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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