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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