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What? ENSIFERUM is evolving! - 79%

BastardHead, September 3rd, 2012

Half naked Finns seems to be a very specific trope within the metal community, but there's no doubt that these drunken Scandinavians can usually churn out some excellent tunes. Ensiferum is known for a unique blend of folk metal and power metal that many bands would come to rip off after their runaway success within the metal community. The thing about this is that Ensiferum holds some strange intangible that bands like Northland can only dream to reach. There's something about the way they write their songs, the way they approach their concepts, and the way the songs and concepts are executed. I can't elucidate precisely what it is that they do differently than their contemporaries, but almost everything Ensiferum has churned out since their inception has been among the best in the genre. They didn't get this popular by accident.

And that's what makes From Afar such a black sheep within their discography, it's not quite the same as what they'd previously given us. Don't get me wrong, the bombast is still here, the infectious hooks, the singalong choruses, the high speed riffing with folky melodies layered overhead, everything that makes Ensiferum great is here in spades, but the way they've approached the songs on here is unlike anything prior. See, I don't quite like this album as much as the two preceding it, but I certainly admire what the band was trying to do. They did not want to rest on their laurels and mechanically turn out another product too similar to what the fans had come to expect from them at this point in their career. Maybe perhaps they were trying to distance themselves from the shadow of Jari Maenpaa, which had been haunting them ever since Petri Lindroos took over guitar and lead vocal duties, since Victory Songs (the first Lindroos record) wasn't very different from Iron (the last Maenpaa record). The fact of the matter is that From Afar stands out in their discography.

I'm sure some of you are picturing the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail with everybody urging me to just "Get ON with it!", but you really need to take a journey through the album to get the full effect of what's different, because despite being noticeable enough for me to feel it ends up hurting the album somewhat, it's mainly a series of subtle nuances and alien themes that make this album what it is. I mean, the first hint that something is up here would be the fact that the traditional intro track is damn near longer than most goregrind splits. They've been inching further and further along with each album in this regard, but this drops the hint that this going to be a more ambitious effort than the hard hitting straightfowardness that made Victory Songs such a hit with me. It isn't long before that little inkling really makes itself known, as nary the third real track breaks the eleven minute mark. Yes, this album contains the epic "Heathen Throne" saga, spanning three tracks (I consider "Tuuman Virran Taa" to be a part of it, it's just an intro to the second part really) and breaking 23 minutes, over a third of the album's running time. Both parts of the saga fit well enough with each other and there's no doubt that the band put a ton of thought and effort into this epic, but it really falls flat with me. There are standout segments throughout the two, but as one cohesive whole it's just self congratulatory and bloated. I was so, so pumped at the prospect of an Ensiferum song longer than most episodes of any given television show, and to its credit the song(s) never drag, but there isn't enough going on to fully warrant such a huge undertaking.

This theme of ambition and trying new things pervades the majority of the album, with mixed results. The weird synth parts on "Twilight Tavern" stick out like a sore thumb and distract from an otherwise rousing, "One More Magic Potion"-esque number, whereas the American Western banjos and whilstles in "Stone Cold Metal" are among the highlights of the album. Another new idea that I'm personally a huge fan of is that there's finally no misplaced ballady track. "Smoking Ruins" is the closest thing to one you'll find here, consisting almost entirely of clean vocals, but it's still a jubilant, mid paced galloper with a sense of fist pumping adrenaline that can only induce a positive crowd reaction in a live setting. I guess you could call it a sonic successor to "Wanderer" from the previous album, albeit with a bit more of a sense of urgency and magniloquence. But that's it, even the token short, overly aggressive song in "Elusive Reaches" stands a bit above it's predecessors in "Slayer of Light" and "The New Dawn".

