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Autopilot Engaged - 53%

BastardHead, August 9th, 2018

Man this is a frustrating one. I've covered every Ensiferum album up to this point, I'm obviously a huge fan, but it's just becoming clearer and clearer that they are just woefully inconsistent. We all know how legendary the first two albums are (even though the debut is truly split in half between good and bad songs, but the good songs are so good that it barely matters), and ever since Jari Maenpaa left to "focus" on Wintersun full time and Petri Lindroos stepped in to fill the vocalist/guitarist spot, they've been sort of all over the place. Victory Songs is phenomenal and still to this day my favorite album of theirs, From Afar and One Man Army are both kinda wonky and unfocused at times but overall have enough great moments to make them worthwhile, and Unsung Heroes is lame as shit. There's really no clear trajectory to their career nowadays, and admittedly they do at least try something new with each album so I can't fault them too much for not always hitting bullseye.

So along comes 2017 and with it comes their seventh album, Two Paths, and the new idea this time is "let's let members who can't sing handle the vocals this time." We all know that ever since Jari left, the harsh vocals have been covered by Petri and the cleans are mostly Markus Toivonen, with Sami Hinkka allegedly contributing as well but admittedly it's always just sounded like the same deep voiced dude layering over himself so I never noticed. But here? Nah man apparently everybody gets a turn! Sometimes it works out fine, Netta Skog handles lead vocals on "Feast with Valkyries" and she does a good job, and a couple tracks keep the old dichotomy up and running without any changes. But then there are songs like "God is Dead", "Don't You Say", and the title track, which for some godforsaken reason I'll never understand allow... I dunno somebody who isn't Markus to do clean vocals, and man these other dudes suuuuuuuck. There's really no way to describe these vocals other than "somebody who can't sing", because that's all it really is. I wish there was a better way to describe it but there really isn't. It's just somebody who isn't a good singer, who struggles to carry a tune, can't really emote, and clearly doesn't have much experience doing this sort of thing.

I should harp on the bad vocals more, but that's really all there is to say about them. They're just "bad" and that's the only way that I, somebody well versed in trashing bad music, can say about them. I've always been more of a music guy than a vocals guy anyway, so I suppose the most important part of the album is simply whether or not the songs are any good, and that answer is a bit more complicated. In a way, kinda. Tracks like "For Those About to Fight for Metal", "Way of the Warrior", and especially "King of Storms" are absolute scorchers. Those three tracks exemplify everything that makes Ensiferum so great, and they showcase an absolute mastery of this battle metal subsect of folk metal. Folk melodies interspersed with gigantically bombastic power metal is such a fucking cool thing and Ensiferum are basically the Grand Poobah of the style, and on these tracks they solidify their stranglehold on the dying scene. "King of Storms" in particular stands out for being a sort of hybrid between "Slayer of Light" and "Axe of Judgment" with how intense and thrashy it is. I've always loved it when the band would churn out mega aggressive songs like that.

The rest of the songs range from "really dull" to "really stupid". "Feast with Valkyries", "Hail to the Victor" and "I Will Never Kneel" just sullenly plod on by with nothing exciting happening, keeping up the age old problem of Ensiferum's fast songs being awesome and their slow songs being tame. Then there are the ones with the bad clean vocals, and even beyond the baffling choice to fill them with terrible voices, they also stand out for being musical departures from their usual fare. More specifically, they sound like different bands entirely. "Don't You Say" is a really simple, almost vaguely punky rock song with brain-dead simple chord progressions and lazy melodies, and "God is Dead" sounds like there was a mixup in the studio and Alestorm or Korpiklaani accidentally stepped in to record a song. Really, "God is Dead" is the exact kind of folk metal that Ensiferum always managed to avoid; the sort of doinky accordion jig that feels like a joke more than anything else. It's almost offensive in how fucking stupid it is. And yet I... kinda love it? I wish I didn't, because it is dumb as shit. It sounds like they were aiming for recreating "One More Magic Potion" and instead landed somewhere near "Wooden Pints", but the chorus is so brazenly rousing and the solo is surprising shreddy, the buildup in the intro sounds like the world's most radical party is about to let loose, it all just somehow comes together masterfully, despite how dorky it is.

Despite mostly having good things to say about the album so far (awful vocals aside), this still lands as a disappointment, and it's simply because even the best songs here pale in comparison to the best songs they've done before. I'm not intending to hold Two Paths in the shadow of Iron or something, because I know that's unfair, I just mean that despite "Way of the Warrior" being a good song, it's still on the whole pretty average for the style. Ensiferum likes to throw new ideas around all the time, and somehow they're still on autopilot. There is very little fundamental difference between the more traditional songs here and the stuff they used to do in the early 2000s when they were on top of the world, but what was once invigorating and exhilarating is now rote and played out. These songs sound like they wrote themselves, and that's not a compliment.

