Written by Andrew.
Metal today is more widespread and diverse than it has ever been before. Certainly, it may not have the ear of the mainstream the way it did in the glory days of ’86, but nevertheless the internet has made it possible for virtually any young act, no matter how esoteric or ill-funded, to achieve a measure of visibility and even fame. This modern model has its advantages of course, not least the lessening of bands’ reliance on record labels for exposure and distribution. Equally though, it has caused metal to become somewhat static; in the innumerable multitude of acts saturating every sub-genre, each presenting minor variations and hybridisations of sounds established in past decades, it has become harder than ever for pioneers to break out. Even when a truly unique new sound does rear its head, more often than not it becomes lost in the crowd and metal as a whole moves nowhere. Of all the metal bands who have debuted since the year 2000, I can think of only two who have become not only influential but archetypal, whose names have become major reference points in the landscape of the genre and who subsequent acts are described (and describe themselves) as sounding like. One of these, for better or for worse, is Dragonforce, whose endlessly indulgent guitar-and-keyboard histrionics have cast a shadow over virtually all of power metal since 2003, either as something to draw influence from or to pointedly avoid.
The second such act – and the reason we’re all here today – is Ensiferum. They weren’t the first Viking metal band (that would be Bathory circa-1990 – or, if you want to be exhaustingly anal-retentive, Legend circa-1979); they weren’t the first folk-metal band (that would be Skyclad, whose debut predates Ensiferum’s by a full decade); nor were they even the first to blend folk with melodic death and power metal (that honour likely belongs to the strangely undervalued Suidakra). Despite this, their emergence in the early aughts represents an unmistakable line in the sand, to the point that today they have become an institution. Folk and Viking metal can be divided into the pre- and post-Ensiferum eras; where once the fascination with ancestral cultures and the incorporation of folk-styled melodies was a rather quaint and obscure footnote in metal history, Ensiferum dragged it screaming into the limelight. Their anthemic and fast-paced war chants seemed to strike a chord not only in their native Finland, where the floodgates were subsequently opened for acts like Turisas and Korpiklaani, but throughout the international metal scene. Quite apart from the rise in similarly themed acts throughout Europe such as Germany’s Equilibrium and Switzerland’s Eluveitie, the last few years have seen a glut of second-generation acts such as Canada’s Hammer Horde and Battlesoul, North Carolina’s Aether Realm and Finland’s own Brymir (who began life as an Ensiferum tribute band, no less) who deliberately and openly strive to emulate the sound that began with Ensiferum. With their fifth studio album, “Unsung Heroes”, primed for release at the end of this month, the landscape of metal in 2012 would doubtlessly look very different without Markus Toivonen and crew. As such, the time seems ripe to look back at the output so far of one of metal’s last true pioneers. In this retrospective, I’ll be examining each of Ensiferum’s four albums to date – “Ensiferum”, “Iron”, “Victory Songs” and “From Afar” – leading up to a review of “Unsung Heroes” upon its release.
In the early days following their formation in 1995, Ensiferum primarily existed as a casual among-friends tribute act, three young Finns (Toivonen, the only original member of the line-up still remaining, together with Kimmo Miettinen and Sauli Savolainen, both of whom were replaced prior to the recording of the debut) covering songs by Megadeth and Pantera. Not, perhaps, the most romantic beginning for such a storied outfit, but it may help to explain the canonisation enjoyed by Ensiferum – and their self-titled debut album especially – when it is afforded to comparatively few folk metal bands. Simply, it illuminates the fact that Ensiferum are a metal band first and all other things second. They bring an aesthetic of wood smoke and animal pelts to the table with their anachronistically plucked acoustic interludes and incantatory male choir vocals, it is true. However, the core of Ensiferum’s music is and has always been the creation of kinetic and rousing songs rather than showcasing exotic instruments or appropriating ancient Finnish legends for a modern musical context. Their songs have a certain universal appeal in spite of their local folk trappings; you don’t need to be versed in the bardic traditions of Finland to get the earthy drama of “Old Man” or the primal roar of “Battle Song”.
Among other reasons, I love “Ensiferum” for how up itself it definitively isn’t. The musicianship is supremely competent throughout, but seldom at all flashy or showy. Only a few guitar solos appear over the course of the whole record, and those which are present, courtesy of one Jari Mäenpää (recruited from the local melodeath act Immemorial together with drummer Oliver Fokin, and who would famously split from Ensiferum to form Wintersun), are brisk and rattled off without much fanfare. Eschewing extended instrumental sections in favour of rapid, fluid transitions between galloping power metal riffs and early-Gothenburg styled tremolo picking, songs flash past with a minimum of pomp and circumstance, tempos accelerating and decelerating as suddenly and thrillingly as a white-water river.
Finland in 2001 was on the cusp of a power metal renaissance; together with Italy, the country is today the prime exporter of what detractors call “flower metal,” and this is when it started, when bands like Sonata Arctica and Nightwish took it upon themselves to make metal that was glossy and airbrushed and oh-so-very-accessible. “Ensiferum” doubtlessly shares audience members with Euro-power metal fans, as the heroic romanticism of tracks like “Guardians of Fate” and “Hero in a Dream” testifies. Even so, they stand out as being as far removed as could be from being glossy or shiny. “Ensiferum” is an album that sounds incredibly tactile; sinewy and leathery, Tuomo Valtonen’s production job making the guitars sound like they were lashed together with hemp, Jari’s rasps and husky clean baritone those of a grizzled veteran far older than his 23 years at the time of release. Each song has the quality of a stone monument weathered by time, each crack and fissure deepening and strengthening its character.
And what songs these are! They may not be particularly catchy – catchiness has never been Ensiferum’s strength, and it took me a few spins of the disc before I was able to pick any of the songs’ choruses out of a line-up – but they are endlessly magnetic while they’re playing. “Token of Time’s” hammering beat seems tailor-made to wind up a gigging crowd. “Guardians of Fate” radiates passion and heroism, and “Little Dreamer” has the relentless momentum of a cavalry charge. Transitioning smoothly between mournful remembrance, breathless anticipation and frenzied ferocity, songs like “Treacherous Gods” and “Abandoned” seem to encompass a far grander sweep than their relatively modest running times (at least compared to Ensiferum’s later career) would seem to suggest. There isn’t a bad cut on here. “Ensiferum” is a lean, efficient, dynamic record, and therein lies its charm. There’s scarcely a wasted moment here, the band transitioning from one passage and one mood to the next seamlessly and organically. By stripping away all posturing, gimmickry and fanfare, “Ensiferum” achieves grace, nuance and texture, and that’s why it’s so enduringly influential and often imitated.