Thursday, May 8, 2008

Album Review: Turisas - "The Varangian Way"

Turisas - The Varangian Way

Artist: Turisas (Finland)
Album Title: The Varangian Way
Label: Century Media (U.S.)
Released: 2007

The Varangian Way refers to a trade route used by Norsemen, mainly in the 9th and 10th centuries, by which they reached the Byzantine Empire. The Varangians, as they came to be known, settled in Eastern Europe and are believed to be part of the ancestry of the Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians (the Rus'). The trade route they used, by way of a series of rivers and the Caspian sea, is the setting for the fictional story that unfolds in Turisas' second album.

The first Turisas album, Battle Metal, was beloved by many, but I mostly hated it. It sounded to me, even at the time when I was still new to the pagan metal genre, like a generic version of Moonsorrow. Take Viking metal, strip out all specific references to Vikings or paganism, and you end up with a widely-accessible, relatively inoffensive, but diluted product. It had a few songs that I enjoyed, such as "Among Ancestors," but I thought that the lyrics and the overall atmosphere of Battle Metal was cheesy and bland.

It was with reluctance that I bought the second Turisas album, The Varangian Way. It was hailed by many of the same people who loved Battle Metal, which didn't tell me anything about the album's alleged quality. Some even felt it less good than the debut. I wasn't really expecting much when the disc arrived in the mail, but, in this case, the album turned out far better than I had hoped, almost reaching my top five metal CD's of 2007.

Musically, Turisas treads much of the same water as they did on Battle Metal. This is very accessible, symphonic, and epic Viking metal. This is not a band you listen to for great guitar riffs, because the guitars are just kind of there. The high-quality symphonic arrangements (synthesized, but convincing) take the spotlight from the guitars and drive the music. This tends to give off the atmosphere of listening to a heavy metal musical about Vikings, which is something that I hope someone eventually attempts. There is no lead guitar on this album; every time you think you're hearing a guitar solo, you're actually hearing an electric violin. There's also an accordion, though I don't hear it that often. The vocals of Warlord Nygård range from extremely good clean singing to harsh vocals. He is frequently backed by a choir of singers, and by this I don't mean just the typical "Viking choir" that you find on many albums in this genre. I mean that, quite literally, there is a choir on the album, though they are mostly utilized towards the end of the disc, perhaps to build the epic quality of the album until it culminates in the incredible closer, "Miklagard Overture."

The Varangian Way surprised me by how much the band has matured since Battle Metal. The album is wonderfully paced, with no unnecessary or bland tracks to be found throughout its 43 minutes of playing time. Lyrically, most of the album is concerned with the dangers of the voyage over raging rivers and through storms. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, nobody picks up a sword to behead an enemy throughout the entire album. It's mostly about the journey and the discovery of new lands and cultures, and by the end of the album, as Nygård sings the lines, "Adventures lie ahead, many knots unraveled on my thread," I hope that this is not the last we will hear of Hakon the Bastard.

For those who are looking for an introduction to Viking metal, The Varangian Way is a great start. Even non-metal fans should not be put off by it, because many of the things that non-metal fans hate about heavy metal (wanky guitar solos, high-pitched vocals, etc.) are not to be found on this release. For this reason, however, perhaps it will be avoided or criticized by a number of metal fans. But who cares? They've got plenty of generic power metal bands with Halford-wannabe vocalists to listen to if they so wish. The overall impression I'm left with after listening to Turisas is: this is surprisingly tasteful for a metal album. I'm a metal fan, and am well-aware and accepting of its excesses, but The Varangian Way is an album I can recommend to almost anyone.

And, because it's on a relatively large- and well-distributed label like Century Media, there's a chance you'll actually be able to find it. That's always a plus.

A stunning album... Very highly recommended.

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