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Everyone who hears the name Ensiferum gets the usual image of heroic exploits, almost as if the band is a safe alternative to the more dangerous bands to hail from their region with their decapitated goat heads and occult themes. While this is a true sentiment, if one were to wind back the clock to the early origins of the band, particularly the first demo that was put together in 1997, from a musical standpoint the picture isn’t quite as gallant. On the contrary, at times the black metal origins of what we now know as Viking metal can be heard here almost as blatantly as they were heard on “Blood, Fire, Death”.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of this now distant relationship between the two styles can be observed in the opening song “Frost”, which has not seen a rerecorded version of itself since, though some hear a parallel with one of the first LP’s songs in “Treacherous Gods”. The melodic aesthetic and guitar assault is slow and cold, almost akin to a frostbitten reinterpretation of an early heavy/doom metal work, but the real coldness comes through in Jari’s frozen screams, which have a close similarity with the frosty goblin-speak delivered by Ihsahn on “In The Nightside Eclipse”. Naturally this isn’t a wholly blackened experience, and some obvious nods to the band’s interest in folk music shine through on the melodic vocal passages.
As the album progresses, the tilt towards the familiar Ensiferum sound become a bit clearer, but are still obscured by the lower fidelity of the production and Jari’s harsher vocal character. It’s very clear from the onset that “Old Man” is the same song that provided an epic contrast to a collection of bouncy folk tunes on the self-titled debut, but the character is almost in the same league as an early Dimmu Borgir release. It’s catchier and more epic, but the production practices are painfully similar. The closing song “Knighthood” is where things become a bit more lively and the exploits of heroics become their most pronounced, and unfortunately this song has yet to make its way onto any of the band’s subsequent releases with a cleaner production, which on one hand is unfortunate, yet on the other gives it a mystique that would make obtaining this all the more essential.
While perhaps mostly geared towards the Ensiferum fanatic, it wouldn’t be hard to see fans of earlier Nordic 2nd wave black metal to have an appreciation for it. Jari’s interpretation of the vocal style is very genuine and forbidding here, while on subsequent studio efforts it became a bit more of a side theme as his vocal emulations of James Hetfield and Rob Halford became equally as present. If nothing else, this sort of establishes the fact that history does tend to repeat itself, particularly when looking at how this band’s neighboring Sweden’s export Quorthon went through a very similar transition.
The humble beginnings of the great Ensiferum. Could it really be all that great? Yes indeed. It's clear to see that Ensiferum was destined for greatness from this impressive demo.
The production is quiet, but clear. The bass even makes it way through - something most bands can't manage on a large budget in a top-notch studio. The sung vocals are a little rough around the edges, but that's to be expected.
The first song is Frost, is really a great song on it's own, though it wouldn't stay in tact. Quite powerful and obviously melodic, but the main riff of this song went on to be what Treacherous Gods is based on. There is almost a traditional heavy metal sounding part at the end, which is preceded by a very cold, melancholy interlude. This was a very cool song, it's hard to say with the inferior production, but either Treacherous Gods or Frost works for me.
Old Man is played a bit slower here, and with the production it has almost a doomy feel. But once the heroic lead comes in that all melts away. Remarkably similar to the LP version, with the obvious exception of the production, plus totally unpolished sung vocals.
Knighthood starts with a majestic acoustic intro in true Ensiferum style. The acoustic part comes back later accompanied by a galloping part thereafter.
This isn't black metal, but it almost works as such when you take the demo into that light. It's got that true-to-life feel, the raw energy of a young Ensiferum. Much like what a lot of black metal bands go for with their lo-fi production. And on this level, this demo is also impressive and enjoyable.
Again, it's no surprise, when you listen to this, to see the great band Ensiferum went on to be. It feels really personal and it's a great look at their start. This is as impressive and enjoyable as demos get.