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Let’s be honest here – Turisas brings about as much cheese to their brand of sympho-folk metal as Hammerfall did during their Crimson Thunder era (or as Rammstein did with Liebe ist für Alle da), and they really lay it on thick with glorified arena-rock anthems like ‘Take the Day!’. However, when I listen to Turisas, I am consistently struck with the impression that they know exactly what they are doing: they are finding that small but prominent nerve cluster present in the typical metalhead’s brain which takes a perverse delight in things like D&D, comic conventions and the Braveheart-and-Sir-Ridley-Scott genre of action films, and pandering to it endlessly. To this they add a layer of appeal to history nerds by telling the tale of the Kievan Rus’ migrants who served as mercenary bodyguards (yeah, the Varangian Guard) for the Byzantine Emperors.
It nominally continues the story of The Varangian Way, but a lot of its themes are much more general, even modern. Though Mathias Nygård claims not to incorporate modern-day issues in his music, on this album Turisas makes several jabs with the subtlety of a sledgehammer at the hypocritical pretensions to morality of rapacious political elites in the otherwise-historical ‘Hunting Pirates’, at the saccharine, watered-down portrayal of heroism in consumer culture in ‘Fear the Fear’ and a little more philosophically at the judgments of history and the fate of the American empire in… well, ‘End of an Empire’. ‘Stand Up and Fight’ and ‘Fear the Fear’ are a lot more about internal struggles and personal courage than about the epic historical fantasy which characterised The Varangian Way.
Even though Turisas (despite the folksy Scandinavian trappings) fell squarely into the same category of power metal as Manowar, Hammerfall and Sabaton, I felt (and still do) that they had found a unique niche for themselves. On the one hand, I’m glad to see them begin to expand from their earlier work and experiment a bit; on the other hand, I think they picked the wrong album to try it. If it is the second part of an epic, it should follow the first part seamlessly and thematically. On first listen, it all seems to hang together a lot more loosely than The Varangian Way did. A couple of the songs got annoying the way only power metal truly can – I mentioned ‘Take the Day!’ above. The symphonic arrangements didn’t mesh together with the guitars and bass as well on this album as on The Varangian Way. The mixing is unbalanced on several tracks such that the metal instrumentation (which is more than halfway decent) gets nearly drowned out.
But then, so much of the album is so shield-bludgeon-you-off-your-duff awesome that I have to largely forgive it these flaws. The opening track, ‘March of the Varangian Guard’, even if it takes the form of a rather paint-by-numbers march, is still an incredibly strong track (even if one has to crack a grin at the military bugle at the beginning!) with a whiplash-inducing violin solo. (I also much appreciated the ‘To Holmgård and Beyond’ reprise.) ‘Hunting Pirates’ is gimmicky, but it puts the accordion through its paces in a credible one-up of Alestorm (still not as good as Saxon’s ‘English Man o’ War’, though). The fist-pumping opening riff of ‘The Great Escape’ pretty much makes the song, though it has decent staying power as it recounts and plays out in call-and-response the internal conflict between duty and ambition of one noble commander. ‘The Bosphorus Freezes Over’ is possibly my favourite song on the album, if only because it is slightly more understated than the rest of the album’s bombast, and adds a dimension of elegiac sorrow which makes the whole album that much more epic.
In short: it’s a Turisas album. It’s bold. It’s rash. It’s macho bordering on homoerotic. It’s very much a love-it-or-hate-it album from a love-them-or-hate-them band. It isn’t as good as their previous albums, but it’s still more than solid.
16 / 20