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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.