I find myself at something of a loss for words when it comes to this album, because most of my criticisms can just be accurately summed up by gesturing towards the speakers and saying "you see what I mean?" Two Paths isn't necessarily a bad album, but it is an unnecessary one on the whole. There are three classic sounding Ensiferum tracks and one surprisingly good Alestorm track and the rest is just totally forgettable. The band is so frustrating at this juncture because I don't really know what I want them to do in order to make them as good as they were on the first three albums again. Just... I dunno, be great again. The reason "King of Storms" sounds so great is because it sounds hungry and driven, whereas "I Will Never Kneel" sounds obligatory. If they can get back to writing full albums' worth of "King of Storms"-level excellent tracks, they'll find themselves back at their rightful place at the top, but as of right now, they're has-beens. And it's a real damn shame because almost nobody could touch them in their prime.

Originally written for Lair of the Bastard

No affording for the straight and narrow. - 80%

hells_unicorn, November 14th, 2017
Written based on this version: 2017, CD, Metal Blade Records

Binary choice is a concept that is as old as time itself, be it the good vs. evil, or the more modern variant of moral clarity vs. subjectivity. The old adage of a fork in the road signifying a significant and life-altering decision could be viewed as cliche, but that does little to stop it from being a recurring theme within the metal world, and especially in the case of the adventure-laden world of folk metal. The odes to heroism and victory on the battlefield, communicated through a combination of lofty symphonic textures and folksy tunes over a pint of ale, lend themselves heavily to this notion of standing at a crossroads with only a couple ways forward and no retreat. Be this all as it may, Ensiferum's take on the idea in their seventh studio offering Two Paths presents a rather curious dilemma for enthusiasts and newcomers alike, namely in that it does a little too good of a job of living up to its title in the sense just described, taking hold of past musical practices that have since become cliche both of their own and a few borrowed from other well-known acts.

To be clear, playing it safe by playing to the crowd is not something that necessarily comes to a bad result, and this album actually proves to be quite an entertaining romp. Leading off with a massive sounding orchestral prelude with a serene female voice, "Ajattomasta Unesta" offers all the promises of a familiar march down the same musical path of catchy, larger-than-life melodic pomp that typified Victory Songs and From Afar. This promise does not prove to be wholly misleading as despite having a fairly campy title, "For Those About To Fight For Metal" is chock full of fast-paced metallic goodness, topped off with a flashy Celtic-based melodic hook in the guitar and a massive choral backdrop. Truth be told, the only thing that really jumps out as different is the prominence of the accordion relative to the rest of the arrangement, bringing maybe a slight Korpiklaani feel into the equation. With the entrance of some shorter material in "Way Of The Warrior" and the title song "Two Paths", this formula tends to hold steady, and a surprising degree of bass guitar activity out of Sami Hinkka provides a unique twist on things.

Though the majority of the songs tend to follow the same basic model as the aforementioned ones, resulting in an album that largely feels like a by-the-numbers rehash of former greatness, there are a few surprises that throw things for a needed loop here and there. The most extreme left-turn in direction is the thrasher "King Of Storms", which sees Ensiferum trying to channel the high octane majesty of Iron and making an impressive show of it, though Petri Lindroos' more limited array of shouts and shrieks doesn't quite match the formidable versatility that Jari exhibited with this band back in 2004. Taking some time to observe the ongoing world of folk metal around them, the almost punk-infused "Don't You Say" and the accordion steeped cruiser "God Is Dead" are all but dead-ringers for Alestorm brand of happy-go-lucky tomfoolery at the pub. Likewise, some pretty clear nods to German competitors Equilibrium show through the more densely symphonic numbers like "Feast With Valkyries" and "I Will Never Kneel". It's all fun and quite effective, but at times one might wonder if maybe Ensiferum is taking a break and bringing in one of their Pagan Fest compatriots to fill in while they recuperate.

There has been talk in some quarters that Ensiferum has been losing steam in recent years, though to be fair, people have been saying that since Jari jumped ship to form Wintersun and explore the landscapes of his own dark imagination. In some ways, the later incarnation of Ensiferum is a bit more accessible as it places a greater degree of emphasis on catchy hooks and doesn't go as all over the place as it did on the first two albums. Nevertheless, while Two Paths offers a very fun and inviting display of woodland imagery and good times at the tavern, there isn't quite as much staying power to these songs as was heard on the astounding From Afar, which remains this band's magnum opus after 2005. It's a bit more geared towards the mainline folk metal adventurism of Equilibrium and Turisas than the flashy and epic-length wizardry of this band's older days. It's not so much a band running out of steam as it is a band that is stripping things down a bit, though for some the path of simplification and that of stagnation are one in the same.

