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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.