Ensiferum really kicked everything up a notch when writing and recording From Afar, and yet astute readers will probably notice that is is actually rated third out of all four albums I've reviewed of the band. Despite the heaps of praise I have for the album, the evolution, and the idea behind the album, I can't help but feel like the band isn't playing to their strengths. The best song to be found on here is "From Afar", and it sounds like it could have been on Victory Songs with no tweaking. Essentially, the song that sounds the most like what they've already been doing for a decade is the most well written, most entertaining, and most memorable track on the album. With that said, their experiments aren't entirely failures, because "Stone Cold Metal" is the easy runner up in terms of the album's best song. I suppose their biggest hit in the score comes from the fact that I just don't like the "Heathen Throne" epic all that much. It goes and goes and goes and takes up a huge amount of time on the album but they're the least memorable songs by a long shot. They're essentially massively huge interludes with some entertaining parts thrown in here and there. It's not worth it, there's a brilliant 6 song EP in here being bogged down by a bloated mess of too many ideas that just don't work very well. The upside of the album is that Ensiferum knows that they need to change up their formula if they don't want to end up as culturally relevant as a penny-farthing within five years, as the folk metal boom seems to have passed. They can't ride on their previous success forever, so they take risks and try new things instead of rehashing previous formulas over and over. Such a thing can work, I have a whole host of Vader albums as proof, but Ensiferum is a more ambitious band then that. They kind of stumbled a bit on this, but it's because they're crossing treacherous terrain, and the good news is that they still wound up in one piece at the end of it.


Originally written for http://lairofthebastard.blogspot.com/

Deep in the woods of the north - 100%

Crushader, July 4th, 2011

Like a river originating in the form of a small stream from a glacier and rushing forward growing more and more powerful as it flows towards its destination, the same way has Ensiferum’s might gotten more impressive as we follow their career from the sparkling originality of their self-titled to the bombastic nature of Victory Songs. When I got familiar with this famous folk metal-band, I instantly learned to love their s/t a great deal, was totally hooked into Iron and completely blown away by Victory Songs. Against this background, From Afar faced a challenge no less than the highest standard I had set for any album thus far. On the other hand, I held Ensiferum as perhaps the only band that could meet my extremely demanding expectations. I wondered whether Ensiferum could still take their perfection a little further. Then came the moment when I first kicked in the title track on Youtube and holy fucking shit, it almost maimed me with its sky-cracking epicness and superb songwriting. After that there was no doubt: Ensiferum were back and better than ever.

The first major thing I noticed when giving From Afar a number of careful listens was the added symphonic elements. While Victory Songs already had a touch of symphonies in the mix, it never crossed my mind to call it symphonic metal by any standard. It was soon revealed to me that From Afar could be called that anytime. Straight from the beginning of the title-track, it was clear that the guys had really found out how to unleash an overwhelmingly wonderful symphonic assault upon the listener. Still, this new feature is brilliantly woven around the traditional core of Ensiferum and not used continuosly. Combined with eargasmic guitar riffs and melodies that burn as fiercely as ever, the listener is drawn to a maelstrom of vivid images of distant lands where the sun visits the horizon only briefly during the deepest winter and where the light of the Midsummer sets nights ablaze. The atmosphere is enriched with flute, kantele, mandolin etc. with all the instruments giving their own share in creating the folkish atmosphere and Petri's harsh vocals, supported by clean choirs, seal the astonishing work with glory, melancholy and hatred.

On From Afar, Ensiferum offer us a selection of songs that each differ from the rest in their own, spectacular way. We are introduced to two longest Ensiferum-songs of their career, Heathen Throne Part 1 & 2 which clock at 11:09 and 12:49, respectively. With all my heart I can say that Ensiferum have truly mastered the art of making long songs. These songs are thoroughly interesting, coherent and flow intensely, never escaping from the band's grasp. The first part concentrates more on the blasting metal-attack with brain-melting guitar harmonies and solos, epic arrays of symphonic keyboard-arrangements and a strong, if a bit clichéic, message. The chorus makes every proper folk-metaller rapidly grow half a meter in height and stand tall while the waves of heathenry crash on the shores of Christianity like a tsunami. The second part takes one to a great journey through planes of existence with every single second filled with adventurous vibe and monumental songwriting. Clean vocals are used a lot which fits perefectly into the atmosphere. I must admit that the majestic fading in the end doesn't really add more substance to the song than if it was a couple of minutes shorter but it also doesn't lessen the song's value in my eyes.

A capella-track Tumman Virran Taa is something that might come as a surprise. This minute-long piece of choir-singing in Finnish is, in any case, another proof that these guys can come up with something quite different that still doesn't make a tiniest crack in the spine of the album. Stone Cold Metal is also a unique piece of art that mixes bombastic folk metal with Western-themes. It is a tribute to the likes of Ennio Morricone with its long, winding, breathtaking Western-interlude. It even has a banjo-solo! All of the songs mentioned so far are something that make From Afar different from the previous Ensiferum-albums. They have experimented with a bunch of new things and incorporated them ingeniously to their traditional sound. From Afar is a flawless example of an album that has brought fresh new ideas onto the table but has still remained true to the band's roots.