Not the best path to go down - 69%

Valfars Ghost, November 2nd, 2017

After One Man Army showed the world a version of Ensiferum mostly stripped of its folk influences, the Finnish group returned this year with a desire to bring back some of the folkiness, which is perhaps best solidified by the presence of an accordion player in the band’s lineup. Unfortunately, this does not mean a return of the meaty riffs that made Ensiferum such a monstrous unit back in its heyday. Instead, this album takes far too many cues from flower metal groups like Twilight Force, slapping a coat of partially-baked symphonic grandeur over large swaths of this album, unfortunately robbing it of quite a bit of the vitality and power the band’s earlier efforts were stuffed with.

When it comes to capturing an epic feel, Ensiferum has a habit of going for broke. On Two Paths, that habit mainly manifests itself in the pouring of a shitload of studio tricks into the band's symphonic effects, which ironically renders all the elements that make up those moments, like the choruses of ‘Feast with Valkyries’ and ‘For Those About to Fight for Metal’, indistinct. Sure, they’re catchy but nothing in those sections has any punch because the mixing is so even that everything somehow feels like it’s in the background. The voices, the keys, the guitars (if they’re even being played during these sections), everything.

Those are just the choruses, right? And at that, not even all of them? Sure, but many of the other sections scattered throughout this album are fairly nondescript. ‘Two Paths and ‘I will Never Kneel’ sneak past you without leaving any sort of impression. There’s also a singer on here (either Markus Toivonen or Sami Hinkka) whose clean vocals in ‘Don’t You Say’ and the chorus of ‘I Will Never Kneel’ are awkward, only capable of delivering a melody that always manages to be slightly off.

Despite a few bizarre or ill-conceived ideas regarding the production and execution, the writing is decent for the most part, despite the lack of focus on strong riffs. ‘Way of the Warrior’ is the only song here placing a lot of focus on said riffs (even if they’re quite similar to the ones from ‘One More Magic Potion’) and, not coincidentally, is the best track and the only one more than a little reminiscent of what the band was doing around the time Jari left. This album packs a few other notable treats, like the danceable, accordion-infused ‘God is Dead’ and ‘King of Storms’, a song that strikes a satisfying balance between fast riffs and Rhapsody of Fire-esque keyboard flourishes that actually manage not to drown out the guitars. With nice, understated vocals from accordionist Netta Skog in the verses and a nice folky gallop in the bridges, ‘Feast with Valkyries’ is a reasonably solid tune as well, despite the underwhelming chorus.

This album contains a lot of good and a lot of not-so-good. So how does it measure up overall, you ask? Well if you strictly want the sort of stuff that sounds like it could have been on Iron, you’re out of luck, but you no doubt already knew that. This is a latter-day Ensiferum release with an overly-polished sound and a lot of symphonic trappings. While the lack of biting riffs is a problem, it ultimately isn’t one that deals a fatal blow to the album. Two Paths is worthwhile overall, though it contains a few duds, and most of the better songs still have some unfortunate production and performance choices that keep the music from shining like the gems the group used to be known for.

A Path So Dark - 55%

Larry6990, October 1st, 2017
Written based on this version: 2017, CD, Metal Blade Records

Perhaps it’s just me, but I see far too much hate towards Ensiferum in the online metal community. Claims relating to the ‘samey-ness’ of each album – accusations of stagnation. Regarding their previous output, 2015’s One Man Army, I really struggled to validate these naysayers – that was a fiery album that really made its mark with multiple anthemic punches. However, upon the release of the brand new opus Two Paths, I find myself slowly allowing the negativity to seep into my brain. Hints of stagnation abound, Ensiferum’s seventh LP shows the Finns approaching what might be considered ‘going through the motions’. Not that this is a ‘bad’ album, there are still a few gems and momentous occasions present, but this simply isn’t going to make the same impact.

The production quality Ensiferum have pursued over the years has certainly given them a unique timbre, but Two Paths pushes that crisp, metallic clamour to an almost irritating point – especially with the overly-loud snare which just becomes intrusive. The guitars are nowhere near as beefy as before, and the symphonics are a little far back in the mix – which is a bigger disappointment considering how effective they can be. I remember when 2009’s “From Afar” blew me away with punchy orchestral accentuations, but now they’ve taken mainly a back seat save for a few moments of glory. The trumpets in “For Those About To Fight For Metal” are pretty darn epic, and the constant presence of strings throughout each linking section remind us that this is definitely a symphonic folk metal band. Speaking of that opening track – it fails to deliver the immediacy of previous openers from the Finns. The main melody is dull, the tempo never sits comfortably and the chorus lacks a sense of triumph despite the layered choral vocals.

