“Sword Bearer”. A phrase which may spark images of medieval warfare, combat, death, victory, or even defeat. It is true in any sense how one perceives what exactly is meant by the term sword bearer, but truthfully none of these thoughts come to my mind any more. When I hear the term sword bearer, however seldom it is used (if at all, actually) the first thing which pops into my head is the excellence which Ensiferum, or sword bearer in Latin, has created during their impressive 13 year existence. Many thought that with the departure of lead guitarist/vocalist Jari Maenpaa that the over-the-top epic styling which Ensiferum’s music upheld would vanish, and that perhaps the band would even cease to exist. But alas, along came Norther vocalist and guitarist Petri Lindroos to save Ensiferum during it’s time without a frontman. To be quite honest, I thought that Ensiferum would never be the same, since the genius of a man like Jari is quite hard to replace. However, two years after Jari departed from the band, Petri and the rest of Ensiferum released an EP which showed that the band was still among the elite when it came to folk metal, an awesome display of all that is epic folk metal, Dragonheads
The EP is, in customary EP fashion, short, and consists of a mix of both old, new, and cover tracks. The first track, also the title track, is the only real new song recorded on the EP. “Warrior’s Quest” and “White Storm” are both re-recorded tracks from Ensiferum’s 1999 Demo, entitled promptly Demo II
. The last two tracks are also anomalies, with a cover of fellow Finnish band Amorphis’ “Into Hiding”, as well as a compilation of three Finnish folk tracks ("Karjalan Kunnailla," "Myrskyluodon Maija" and “Metsamiehen Laulu”) combined into one track called “Finnish Medley”.
It’s funny how many things remained the same when such a crucial part of the band is replaced, but it is also surprising how many things changed. What we have on Dragonheads
is nothing approaching the caliber of the material on their self-titled album, with not as many sweeping guitar riffs and soloing, but more of a focus on slow and steady riffing with a more tentative approach to melodies and a more reclusive pace to the album as a whole. Say, for example, you listen to the pre-chorus and chorus to the song “Windrider” from their self-titled album. Hear the desperation (for what, I don’t know) in the guitars and Jari’s vocals? That is what is absent from this album, an element so central to Ensiferum’s core sound it is astounding to hear what they sound like without it. However, it is completely unfair to compare Petri to Jari, seeing they are two separate individuals. What we have laid down on this disc is nothing short of impressive, in its own right. The title track “Dragonheads” is an accomplishment worthy of applause in its own right, with downright impressive songwriting ability, from the chugging opening riff to the breathtaking close where Petri exclaims in war-chant fashion “We’ll meet again in Valhalla!”
. Petri himself is a talented vocalist, a perfect fit for the style of Ensiferum’s music. He has a very strong raspy growl as well as a powerful clean voice which fits the atmosphere perfectly.
It is clearly apparent on “Dragonheads”, “Warrior’s Quest”, and “White Storm” that quality was of the utmost concern, and this obvious attention to detail carries itself down into every instrument and every note. Sure, the instruments are more tentative in the way they are played (the drumming is clearly not as aggressive as it previously was, a sad thing to say, but true) but what they do take the time to play they do very well. The ending to “White Storm” is the closest thing we get to older Ensiferum, with furious double bass and a melody-edged guitar riff which keeps thing from being total chaos.
The real anomaly, though, is the Amorphis cover “Into Hiding”. It is, without a doubt, the darkest Ensiferum song recorded yet, something which reflects on the attitude of its original composer. The cover itself is fairly good, nothing fantastic but nothing to tear apart. Petri’s vocals take a deeper tone during the verses, and the chorus is sung in a different fashion than the other clean singing on the album. Instrumentally things remain laid-back with no bold guitar solos thrown in, no pinch harmonics put in for added effect, and no real standout melodies were re-vamped to sound better than they were on the original recording. However, despite the slightly underwhelming cover song, the closer “Finnish Medley” makes up for what we lost in terms of folk elements with a monumental epic consisting of an impressive instrumental array and a vocal performance worth much applause.
In light of making the review a half track-by-track, it is really the best way to analyze the album considering the amalgam of different styles laid out onto a single, half-hour EP. With Spinefarm re-issuing all of the Ensiferum albums it is now fairly simple to find their material in any half-decent record store, so there should really be no reason why an opportunity to hear such an interesting EP as this should be passed up. It is everything which Ensiferum is, minus a few of those touches which made Ensiferum essential listening (sorry folks, but I think the days of “Windrider”, “Hero In A Dream, “Into The Battle” and “Lai Lai Hei” are long gone), so really, if you loved the premise of Ensiferum before, this is nothing to change your mind on that. Those in love with Ensiferum will remain so, those who despise them will (stubbornly) also do just that.