Review Summary: In 1997 a very grumpy (Finn)troll woke up. Here's what he had to say.
Once upon a time, 15 years ago in a Scandinavian land not too far away, six very merry (Finn)trolls decided to embark upon a quest that, when completed, would in the near future grant them success as being one of the most popular Extreme Folk metal bands around. The key to this success is indeed their excessive and expansive knowledge of ancient Scandinavian folklore and fairy-tales, which caused the six trolls to collaborate in what is arguably one of the most impressive folk metal debut albums of all time. “Midnattens Widunder”, meaning in English “Beasts of Midnight”, is a very unique album not only for its genre, but for its time too.
Of course, these six trolls who have always been known collectively as Finntroll, have always succeeded at the one thing that many recent Folk Metal bands tend to leave out in their work, which is an interesting concept or story. “Midnattens Widunder”, throughout its nine songs and 29 minutes of running time, tells a very fantastical and wondrous story of the legendary “Rivfader” (Rip-father) and his travels throughout his own era. For those who have the slightest interest in Folk Metal as a genre, you would be well advised to buy this album for the lyrical content itself. Despite the fact that Finntroll were formed in Finland, this album's lyrical content is wholly taken from the Swedish language, yet even considering that fact it's fairly simple to understand what themes are explored throughout these 29 minutes. Basically, Finntroll's debut revels in the band's penchant for writing excellent tunes taken from the darkest corners of Scandinavian folklore/mythology.
Now, it's all very well and good focusing on the concept of “Midnattens Widunder”, but this is a music review, and in these 29 minutes, there is quite a lot of it. The Black Metal influences are more than just a little prominent in songs as aggressive and harsh as the excellent 'Svartberg' (Black Mountain) and the ripping 'Blodnatt' (Blood Night) , and it certainly shows in the diverse and well executed guitar work. In particular the guitar work does sound very heavy and aggressive, but there are also moments where it truly shines amongst the background of wildly epic atmospherics and unique folk instrumentation. On the breathtaking 'Vätteanda' (Goblin Spirit) the song eventually quietens down, and makes way for some truly melodious guitar notes by Teemu “Somnium” Raimoranta, whereas on the eerie yet satisfying 'Segersang' (Victory Song) Samuli “Skrymer” Ponsimaa lays down some extremely sludgy grooves whilst still trying to flow along with the generally epic atmosphere, which is here in spades.
Aside from some very impressive guitar work, another aspect that is traditionally associated with Folk Metal is quite obviously the folk instrumentation itself. On the marvelous title track guest musician Mistress Helga (whose name alone guarantees a few chuckles when said out loud) lets her talent run free and wild as her top-notch accordion performances really do sound out of this world. Generally dominating the song itself, yet not overshadowing the other instruments, the accordion is here unique in the way that if it hadn't been introduced into the title track, it probably wouldn't have been as interesting. However, even when the accordion settles down to make way for some very uplifting keyboard melodies courtesy of Henri “Trollhorn” Salvi, it comes roaring back with a beautifully played solo of its own, and could even be a perfect substitute for the guitars. The keyboards themselves do indeed provide various moods and epic atmospheres, but it can't be forgotten that they keep the album's general sound from becoming too raw with all the Black Metal influences rushing around. With each and every song, and in particular the intro and 'Svampfest' (Mushroom feast) of “Midnattens Widunder”, the keyboards truly shine through, and create a successful combination of melodious interludes and aggressive sounds.
The vocals here don't really deviate from the harsh, grunted style that Jan “Katla” Jämsen quite clearly and frequently uses, but at times, as on 'Vätteanda' and the title track, Tapio Wilska is used as a guest musician to provide some narrative work and cleaner vocals, to not only give the vocal style itself diversity, but also make a genuine sense that this is indeed an album based on folklore, and not merely screaming out lyrics from paper.
If there is ever only one thing that “Midnattens Widunder” struggles with, it's the length. At 29 minutes, and with no less than three songs barely reaching two minutes of total time each, it seems as if this should really have been an EP as opposed to a studio album. This isn't to say that these three songs don't offer anything new or unique to the album, because as a matter of fact they do, but when a song as ridiculous as 'Bastuvisan' (Sauna Song) lasts a mere 78 seconds, it slightly takes away from the general flow of the album. And half of those 78 seconds are basically two men talking to each other in a somewhat nonchalant way, which simply isn't what tends to be expected from a folk metal record.
This said however, it's easy to ignore such a track when the rest of the album offers so much diversity, epic atmospheres and unique instrumentation. The concept itself works perfectly alongside the stellar musicianship on offer here, and the idea that everything, including the lyrical content, is completely written in the band's native Finnish language, creates a sense of authenticity within the making of the album. This is not only an album for (Finn)trolls, it is a strong representation of how Folk Metal can use extreme metal sub-genres to its advantage and create one of the best debut albums of a genre in the process.