Written by Andrew.
Ensiferum grew as a band in the three years following their debut album with the recruitment of Meiju Enho, a permanent keyboard player to augment the more melodious end of their music. However, I would argue that possibly the most important change of personnel in between “Ensiferum” and the band’s 2004 sophomore work would not be a member of the lineup at all. Where Ensiferum had worked with Tuomo Valtonen in 2001 to achieve their first record’s distinctive rough-hewn, age-worn aesthetic, “Iron” found them looking abroad for their engineer; specifically, to Denmark and the legendary Flemming Ramussen, he of “Master of Puppets,” “Covenant” and “Imaginations from the Other Side.” With Ramussen came a sound quite distinctly different from that found on “Ensiferum” – sharper, crisper, cleaner and punchier.
These changes in the production for “Iron” did not come alone but as part of a broader intensification in Ensiferum’s aural onslaught. The debut had balanced fast and slow tempos more or less even-handedly, moments of reflection and contemplation periodically tempering the band’s signature full-frontal attacks. These are still present, admittedly, in “Iron,” but in a considerably reduced capacity. The average tempo has greatly increased here, the band wearing their influence from Bay Area thrash on their sleeve this time round in addition to their more established power and melodic death leanings (if Flemming Ramussen’s involvement wasn’t evidence enough of that, then the cover of Metallica’s “Battery” present as a bonus track on re-released editions most certainly is). At only 43 minutes, Iron is fully seven minutes shorter than its predecessor, and Ensiferum’s shortest album to date, but with the wall-to-wall fury of the rhythm guitars on “Slayer of Light” and “Into Battle,” I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me it contained the most notes.
This could quite easily have been disastrous, a stripping away of Ensiferum’s key trappings and leaving them merely another melodic death/thrash hybrid of the sort they seem to be tripping over in Scandinavia. Instead, what we got was a move in exactly the direction the band needed to go in the wake of the successes of their debut and their best album so far by quite an appreciable margin. As much as I’m fond of “Ensiferum,” listening to it from beginning to end can result in a lingering impression of samey-ness, despite its moment-to-moment dynamism. Where that record was expansive, “Iron” is explosive, its mellow acoustic interjections coming not so much as protracted interludes designed to lull the listener into the head-space of a Finnish wood circa 800 AD, so much as they are pauses between sword strokes, deep breaths between plunges. As such, “Iron” may be a less “atmospheric” album than “Ensiferum,” but with the worthy trade-off that it is considerably more exhilarating. The songs seem tactically positioned to elicit the optimum possible response from the listener, the quieter, slower moments (“Ferrum Aeternum”; “Mourning Heart”; “Lost in Despair) serving to allow us to regain our bearings before the attack redoubles (the title track; “Tale of Revenge”; the aforementioned “Slayer of Light”).
The effect is that “Iron” not only retains its no-frills predecessor’s sense of constant emergence and forward motion but compacts it and concentrates it. If anything, Ensiferum seem to have grown more confident in their ability to engage and immerse; Toivonen and Mäenpää’s songwriting here is the most efficient and kinetic it has ever been, a palpable sense of progression coming from one phrase to the next rather than between passages. The gang-shout chorus hooks of old have been relegated to the sidelines (only in the epic seven-minute fan-favourite “Lai Lai Hei” do they feature prominently) in favour of involved and elaborate riff work. Jari’s solos are longer, faster and more complex, and yet the songs don’t falter in their momentum to accommodate them. Folk instrumentation is less prevalent but more strategically applied, and Ensiferum lack for none of their northern charisma and warlike spirit. Thrash influence or no, you would never mistake “Iron” for the work of Californians.
The result: a veritable menu of near-perfect heavy metal songs. The title track gets things off to a rabble-rousing start, its galloping rhythms calling to mind the best of classic Maiden. “Sword Chant” gives Jari a chance to stretch his vocal range, practicing his Halford over its charging rhythms. “Tale of Revenge” is a case study in how to effectively escalate a song’s intensity. “Lost in Despair” slows things down a notch, but maintains a sense of fierce brooding before segueing into the one-two-three knockout of “Slayer of Light”, “Into Battle” and “Lai Lai Hei.” “Slayer of Light” is my personal pick for the best Ensiferum song ever, every note of its ferocious onslaught quivering with grim import and Jari delivering one of the best vocal performances of his career (“I! I will break your will!” Never fails to send a shiver down my spine), and it’s written with the symmetrical elegance of a haiku. Even “Tears,” the ballad – yes, ballad – that closes out the album featuring guest female vocals from Kaisa Saari is appealing and immediately re-listenable, providing a pleasant comedown after the fifteen minutes of non-stop action preceding it.
My only real complaint regarding “Iron” is the three-and-a-half-minute intro “Ferrum Aeternum,” a complaint sadly endemic to Ensiferum’s discography. Why one would choose to open a fast n’ furious metal album so falteringly with several minutes of aimless and uninteresting acoustic noodling is beyond me. I can let it slide though, because otherwise this is a damn near impeccable record. That a song as good as “Slayer of Light” isn’t even a clear favourite out of the bunch is a testament to how much Ensiferum were doing right here. As valiantly as they would carry on in the wake of significant lineup changes, this is not only Ensiferum’s best work to date, but quite possibly one of the high points of Finnish metal in the 21st century.