One can’t help but feel that third track “Way Of The Warrior”, despite having one of the most clichéd titles since “Battle Song”, would’ve made a more appropriate opening number. I especially love how the clean vocals take over the chorus at the end, revealing the melody behind Petri’s screams. Petri’s consistently gritty growls are once again en pointe, never faltering and eternally decipherable – I only wish he was further forward in the mix. However, on the subject of vocals, why the hell have the band opted for a semi-melodic punky singing at the most inappropriate points?! The chorus of the title-track could have benefitted so much from using female vocals – perhaps Netta Skog? After all, she sounds fabulous on “Feast With Valkyries”. But for some reason Markus Toivonen takes it upon himself to sing incredibly tunelessly – ruining both the title-track and the catchy “Don’t You Say”.

So what does Two Paths get right? The folk melodies themselves are intact and infectious – especially effective when combined with Skog’s accordion. The obligatory intro “Ajattomasta Unesta” is a compelling way to kick things off, beautifully stating the theme from “For Those About To Fight For Metal” – as if the band knew I’m a sucker for recurring themes. The galloping “King Of Storms” is a stormer, particularly thanks to its irregular time changes here and there. But the greatest segment on the whole album comes in the shape of the 4:30 mark in “I Will Never Kneel” – Ensiferum haven’t sounded that big in years; a real ‘fist to the sky’ moment! In conclusion, my recommendation would be to stick the disc on in the background, perk up for tracks three, five, eight and ten, then let the rest fade into obscurity. Two Paths isn’t a bad album, and it still contains hints of that early Ensiferum magic, but I would warn the Finns to be gravely aware of the hazards of stagnation.

Past folk tales and new party anthems - 78%

kluseba, September 17th, 2017
Written based on this version: 2017, Digital, Metal Blade Records

Surprise! After the disappointing One Man Army, Ensiferum delivers a quite entertaining and focused record. Instead of concentrating on a diversified and experimental songwriting that is all over the place, the band concentrates on fleshed-out and short tracks that mostly respect its original style. The few experimental tracks recall other successful folk metal bands without exactly copying them and expand Ensiferum's soundscapes in a respectable way. Two Paths is still far away from the band's genre-defining first two studio albums but it's clearly better than the last two efforts.

However, the album with the stunning artwork and the numerous limited editions with an acoustic show bonus disc, drinking horns, patch, photo cards, poster and wristband starts on a rather underwhelming note. Nobody is really going to miss Manowar that finally promised a farewell tour after having been a bad joke for at least a decade but Ensiferum somehow seems to try to keep that cringe-worthy metal spirit alive with the horrendous pseudo-epic ''For Those About to Fight for Metal'' that incorporates every stupid stereotype of this genre. The exchangeable up-tempo stomper ''Way of the Warrior'' isn't much of an improvement either but once you expect Ensiferum to turn into a comedic circus act, this album finally changes for the better.

The band finally reconnects with its charismatic folk influences of yore in ''Feast with Valkyries'' that convinces with enchanting accordion melodies, majestic male choirs and variable female vocals. The track manages to both go back to Ensiferum's essence of the first two records and to try out something fresh with the female lead vocals. This song defines what Eluveitie should sound like instead of releasing a vapid acoustic record. ''Don't You Say'' keeps the uplifting folk melodies, showcases some simple but vividly rocking riffs and rhythms and throws in some melodic lead vocals that make this tune a joyful party anthem without sounding shallow. The rhythmic ''God Is Dead'' is quite similar in style and could also come from Alestorm or Turisas with its vivid, raw and charismatic male lead vocals.

Overall, the use of three completely different vocalists that complete one another perfectly, the focus on shorter and simpler songwriting and the return to the band's powerful folk elements of yore make for Ensiferum's greatest record since the first two studio outputs in my book. However, this opinion won't be unanimous because the record doesn't include one of the band's usual elaborate epics, limits the use of Petri Lindroos' harsh vocals and sounds at times close to folk bands with controversial reputations such as Alestorm, Eluveitie and Turisas. Personally, I think Two Paths is a dynamic record to listen to that finds the right balance between atmospheric parts and potential party anthems. Ensiferum embraces its past but still manages to experiment in a controlled way. If this mixture sounds intriguing to you, give this output a chance.