Even though aforementioned songs deserve all the praise I gave to them, the ones left are as good or even better. Elusive Reaches is a fast, blazing track that has some of the most amazing guitarwork on the album and that, my friends, is really something! Smoking Ruins is a kind of equivalent to Wanderer on Victory Songs with its almost 100% clean vocal-approach, lighter songwriting and story of a man's hardships. By the Dividing Stream is an enchanting build-up to the whole album, like a calm before the storm. Two tracks following this magical intro are perhaps the pinnacle of the album, if there can be a pinnacle in perfection. The title-track is a majestic offering that sends waves of stunning epicness from the speakers, knocking down everyone who is not prepared. Everything is executed with accuracy: mindblowing symphonic-arrangements, furious guitar, bass and drums, breathtaking vocals, both harsh and clean, and all this finished with impressive spoken part, an excerpt from Kalevala. No less than one of the best songs of all time. Twilight Tavern is virtually of equal quality. It uses the common folk metal-formula (for example: harsh vocals in verses and clean choirs in choruses) but every detail is carefully planned and with added uniqueness that comes mainly from female vocals and the superfast ending, it reaches a level of catchyness and general awesomeness possibly only surpassed by the title-track. The bonus track Vandraren also deserves praise. It is a cover of a song by Swedish folk/pop-duo Nordman. I heard the original for the first time in my early childhood while traveling in the epic landscapes of Lapland with my family. As soon as I learned that one of my all-time favourite bands is going to cover it, I got extremely excited. And the cover didn't disappoint me. Crowned with guest vocalist no other than Heri Joensen of Týr himself, it is a rocking tune with strongly folkish vibe; a great tribute to the original song.

I'm fully aware of all the fanboyism going on in this review but oh well, deal with it. *puts sunglasses on* From Afar is honestly one of the best albums I have ever heard in my life, if not the best of all. There's basically no flaws to be found on the album. I recommend this to all fans of folk metal, symphonic metal and epic metal in general. See you at the Twilight Tavern!

(Originally written for http://reflectionsinthousandlakes.blogspot.com/ )

A feast for the ears - 100%

doomknocker, April 16th, 2011

I'd like to thank these wacky Finns for opening my eyes to the wonders of folk metal. Straddling that fine line between uber-seriousness and uber-fun, there's much to behold and enjoy within the ranks of dorsal-Finned folkdom, where one can picture his/herself striding down the warpaths of eras gone by, bloodstained sword in one hand, swinging beer stein in the other. It's nothing if not majestic.

And if it were up to me, I'd hold these guys at the top of the heap.

The way I see it, Ensiferum have always been the more somber-grace espousing within the folky spectrum, straying from the fun-loving path with hymns of battle lore (no band reference here) the likes of which would make Erik the Red do a jig while degutting a heathen. Still holding true to their wintry medieval war-chanting with a dash of melodic thrash riffing, the group storm across oceans wide to give us quite possibly the most amazing album of 2009, taking a symphonic metal approach into a dimension so few bands are able to even gaze upon, bordering on manic with a touch of class, thankfully missing the pompousness that comes with the genre. Throughout this disc I fought many an urge to pick up my broadsword and conquer my next door neighborhood under the guise of the Finnish flag-strewn banner, as the palm-muted guitar tandems, blasting drums, orchestral intervals, massive choirs and blackened screams mix into a churning backdrop for the storming of all sorts of foreign shores. From the blasting speed-of-light metallic masterworks of "From Afar" and "Elusive Reaches" to the slower dirges of "Heathen Throne" and "Stone Cold Metal", this album teems with more imaginative ideas than a number of modern acts cascading from mainstream society, and helps prove that frozen Scandinavian country is one of the leading forces in the metal world. And with good reason.

So at the end of the day, "From Afar" is, simply put, one of the best albums 2009 has to offer. Things seem to be coming up roses for the Ensiferum horde, and here's hoping that they'll continue their upward trend for years to come.

