Ok, so it's that time again. Don ye war-paint, don ye pelts, grab thy broadsword and march off into battle for all that is good and right in this world. Yes, Ensiferum are back with a new album and it's time to do battle.
The self styled Heroic Folk Metallers' have returned with their fifth studio album in 11 years, 'Unsung Heroes' and straight from the off, you are taken for an epic ride, with the instrumental opening track 'Symbols' mixing traditional Scandinavian folk instruments with full blown orchestration. You can almost see the warriors surveying the battlefield at dawn, ready for the fight with this track.
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Maybe I shouldn't drink so much coffee when I do reviews...
Either way, 'In My Sword I Trust' swaggers in like any good warrior should, full of mead and purpose. With a rousing chorus, some seriously chunky riffing and some beautiful choir and orchestra work, this is the definition of folk metal epic. I'm not partial to Markus Toivonen's shreddy guitar solo (more on that later), but overall this is the metaphorical battle cry for the whole album. It knows it's epic and it will make sure you know it too.
By the time we come to the title track though, things get slightly more pedestrian. The hook behind the song is memorable enough, but the excitement from 'In My Sword I Trust' is lost. There is an interesting duality to the arrangement between harsh vocalist Petri Lindroos and clean vocalist Toivonen, but nothing particularly stirring comes from it, when clearly, from content and title, this should be a rousing track designed to instil the strength and spirit of the unsung heroes. It just seems to fall flat.
This is the problem I find with this album, considering the power that Ensiferum's previous catalogue can muster, 'Unsung Heroes' seems to fall flat. Now, this could be down to the production, as this album has been mixed in a way where the strings and backing vocals sit behind quite wooden sounding guitars, kind of diminishing the sense of scale that folk/symphonic Metal should evoke. Added to that, there seems to be less and less folk influences on this album. 'Burning Leaves', for example, despite it's acoustic opening passage and middle 8, is mostly a regular Metal song. It's only the middle section which features anything folky (be it chord progression, harmony or otherwise).
The guitars on this album are a particular bone of contention for me. The mixing is all over the place and in my opinion the tones are all wrong. Some rhythm sections sound very wooden, such as the slightly thrashy riff in 'Retribution Shall Be Mine', yet when there is a lead line, counterpoint or harmony, the tone that is put on top is so washed in gain and distortion, it instantly jars and doesn't fit in with the over all sound of the band. The guitar solo in 'In My Sword I Trust' is the prime example of this. With a touch more consideration towards the guitar tone it would be perfect as the notes and licks played are great, but the sound just doesn't fit.
One thing I can say for this album is that when Ensiferum get things right, they really do get them right. 'Celestial Bond' and 'Star Queen (Celestial Bond Part II)' are the folkiest tracks on the album, resplendent in acoustic guitars, glorious female vocals (on the former) and then huge, epic guitars and strings intertwining with acoustic passages and harmonised vocals (on the latter). These two tracks epitomise for me what Ensiferum should sound like. They are considered, beautiful pieces of music that deliver not only their folk influences, but the sheer scale and enormity of their sound. The melody is the key point of these songs. These song haven't been built around a riff, they've been built around a vocal melody and the music has been made to fit and the songs are better for it.
'Last Breath' follows in the same vein, mostly acoustic, very folky but very much Ensiferum. That said, there are some dodgy notes from Toivonen which are instantly noticeable. I don't know if this is a case of him biting off more than he can chew vocally as they appear when he is reaching the top of his range, or if they are deliberate in an attempt to build some musical tension. All I know is that they're very noticeable and I can't help but hear them.
The centrepiece for this album is the 17 minute long closing piece, 'Passion Proof Power'. The band really kicks into gear for this monstrous closing piece. The dual vocals of both Lindroos and Toivonen sit atop accordions, strings and some of the better guitar tones on the album. The time signature flows in and out of an almost elegant waltzing beat for the majority of the song. The rises, falls and shifts in the dynamic make 'Passion Power Proof' almost operatic in tone and build on a symphonic bed of strings almost befitting of Rhapsody Of Fire.
About halfway through the song, the band speeds up and Lindroos lets loose with his raspy, dirty vocals in a way that makes you appreciate their heritage as a folk Metal band. This is truly the best you will hear them on the whole album. The guitar work is superb, the arrangement is suitably complex yet still accessible and as the track enters it's closing two minutes, the sound and scale of the music builds up to a glorious crescendo of orchestral strength. It really is that good.
'Unsung Heroes' is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, as an album it can be dull and uninspired in places, filled with questionable production ideas and jarring moments, but then it can also be glorious, epic and downright amazing.
If you love Ensiferum, then you will love this album back to front. However, if you are new to the band, 'Unsung Heroes' is not the place to start. I would recommend 'Victory Songs' or 'From Afar' over this album to introduce you to the band.
Overall, it's not a bad album, but it's not indicative of Ensiferum's best work.