Friday, January 29, 2010
Album Review: Ensiferum - From Afar
Artist: Ensiferum (Finland)
Album Title: From Afar
Record Label: Spinefarm Records (Finland, USA)
Released: 2009 (September)
Purchased From: The Omega Order
Fans have certainly been divided about post-2004 Ensiferum. There are few bands in the folk metal genre that are so controversial without being at all political in nature. The elephant in the room when you talk about anything Ensiferum has released after 2004's Iron is the fact that, after that album, guitarist/vocalist Jari Mäenpää, whose work in both guitar and vocals was a huge (HUGE) part of Ensiferum's sound and wide appeal, was forced to leave due to conflicts between recording sessions for his project (and now full-time band) Wintersun and Ensiferum's touring schedule. In addition, they managed to lose their bassist and drummer not long afterwards, leaving the band with a largely new lineup. The addition of vocalist/guitarist Petri Lindroos has not been met with open arms by many fans of Jari-era Ensiferum. Therefore, he deserves some credit for sticking with the position despite some (unfair, in my opinion) negativity from fans, and the band as a whole deserves credit for rebuilding Ensiferum, even though they may not sound entirely like the band that wowed critics and fans all over with their self-titled debut and its well-received 2004 follow-up.
I'm not interested in getting into arguments as to which incarnation of Ensiferum is better, as I enjoy both, but I should mention that "Dragonheads" (from the 2006 EP of the same name) is one of my favorite Viking metal songs, and I really enjoyed much of 2007's full-length Victory Songs, especially the title track. I wasn't sure what to think of From Afar when samples began to appear of a few of its tracks shortly before its September release, but out of loyalty I pre-ordered it anyway, and was pleasantly surprised by how overall improved it is from the already-strong Victory Songs.
The only lineup change between their 2007 album and this one is that keyboard player Meiju Enho has been replaced with Emmi Silvennoinen. I'm not really sure how Emmi compares as a keyboard player because this album uses a lot of sampled orchestral instruments and choirs in place of synths, though there are still a number of folk-sounding moments that use keyboards, like the intro track, and they all sound great, though I don't know if they're played or programmed.
The heavy use of orchestral and choral elements is a dramatic change in Ensiferum's sound, as if everything has been turned up to an extra level of epic-ness, kind of like how big of an impact those elements made on Turisas' excellent The Varangian Way. But what else becomes evident as one listens to the new album is that the guitars and vocals have also improved over the previous few efforts. Petri seems to have become more comfortable in his role in the band, and his vocals seem to be fit better within the band's sound. He only handles the harsh vocals, however, and the clean vocals are mainly performed by founding member Markus Toivonen and bassist (and primary lyricist) Sami Hinkka. I like many of the lyrics on this album, but I still think "Twilight Tavern" is a cheesy title, though the song itself is quite good.
Ensiferum may be known as more of a widely-accessible, somewhat shallow band within the genre, but on From Afar they show some depth with "Heathen Throne" and "The Longest Journey: Heathen Throne Part II." These two songs are longer than the rest of the songs on the album (at 11 and almost 13 minutes, respectively), and have a generally slower and more epic pace. Great stuff! As they did in the first two tracks of Iron, Ensiferum pays tribute to composer Ennio Morricone (and perhaps "Spaghetti Westerns" in general) with "Stone Cold Metal," a song that oddly contains one of the few whistling solos I've heard in metal, not to mention the short banjo solo later in the track. This is an odd song that seems to perplex a lot of listeners, but I think it's kind of fun. Then again, I'm a pretty big fan of Spaghetti Westerns.
The clean vocals, which are sometimes done in unison or choir form, are also surprisingly strong on From Afar. In particular, I should mention "Smoking Ruins," which contains almost entirely clean vocals and is a pretty excellent song.
From Afar is a very strong album from a band that is becoming increasingly confident and who have tapped into something really good with the orchestral elements and the improved vocals and musicianship. It may not bring back all of the old-school Ensiferum fans to the fold, but, judging by what I've read from fans and reviewers, many attitudes towards the new lineup have been changed for the better since its release. It's a very, very good album that is well worth checking out, whether or not you have written this band off. Never say never, friends. Ensiferum is in strong form and the future looks very bright indeed!