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Turisas have always been a bit of an anomaly for me in the sketchy world of metal bands and commercial appeal. While much of the success and accolades they have achieved in their career so far (in relative terms, of course) has no doubt been in part due to their ridiculous costumes and infectious live performances arriving at the right time for the community developing an infatuation for that sort of thing there has always been a nothing less than a deadly, straight-faced serious approach to their theatrical music that defies the scorn it would otherwise be easy to pour on them.
While the viking imagery and lyrical themes maintain a tie to their 2004 debut ‘Battle metal’, the truth of the matter is that their music has evolved so much in the short space of times since that ‘Stand up and fight’ can hardly be considered a folk metal CD at all.
There are still numerous folkish elements of course, but only in the same fashion that Rhapsody have always permeated their orchestral thunder with baroque passages, and by leaning further towards the full blown symphonic metal approach of ‘The varangian way’, Turisas are now treading the same path. With real orchestral instruments being used for the first time, the cheep and cheerful Bal Sagoth-style synth bombing of the debut is a thing of the past, though in truth the programming on ‘The varangian way’ was so authentic that the difference is scarcely noticeable here.
The best evidence of the evolution in style would be the role of the 2 traditional instrumentalists in the band, with Olli Vanska and new accordionist Netta Skog pushed further back into the ensemble and with less centre stage moments than on the first 2 CDs. Vanska still adds textures to the songs of course and steps into the spotlight from time to time to provide his wild, electrified solos, but Skog only really comes to the fore on "Hunting pirates", the only truly folk metal song on the CD.
But while this shift in approach was well telegraphed, there are other new or expanded influences in the mix too, which meet varying success and ultimately play a big part in shaping the CD as a whole. I don’t like to rip descriptive terms straight from the promo material, but it’s certainly true that a stadium rock vibe can be heard on a few tracks. Most notable among these would be “Take the day!”, which is very open and instrumentally sparse, the verses either being driven by shimmering cymbals or the ubiquitous “dum-da-da-dum” bass line, though oddly features some of the most concerted use of Mathias Nygard’s growled vocals, which remain in decline compared to his ever-improving clean tones.
More unexpected, though not entirely without precedent, is the increasing number of cues taken from musical theatre. As the CD wears on, there are a couple of sombre, spoken passages that wouldn’t sound out of place in a stage production, as well as some back-and-forth conversational verses (all sung by Nygard). On the whole this tends to work out reasonably well, but it does damage the overall pace and in at least one instance kills a song stone dead. For all the fun to be found in “Hunting pirates”, the verses sound truly ridiculous and don’t marry well with the rest of the song at all – this is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, I know, but the campy, giddy vocals just come across as a bit, well, Gilbert & Sullivan and are as every bit inappropriate as that sounds.
The unfortunate attempts to “get heavy” that marred 'The varangian way' sadly aren’t completely absent either – “Fear the fear” is an out of place track anyway, it’s explicit references to the modern world an annoying distraction that disrupt the listening experience, but the grooving break that shows up towards the end ensures that it sinks without trace.
All this really goes to show that Turisas remain at their best when they stick to unsubtle bombast and rabble-sousing, anthemic choruses. The opening “March of the varangian guard” (very much a counterpart to “Holmgard and beyond”, even reprising its melody and lyrics) and the centrepiece title track represent the band at their very best, with none of the overt gaudiness that damages some of the other songs.
It makes for a frustratingly inconsistent listen, and in the end results in 'Stand up and fight' being the weakest Turisas CD so far. That is disappointing enough in its own right, but the let-down is intensified for anyone who was holding onto the perfectly reasonable expectation that it would be their best. Rather than iron out the elements of 'The varangian way' that inhibited its considerable charms, they have instead picked up a new set of problems to add to them.
Still, it is an enjoyable enough CD to recommend giving a listen, and it is a relief at least to know Turisas will march on unaffected either by criticism or the continued success ‘Stand up and fight’ will no doubt bring. Maybe next time.
(Originally written for http://www.metalcdratings.com/)