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%

Monday, September 3, 2012

Ensiferum - From Afar

What?  ENSIFERUM is evolving!

Half naked Finns seems to be a very specific trope within the metal community, but there's no doubt that these drunken Scandinavians can usually churn out some excellent tunes.  Ensiferum is known for a unique blend of folk metal and power metal that many bands would come to rip off after their runaway success within the metal community.  The thing about this is that Ensiferum holds some strange intangible that bands like Northland can only dream to reach.  There's something about the way they write their songs, the way they approach their concepts, and the way the songs and concepts are executed.  I can't elucidate precisely what it is that they do differently than their contemporaries, but almost everything Ensiferum has churned out since their inception has been among the best in the genre.  They didn't get this popular by accident.

And that's what makes From Afar such a black sheep within their discography, it's not quite the same as what they'd previously given us.  Don't get me wrong, the bombast is still here, the infectious hooks, the singalong choruses, the high speed riffing with folky melodies layered overhead, everything that makes Ensiferum great is here in spades, but the way they've approached the songs on here is unlike anything prior.  See, I don't quite like this album as much as the two preceding it, but I certainly admire what the band was trying to do.  They did not want to rest on their laurels and mechanically turn out another product too similar to what the fans had come to expect from them at this point in their career.  Maybe perhaps they were trying to distance themselves from the shadow of Jari Maenpaa, which had been haunting them ever since Petri Lindroos took over guitar and lead vocal duties, since Victory Songs (the first Lindroos record) wasn't very different from Iron (the last Maenpaa record).  The fact of the matter is that From Afar stands out in their discography.

I'm sure some of you are picturing the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail with everybody urging me to just "Get ON with it!", but you really need to take a journey through the album to get the full effect of what's different, because despite being noticeable enough for me to feel it ends up hurting the album somewhat, it's mainly a series of subtle nuances and alien themes that make this album what it is.  I mean, the first hint that something is up here would be the fact that the traditional intro track is damn near longer than most goregrind splits.  They've been inching further and further along with each album in this regard, but this drops the hint that this going to be a more ambitious effort than the hard hitting straightfowardness that made Victory Songs such a hit with me.  It isn't long before that little inkling really makes itself known, as nary the third real track breaks the eleven minute mark.  Yes, this album contains the epic "Heathen Throne" saga, spanning three tracks (I consider "Tumman Virran Taa" to be a part of it, it's just an intro to the second part really) and breaking 23 minutes, over a third of the album's running time.  Both parts of the saga fit well enough with each other and there's no doubt that the band put a ton of thought and effort into this epic, but it really falls flat with me.  There are standout segments throughout the two, but as one cohesive whole it's just self congratulatory and bloated.  I was so, so pumped at the prospect of an Ensiferum song longer than most episodes of any given television show, and to its credit the song(s) never drag, but there isn't enough going on to fully warrant such a huge undertaking.

This theme of ambition and trying new things pervades the majority of the album, with mixed results.  The weird synth parts on "Twilight Tavern" stick out like a sore thumb and distract from an otherwise rousing, "One More Magic Potion"-esque number, whereas the American Western banjos and whilstles in "Stone Cold Metal" are among the highlights of the album.  Another new idea that I'm personally a huge fan of is that there's finally no misplaced ballady track.  "Smoking Ruins" is the closest thing to one you'll find here, consisting almost entirely of clean vocals, but it's still a jubilant, mid paced galloper with a sense of fist pumping adrenaline that can only induce a positive crowd reaction in a live setting.  I guess you could call it a sonic successor to "Wanderer" from the previous album, albeit with a bit more of a sense of urgency and magniloquence.  But that's it, even the token short, overly aggressive song in "Elusive Reaches" stands a bit above it's predecessors in "Slayer of Light" and "The New Dawn".

Ensiferum really kicked everything up a notch when writing and recording From Afar, and yet astute readers will probably notice that is is actually rated third out of all four albums I've reviewed of the band.  Despite the heaps of praise I have for the album, the evolution, and the idea behind the album, I can't help but feel like the band isn't playing to their strengths.  The best song to be found on here is "From Afar", and it sounds like it could have been on Victory Songs with no tweaking.  Essentially, the song that sounds the most like what they've already been doing for a decade is the most well written, most entertaining, and most memorable track on the album.  With that said, their experiments aren't entirely failures, because "Stone Cold Metal" is the easy runner up in terms of the album's best song.  I suppose their biggest hit in the score comes from the fact that I just don't like the "Heathen Throne" epic all that much.  It goes and goes and goes and takes up a huge amount of time on the album but they're the least memorable songs by a long shot.  They're essentially massively huge interludes with some entertaining parts thrown in here and there.  It's not worth it, there's a brilliant 6 song EP in here being bogged down by a bloated mess of too many ideas that just don't work very well.  The upside of the album is that Ensiferum knows that they need to change up their formula if they don't want to end up as culturally relevant as a penny-farthing within five years, as the folk metal boom seems to have passed.  They can't ride on their previous success forever, so they take risks and try new things instead of rehashing previous formulas over and over.  Such a thing can work, I have a whole host of Vader albums as proof, but Ensiferum is a more ambitious band then that.  They kind of stumbled a bit on this, but it's because they're crossing treacherous terrain, and the good news is that they still wound up in one piece at the end of it.

RATING - 79%