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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.

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