me it will now forever mean "Doughboy".