Review Summary: The heroes of Ensiferum's past seem long forgotten in this tale
When working in a genre as precarious as folk metal, it is critical that bands stay on top of their game to avoid embarrassment. The genre is already perilous as is given its reliance on fluffy melodies and “folk” roots that may or may not have any root in folklore at all, so when a band strays off the thin path and into the woods it is sure that they will wander around lost for an extended period of time. Even one wrong song can throw an entire album off kilter, so it is amazing that Ensiferum managed to stay on course with From Afar
despite the folly of “Stone Cold Metal”. In fact, Ensiferum have always been a reliable source of folk metal, even after the oft-lamented loss of Jari Mäenpää and the rise of Petri Lindroos. If anything, Unsung Heroes
was a long-overdue misstep in the band’s course, one that is folk metal with little purpose and even less soul. Such heavy-hitters as “Treacherous Gods”, “Lai Lai Hei”, “Battle Song”, “Victory Song”, or even as recently as the “Heathen Throne” series seem like distant memories compared to the spattering of uninspired tracks on Unsung Heroes
, proving that either Ensiferum have run out of tangible ideas or simply had an off day during the writing process. With any luck it will be the latter, but things are not guaranteed.
Many will point to frontman Petri Lindroos as the catalyst that led up to this point, and in part that is a plausible argument, but it is not the entire story. It may very well be that a simple stroke of luck allowed Ensiferum to release two good albums after Iron
, and now with Unsung Heroes
things are beginning to collapse onto themselves. “Retribution Shall Be Mine”, “Unsung Heroes”, “Pohjola” (which in itself is a very odd track) and “Last Breath” are mediocrity incarnate, containing next to nothing worth note or remembrance aside from the aforementioned peculiarity of “Pohjola”. While Lindroos’ vocal performances continue to degrade as time moves on, one cannot point the finger at his loss of vocal snap as the main detraction from the music. Markus Toivonen has been the band’s primary songwriting talent since he formed the band, so much of this weight falls there rather than on its primary face in its frontman. The riffs are bland, blocky wrecks that rarely venture into interesting melodies like those found on “Burning Leaves”, instead opting to wallow in the overly-simple and not very intriguing patterns of “In My Sword I Trust” – a track which is saved by its epic choral vocal melodies – or the speedy licks of “Retribution Shall Be Mine” that only wish they could hearken back to the intensity of “Slayer of Light”.
The argument toward Ensiferum running out of fuel is a strong one, but cannot be the only explanation of why so suddenly the excellence of From Afar
was washed clean. One only has to look at “Passion Proof Power” to see that maybe the band simply fired a dud round this time, with attempts to capitalize from both the silliness of “Stone Cold Metal” and the length of the “Heathen Throne” duo falling absolutely flat in part because the former was never good to begin with and could not possibly be stretched out to just over seventeen minutes. Not only is this the longest track Ensiferum have ever done by far, it is also their most disjointed. Clean female vocals, harsh growls, chanting, guitar solos, eccentric symphonics, sampling – it is all just a complete and utter mess. The same can be said for the entire second half of the album, which instead of staying kosher to their usual formula like the first four tracks goes completely out of the way to do things that Ensiferum really shouldn’t be doing. The unusual riffing and horrid spoken-word passage ruin any fragment of potential in “Pohjola”, while the benign and dull “Star Queen (Celestial Bond Part II)” fails to capitalize on the downright astonishing display its other half put on two tracks earlier. Instead, we are met with a mid-paced ballad that offers only its decent acoustic guitars as palpable substance while its emotionless clean singing contrasts greatly the first “Celestial Bond”. There is quite simply very little to work with here that is interesting, and the tracks that do break the mold do so with explosive fervor, launching themselves to ridiculous heights far too quickly and with a sad lack of restraint.
is indeed the most varied Ensiferum release to date, but for all of the wrong reasons. The ironic part about folk metal bands in relation to contemporaries of other metal sub-genres is that when folk metal bands are on-point, there is usually very little that needs to change to keep fans happy. Not only did Ensiferum change things far too quickly and with too heavy a hand, they did so at a time when it was simply not needed. All that would be needed to make Unsung Heroes
a success was to carry on carrying on, while maybe adding in the wonderful ballad featuring the soothing, riveting voice of Laura Dziadulewicz. It is no coincidence that “Celestial Bond”, aside from being far and away the album’s best track, is also its simplest. Her high, airy notes are backed only by an acoustic guitar and bass drum, leaving her voice to carry the track – and carry it it does. Instead, the album surrounds this gem with lead, not only diminishing its gleam but also weighing it down needlessly. The songwriting, for what may be the first time in Ensiferum’s career, is almost entirely absent.
Some bad, lots of average, lots of uninteresting, some good, precious little great – that is what comprises the entirety of Unsung Heroes
. Is it a product of Ensiferum running out of ideas or is it simply an off-album that most bands seem to encounter at least once in their career? Taking the album for what it is – and that is really the best way to answer this question – leaves the answer split between both possibilities. Five albums is a long way to stretch a sound, even after a radical lineup change like that when Jari departed, but to do so much in so short a time span to their sound is an error Ensiferum should not have made. The result is this: traditional-sounding songs that are hollow, and more daring songs that are puzzling, flat, or both. For a long time, fans have been screaming to embrace the past, and now more than ever those voices are echoing louder and louder. Unsung Heroes
is not a catastrophe but is certainly a train-wreck that needs sorting and needs it now. Can Ensiferum revitalize the riffs of Ensiferum
? Without Jari Mäenpää’s skill as a guitarist, probably not, but since the mastermind behind those riffs, Markus Toivonen, is still around, those caliber riffs can still be written. All it will take is inspiration, dedication, and concept realization – things Unsung Heroes
does not possess.