A Commendable and Praise-Worthy Effort - 85%

zaebangad, April 25th, 2010

After Jari departed Ensiferum to concentrate on Wintersun and after their Victory Songs, (which was the moment at which I exclaimed: “fuck, they’re screwed!”), my skepticism about From Afar was very strongly fortified in my brain. As of the hour I am writing this review, we’ve been waiting for over half a fucking decade and no one in their right minds believes that Jari is ever going to complete Time. I have strong reason to believe that Time is like Kung Pow 2, it’s just a false rumor spread by its creator and is by now a colloquial expression meaning “not in a million years”. And, while Jari is sitting at home and playing God of War III on his computer (he needs that extra RAM to power his emulator), Ensiferum have been hard at work to deliver their 4th full-length.

Globally speaking, the album is quite good. It’s commendable. It starts off legendary with an intro made of beautiful folk melodies that only Ensiferum can craft, opening perfectly for the spine-breaking force that is From Afar, a song with riffs so powerful and melodies so epic that it will simply stick an axe into your head. Following is the equally strong Twilight Tavern, which will then squeeze all of your blood from the carpet and make you drink it.

The music is ultimately very typical of Ensiferum, those unmistakable crushing riffs, those classic sword-bearing melodies can not be formed by anyone else. A change though, can be seen in that this album is a bit more on the power metal side of things, which, of course, is not a negative thing. The clean vocals really shine on this one and are a nice change from Petri’s screams, which, honestly, are not something that I hold in too high a regard. I hate to compare, but he is not able to recapture that same quality of the legendary ex-frontman. A very fresh change are the added female vocals that weave choruses equally as epic as their male counterparts, making a truly fine addition to the overall picture.

Unfortunately, there are several things going against the release which prevent it from reaching ultimate metal greatness. My biggest problem lies with the track Heathen Throne. It starts off Amon Amarth (something that I don’t want in my Ensiferum) and in the next 11 fucking minutes it turns into a track so dull and murderously tiresome, that it inevitably kills the momentum of the album and left me contemplating suicide. It took a while till the brown spots before my eyes disappeared. Fortunately, the rest of the album ranges from solid to superb and will (eventually) regain its momentum. Somewhat unsettling, however is The Longest Journey (a 13-minute journey, to be exact), a song with three endings, that, although a sequel to Heathen Throne, is thankfully not that bad. Apart from these few faults, there are several moments in the album where Ensiferum rip-off themselves and sort of become like a stale, clichéd version of their previous albums, but nothing too horrible.

Still, even with its faults, I am extremely pleased with From Afar. It falls just a tad short of Ensiferum’s former glory, but is still a commendable offering worthy of respect.

Back to the glory days. - 95%

hells_unicorn, January 27th, 2010

Truly excellent albums differ from ones that merely entertain to great degrees in that they often redefine one’s premises about what defines excellence. This tends to manifest in many different ways, sometimes merely by not conforming to one’s expectations. The predetermined bias that I carried when first approaching Ensiferum’s “From Afar” is that it would be comparable to “Victory Songs”, primarily in that it would be a solid listen that falls short in a few areas to past accomplishments. But not long after getting through the first couple of songs I began to realize that what I was hearing was something that was well beyond said caliber of an album.

Although very different from the two famed full lengths put together with Jari still at the helm, this is right up there alongside them in terms of sheer intensity and majesty. Particularly insofar as the ambitious nature of the instrumentation is concerned, there is definitely a push back towards a grandiose, high speed sense of adventurism at work here, aching with unforgettable speed riffs, unforgettable folk melodies and intricate solo work. The addition of keyboardist Emmi Silvennoinen has brought with it a larger than life keyboard presence that rivals the symphonic brilliance of Dark Moor, as well as a subtle softness to the mostly masculine gang/folk background vocal sections that tilt the band further towards the power metal sound that they’ve flirted with since their inception.

The differences between this and past works doesn’t stop with the addition of a new keyboardist, but instead prevails in every aspect of the entire sound. The production has moved a little more towards a lighter, less bass driven sound more characteristic of the band’s self-titled debut, but with the added pomp of a much larger orchestral presence. The lack of Jari’s vocal and lead guitar gymnastics is compensated for by a greater emphasis on guest vocal slots, as Petri is sticking to his characteristic guttural sound typified with Norther, as well as some lead guitar adventurism on the part of Markus Toivonen, who isn’t quite as fast on the instrument but definitely capable. A few surprises such as a banjo solo out of Markus on “Smoking Ruins” and some really brilliant acoustic passages like the ones heard on the two “Heathen Throne” epics further bolster the band’s newfound independence of their estranged impresario.

