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Of all the albums put out by Elvenking, their somewhat controversial 3rd album “The Winter Wake” is probably the most readily misunderstood. I accent the “somewhat” in the nature of this album’s controversial status in that the polarization connected with it is far less concentrated than that of the overtly emo sounding “The Scythe” (an admitted nod to My Chemical Romance) and the dramatic line up shift that occurred on “Wyrd”. To put it in layman’s terms, the sheer innovation and excellence of “Heathenreel” could be chalked up to a freshman fluke given the numerous lineup shifts and stylistic revamps that have happened since. It can be chalked up to the band not being able to maintain its focus, and it does show to a fair extent on this album.
This is an album that is defined by two elements: it’s catchy as hell choruses and the frequent violin breaks. Terms like pop metal and pop folk are understandably thrown around by many for a good reason, and it has to do primarily with the extremely stripped down, bare bones approach to songwriting taking place here. There’s a few occasional gimmicks here and there, including a rather overt synth pop keyboard intro to the song’s title track (further underscoring the album’s pop nature), but generally this album is defined by straight rock riffs and playful acoustic balladry. Now this band has never really been much about technical feats, but contrary to some who wrongfully label this album as being too experimental, this album is the mirror opposite of progressive.
But make no mistake, song for song, this album does a fairly decent job for what it seeks to do, but the intended goal is not nearly as ambitious as previous efforts. Even longer winded and slightly adventurous numbers like “Trows Kind” and “Neverending Night” tend to fall into a formulaic ritual of recapping familiar sections with very little variation, mostly in switching between acoustic and electric instruments but maintaining the same melodic structure. The loss of guitarist and harsh vocal contributor Jarpen is definitely felt here as the few decent growls are provided by Schmier on the title song, and the rest is attempted by Damna with less than stellar results. It’s not quite overt at this point, but there is definitely a general hint at an influence by bands like Atreyu and My Chemical Romance when looking at the vocal approach here, though truthfully Damna’s vocals have always been a tiny bit on the emo side.
The place where this album generally excels is actually during the mostly acoustic songs, which also tend to be among the shorter offerings. Enticing visions of woodland merriment with a dash of sorrowful yearning paint the picture of “On The Morning Dew”, a song that makes charming usage not only of the band’s strong Celtic influences, but also some masterful flute and violin work, and a beautiful guest female vocal slot. The overall feel of this song is that of a romantic folk dance between 2 partners, with only the trees as their sole witness. “Disillusions Reel” takes a slightly sadder and forlorn approach to the same general formula, putting a bit more emphasis on the guitars and Damna’s vocals, though a nice soprano counter-theme chimes in from time to time to further soften the feel of a very poignant and brief ballad.
Of all Elvenking albums not having the unfortunate status of being the commercialistic flop that was “The Scythe”, this is arguably the least essential for folk and melodic metal enthusiasts, but it is a worthy purchase for anyone who has already enjoyed the first 2 albums. The songs sort of run together a bit, but nothing comes off as overtly lackluster or terrible. The version with the Skyclad cover bonus song is definitely the one to look for as it brings a slight punk edge to an otherwise safe album with few twists and turns. In a sense, this album’s title is an honest assessment of the band’s situation; the wake of what would be a winter-like death of the band’s creative faculty in the name of genre hopping, but the wake itself is not so terrible as its aftermath would be a mere year later.