Review Summary: From Afar might not be as mind-blowing as Ensiferum’s self titled was, nor is it as catchy and easy-to-get-into as Victory Songs, but what it is, is a superbly composed and musically near flawless folk metal album.
Ensiferum has had a very successful career. They started out in 1995, released their critically acclaimed self titled album in 2001 and have been on top of the so called "Viking metal" sub-genre from there on. Even though they lost their frontman Jari Mäenpää in 2003, Ensiferum quickly found a replacement in the face of Petri Lindroos (ex-Norther). Although a lot of people have said, and are still saying, that Petri will never live up to Jari's potential, the brutal truth is that Mr. Mäenpää, while inarguably being a true master of his craft, is overrated. Petri Lindroos is a good replacement and a great frontman (he had already proven that in Norther). The albums Victory Songs and From Afar are great examples of that as while they might not be as frabjous as Ensiferum's self titled was, they are still damn good Viking metal albums.
From Afar, being the band's second full length with Petri, doesn't exactly bring anything new to the table regarding the style/overall feel of Ensiferum, but it does have some minor changes compared to Victory Songs. First of all, From Afar is more bombastic than Victory Songs was. It is much more grandiose and while the epicness that goes hand-in-hand with every Ensiferum album may be a little over the top here at times, it still completes its objective of giving the album a very powerful atmosphere. Secondly, this is the first Ensiferum album that doesn't appeal right away, aka it's actually a huge grower. When one only gives this album 1-2 spins, he or she might think this record just blows. The long, epic songs "Heathen Throne" and "The Longest Journey (Heathen Throne Part II)" take a while to sink in as they have countless tempo, rhythm and melody changes along with rather technical solos and neat guitar-work. Other songs like "Smoking Ruins" and "Stone Cold Metal" are also growers that might not appeal on the first listen but when giving the whole album repeated listens, grow immensely. To be honest, the only straightforward songs on From Afar are the title track and "Elusive Reaches". “From Afar” is a typical Ensiferum song - epic keyboards, double-bass drumming and galloping guitars dominate the track - and "Elusive Reaches" is a speedy folk song which has Petri singing in an up-tempo manner.
The album itself starts with an acoustic intro as all Ensiferum albums do (on From Afar the acoustic intro track is called "By The Dividing Stream"). This set’s the mood for the rest of the album and tells right away about the large folk influence the band has as Ensiferum uses acoustic guitars frequently and always has a very folky feel to their brand of Viking metal. The intro is followed by the already described title track after which there comes "Twilight Tavern" that has once again all the usual characteristics of an Ensiferum song: double-bass drumming, galloping rhythm, gang-vocals by the whole band and a very catchy chorus; the song’s breaking point being the steady acceleration at the end of the track. Above mentioned "Heathen throne" and "Elusive Reaches" are followed by "Stone Cold Metal" and no, it isn't about the genre. What's remarkable about that track is the middle part that sounds like a clip from one of those 1950-60's comedy shows. It showcases a quiet snare drum and piano tone circa a 1950-60's style accompanied by a wild-west (well in this case, wild-Finnish) type atmosphere. There also seems to be some use of Banjo during a small part which last's from 6.10 - 6.25. After "Stone Cold Metal" there is "Smoking Ruins", possibly the best track on From Afar. Great clean gang-vocals and a really solid rhythm section drive this song. Acoustic parts in the pre-chorus and during the end of the song enhance the atmosphere and provide a neat bridge for the chorus to kick in. Low tuned solo in the middle of the track is great and to be honest, there isn't much more to be desired from a folky Viking metal song.
The Last two songs, “Tumman Virran Taa” and “The Longest Journey (Heathen Throne Part II)”, end the album in a style, with “Tumman Virran Taa” being a prelude sung in Finnish, to the following epic 12 and a half minute closer. “The Longest Journey (Heathen Throne Part II)” starts off low-paced and with a heavy wall of guitar. After about a minute, the vocals and guitars stop, leaving only the marching drums and orchestration playing. That lasts about a minute and after that the solo-ridden epic really starts off. Many twists and turns are found in that song that was most definitely created as a counter to "Victory song" off Victory Songs to end From Afar in a truly monumental manner.
From Afar is also not just a compilation of songs, it is an album that flows together very well. None of the songs seem out of place and there aren't any special standouts that make one go "ohh, I love that song, so I’ll skip the few before it". The guitar-work is as good as ever, same goes for the drumming and Petri's vocals have actually gotten better since his last album with Norther, where they were much weaker than ever before. Petri's rusty screams are rather original and while definitely not appealing for everyone, they do fit Ensiferum's music very well so it's nice to see him recovering and putting out a good vocal performance this time around (comparing the vocals to the aforementioned N album).
From Afar might not be as mind-blowing as Ensiferum’s self titled was, nor is it as catchy and easy-to-get-into as Victory Songs, but what it is, is a superbly composed and musically near flawless folk metal album. With this release Ensiferum doesn't push any boundaries of the genre, nor do they progress it anyway, but they do create a thoroughly enjoyable folk metal record that both fans and the band themselves were looking forward to.