For the most part, the formula at work and the resulting pacing of the album tend the most towards that of “Iron”. There is an underlying power/thrash character to much of the riff work and a strong lack of mid-tempo sections and gradual changes to speak of here. Whether it be blistering and triumphant speed anthems like the title track “From Afar”, the dancing folksy speed of “Twilight Tavern”, or the short but sweet throwback to the band’s debut album sound “Elusive Reaches”, it definitely points toward berserkers in the mosh pit rather than old Viking forefathers gathering for a grand remembrance. The band takes a surprising interlude into an Amon Amarth direction on “Heathen Throne”, but even then the result is a similar tale of melodic majesty followed by a frenzy of thrashing goodness as that of “Tale Of Revenge”, only about twice as long.

If nothing else, Markus and company have proven that Ensiferum can live on and thrive even after losing almost all of its original lineup. The songs are still fresh, in spite of being beholden to a very limiting and simplistic style that hasn‘t been altered much in the past 10 years. Hopefully this will give Jari the much needed kick in the ass to get Wintersun back into action, but regardless of what comes of that, there is a future of more amazing albums out of this band, especially given the diversity that has come out of the recent lineup changes.

Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on January 27, 2009.

Most Impressive - 94%

MaDTransilvanian, November 8th, 2009

As something of an Ensiferum fanatic I awaited this album with great impatience as well as wonder: would it continue on the slight downhill path started upon with Victory Songs, or would it be an improvement over its predecessor? Luckily, the answer is that From Afar is an overwhelming success, almost reaching the band’s first two albums in terms of raw quality. This album is definite proof that Ensiferum can get along without Jari Mäenpää (as well as most other original members) just fine.

As per established Ensiferum tradition, the first track is an instrumental intro whose sole intent is to serve as a mood setter for what is to come: it consists of melodies based primarily on keyboards and some folk instruments lasting for a few minutes. This particular intro is neither very original nor is it epic (as was Ad Victoriam for Victory Songs), but it serves its purpose well. The first sign of what this album is really about is the title track, also the first single from the album. This song is something of an acquired taste, as it certainly took me some time to realise how well-executed it actually was, mostly because Petri’s growls seemed to be all over the place, which made it reminiscent of Norther, a good but nevertheless inferior band. From Afar is essentially the classic Ensiferum song: lasting about 5 minutes, alternating between growled verses and clean, epic chanted choruses. The same can be said of Twilight Tavern, a superior track which succeeds in avoiding the classic folk metal pitfall of the retarded drinking song which goes nowhere (see: Finntroll, Korpiklaani), instead being both aggressive as hell and inspirational, in the sense that it evokes that medieval atmosphere as Ensiferum has always done better than nearly anyone else.

From Afar, however, wouldn’t be an Ensiferum album if it didn’t have some mid-paced, utterly epic songs. Heathen Throne is the first of two here, and it’s something of a masterpiece of songwriting. Petri delivers a solid performance, aided by the soaring clean choruses which really shine on this one. The climax of the song, however, comes right after the 8:00 mark with a crescendo of harshness and energy, with each element of the music working towards it: drums, guitars, and especially what is most likely Petri’s best vocal performance in Ensiferum, perhaps even his career. The second epic, serving to conclude the album, is The Longest Journey, and it’s just as well-made as Heathen Throne. It’s even slower-paced, and even has some choral chanting in its main part. The only problem is that, as the album closer, it also contains the outro which is little more than some random instrumental ambience for the last 4 minutes or so, making that part of the song relatively useless and boring.

All in all the content of From Afar is quite varied in a way similar to Iron’s complexity, with the standard fast and mid-paced songs mentioned above as well as interludes which, in this case, serve very little purpose (Tumman Virran Taa isn’t much more than a minute of spoken Finnish), the more ballad-oriented track (Smoking Ruins), the breakneck folk-oriented thrasher (Elusive Reaches) and finally the oddball song: Cold Stone Metal. This time, Ensiferum managed to put together seven minutes’ worth of what is a mix between the classic Ensiferum song and some folk, some whistling and an instrumental section which contains a banjo solo. Now, this may sound unusual (and it is) but it’s actually rather well-done, although realising that takes a few listens.

Ensiferum’s fourth album is undoubtedly a new highlight in their discography. It managed to give the band a new identity after the years of important line-up changes. However, it follows the formula of cranking all kinds of different songs into the same album (as was the case with Iron), which isn’t quite as successful as the perfect self-titled debut, even if it does allow for the creation of great albums. On a final note, I’m glad to see that Necrolord is still in charge of Ensiferum’s cover artwork, which in this case is particularly awesome (it looks like a cross between the classic Ensiferum cover, a Wintersun cover and a Dissection one).

*Almost* tops their debut - 89%

stereo_typical213, October 6th, 2009

What an anticipated album this was for me! For a while I was in dire need of some new Ensiferum material and Victory Songs was quite a let down for me, as I didn't really enjoy Petri's songwriting and vocals in comparison to Jari's. I bought the album about 3 weeks after the album actually came out, and absolutely refused to download or listen to ANY of it. (Don't ask me why ..) All my friends were talking about how good and epic it is, and FINALLY it arrived in the mail. To be perfectly honest, I was expecting a little bit more from this release, but nevertheless, it's fantastic. It's what you'd expect from Ensiferum: Very fast, great atmosphere, guitar solos etc, but what sets this album apart from the others is the almost frequent use of sung vocals. On Ensiferum's other releases, the albums probably contained 2 or 3 songs that had sung vocals in it, but nearly every song on this album (They even have an a-Capella song!) contains sung vocals. It also has quite a limited amount of vocals from Petri, which to be honest is a good thing in my opinion. Petri's vocals have always been a let down for me, as they tend to be a bit to low for my liking. Jari's vocals are just to hard to top, and have a much larger vocal range.

One thing, which also differentiates itself from the bands previous efforts, is the song lengths. I worked it out: On the first 3 albums, the song lengths on average go for about 4-5 minutes, whereas on From Afar, it's about 7 minutes on average. There are even 2 songs that go for over 10 minutes, which they have only ever done once in the past. Even when they did make long songs, they tended to be quite monotonous and repetitive, but this isn't the case here. The songs are full of tempo changes and a wide array of riffs. You have your typical 'fast paced riff’, which is showcased on songs such as 'From Afar' and 'Twilight Tavern', and you also have you slower, more melodic riffs which are on 'Heathen Throne' and 'Smoking Ruins'. The album flows nicely with nothing extremely un-expected, which for a 4th release isn't a bad thing. (If they do the same thing for another 15 years, then we have a problem..) The songwriting of Petri has definitely come a long way from his Norther releases and Victory songs. One of my favourite riffs would have to be the beginning of 'Twilight Tavern’, which isn't like his usual power chord palm-muting chug fests. Like mentioned before, his vocals aren't bad, but I just don't particularly enjoy them. If you've listened to Ensiferum's other releases, there isn't much more here, you've still got those awesome synth runs, thrash-influenced drums and the occasional acoustic piece.

One thing that I wasn't too impressed about is the epic-ness. Yes, albums are great when they are epic, but I don't particularly enjoy it from Ensiferum. What I loved about the Jari-era Ensiferum was that the songs were fast, heavy and enjoyable, but had a slight pinch of melancholy about it. Songs like 'Guardians of Fate' and 'Windrider' always came across to me this way, and that is what I really enjoyed. It wasn't too melancholic, (save that for doom metal) but just enough to leave something fresh and new in our music libraries. This album is generally centered around 'sounding epic', which is probably because Petri is now in the band. There is a noticeable increase in orchestration and loud chants. It's not a BAD thing, but just makes it a little bit less enjoyable as their debut and Iron. The main perpetrators of this are the songs 'Stone Cold Metal', 'The Longest Journey (Heathen Throne Part II)' and 'From Afar'. These songs are definitely great and worth every cent, but are simply missing something that I'm used to hearing from Ensiferum. I'm sure I will get used to this aspect, because bands do have to evolve.

Basically, it's a great album and you should definitely get your hands on it. It's better than 'Victory Songs', but not as good as 'Ensiferum' and 'Iron'. Every song on this album is good, but my favourites would have to be 'Twilight Tavern', 'Heathen Throne', 'Elusive Reaches’ and 'From Afar'. Definitely worth buying.

Ensiferum - From afar - 75%

Radagast, September 19th, 2009

‘Victory songs’ was an act of defiance from Ensiferum, a message to their doubters that they could still actually be Ensiferum despite the loss of Jari Mäenpää and the long-serving rhythm section of Oliver Fokin and Jukka-Pekka Miettinen. Despite a few tweaks to the style, Markus Toivonen and his new colleagues asserted themselves with confidence and went on to prove they could carry on the Ensiferum banner with justification.

With the line-up now established (‘new’ keyboard player Emmi Silvennoinen is now 2 years in the role) the time has come for the band to try their hand at a different sort of approach on at least some of the songs on this follow-up. The one thing that many no doubt feared for ‘Victory songs’ that did not come to pass was a loss of the dizzying speed and aggression of the first 2 CDs. ‘From afar’ in fact does lower the overall tempo, but the slowing down has been done in the pursuit of grandeur, with longer, multi-sectioned songs coming to the fore at the expense of at least some of the expected franticness.

The ever-improving split vocal arrangement they have been using since the ‘Dragonheads’ EP sounds its most refined so far, with Markus Toivonen’s divisive vocals at their best yet. ‘Victory songs’ managed to strike a near-perfect balance between the vocal styles, and while there are definitely more clean vocals this time around, the way they weave in and out of Petri Lindroos’ screams is more developed and less predictable than before.

The song order seems structured to at once ease in the newer elements while reassuring the listener that the old familiar sounds are still involved too. After a typically astute intro of acoustic guitars and varied chiming folk instruments – no 30 seconds of keyboard fluff here – the title track opens things properly, but the symphonic keyboard blasts and elegant choirs that accompany the expected speeding riffs and blasting drums forewarn that ‘From afar’ will be Ensiferum at their most bombastic and cinematic yet.

Following this, however is “Twilight tavern”, a far more familiar beast that would have made for an easier, but more misleading opening track. The skittering opening riff in fact sounds a bit like an electrified version to the “Sword chant” intro, and the pounding drums and scintillating lead guitar melodies make for vintage Ensiferum, with a completely outstanding gang vocal chorus. Even this song, though, offers a bit of a curveball with a brief female vocal passage in the midst of all the rampant battle cries.

Despite the hulking presence of the 2 large-scale epics that probably steal the spotlight a little, the song that really stands out from the rest is the centrepiece “Stone cold metal”. On first listen the melodies sound a little unusual, but not totally out of place among the rest of the songs – even the lyrics about ‘steel’ and ‘outlaws’ are fairly ambiguous. It is only when things break down in the middle that the realisation settles in that this is actually Ensiferum’s 2nd cowboy song.

Unlike "Iron" however, the music this time matches the lyrics, starting with no more than atmospheric whistling before rattling percussion and a ‘piany’ rendition of the chorus join in, painting scenes of dusty night time landscapes straight out of a Sergio Leone film, capped by a twanging banjo solo (oh, unbunch your panties, that’s not a first for the band either) before the song kicks back into galloping metallic climes. Musically the most daring thing Ensiferum have ever attempted, it may take a few listens to get used to but will no doubt deservedly go down as an eventual band classic.

The short a capella song “Tumman virran taa” may feel a bit throwaway at first on a CD that has only 7 full songs, but in fact it sets up the closing “The longest journey” better than it first seems, as the melody is repeated a few times throughout, either instrumentally or with the lyrics (“by the dark stream”) sung in English, and creates and sense of continuity.

This is the 2nd of the 2 “Heathen throne” songs on the CD, the first 11-minutes long and the 2nd stretching as far as 13 minutes, and with 2 songs taking up over 1/3 of the total time they would really need to be inspired to stop the whole thing collapsing into a massive sinkhole. Ensiferum have only attempted this length of song once before, but manage to succeed in executing the style in a different fashion this time. Where the undoubtedly excellent "Victory song" in some ways felt more like a regular Ensiferum song with long intro, interlude and outro sections, the 2 on ‘From afar’ are composed of more individual portions that flow and progress through varied heavier and softer moments and create far more of a sorrowful, epic atmosphere.

The extended outro to “The longest journey” may seem excessively long (the true song is in fact ‘only’ around 9 minutes in length), but with the context of both “Heathen throne” parts and indeed the entire CD behind it, the decision makes sense and protracted as it may be, the conclusion is both dramatic and appropriate.

In the harshest of terms ‘From afar’ is probably the weakest Ensifeurm CD to date, but taken on its own terms it is an excellent effort. Were it a debut from a new band it would definitely merit a higher score, but it doesn’t quite match the superlative quality of this particular veteran outfit’s other work. Regardless, it is a rather bold attempt at a fresh approach from Ensiferum, and after the amount of hard work they have put in (especially over the last few years) they are certainly entitled to that.

(Originally written for http://www.metalcdratings.com/)