Written by Andrew.
Here begins the most tumultuous period in the life of Ensiferum. “Iron” had been met with not-inconsiderable acclaim upon its release in 2004, but the period of intensive touring that followed saw them lose no fewer than three members in quick succession; drummer Oliver Fokin, bassist Jukka-Pekka Miettinen, and most famously, guitarist/lead singer/songwriter Jari Mäenpää, for whom Ensiferum’s touring schedule interfered with his scheduled studio time for the recording of his long-gestating side-project Wintersun’s first album. Faced with the choice between his current band and his passion project, Jari opted for the latter and the rest is history.
One has to admire Markus Toivonen’s resolve for carrying Ensiferum through the loss of virtually its entire core lineup while barely missing a beat. Sami Hinkka was brought in on bass and clean vocal duties, Janne Parviainen (previously known for his work with Waltari and Barathrum) on drums, and Petri Lindroos (sharing duties at the time with the defunct-as-of-this-month melodeath outfit Norther) on guitar and harsh vocals.
It was with this lineup that the EP “Dragonheads” was recorded and released in 2006, to an appreciative yet somewhat lukewarm reception from fans. Not that “Dragonheads” particularly warranted a spirited welcome; its tracklist is frankly rather uninspiring, consisting of three full original songs (the title track, “Warrior’s Quest” and “White Storm”), none of which are fixtures in fan discussions or live set lists, in addition to a brief interlude, a medley of Finnish folk-songs and a cover of Amorphis’ “Into Hiding.” While its release on Spinefarm was high-profile, it seemed to come out more as an acknowledgement that Ensiferum (who were by now a fixture of the label’s roster) were still active at all in the wake of 2004’s upheaval than for the sake of the material contained therein. The true test of Ensiferum’s resilience would come with the release of their third album in 2007.
Victory Songs (2007)
Paradoxical though it may seem, it may very well be because of the tremendous shift of the lineup that “Victory Songs” treads so very little new ground. I may be reading too much into it, but the songwriting credits as listed in the accompanying booklet are by far the most scattershot of any of Ensiferum’s efforts. On “Ensiferum” and “Iron” the compositional duties had predominantly belonged to Toivonen, with contributions from Mäenpää. In the latter’s absence, Toivonen still retains the majority of control over Ensiferum’s sound, but “Victory Songs” contains additional credits from Enho, Hinkka, Lindroos and even, somewhat bizarrely, the absent Jukka-Pekka Miettinen. My personal interpretation of this is that the new Ensiferum were using their first full-length together to mesh as a unit, taking the time to become attuned to each other as musicians within the confines of the established Ensiferum sound before taking any bold forward steps stylistically.
“Victory Songs,” then, sounds more or less like it exists at the precise midway point between “Ensiferum” and “Iron.” The Bay Area thrash influence of the latter is preserved, tempos still tending towards the fast and the furious and Parviainen bringing to bear more protracted periods of double-kick and blastbeats than had ever been heard from Fokin (in a purely percussive sense, “Blood is the Price of Glory” is probably the “heaviest” song in Ensiferum’s discography). However, the dense, propulsive, riff-driven songwriting present on “Iron” is largely absent here, the band falling back on more simplistic song structures and the rowdy gang-shout choruses of the debut.
Not that I’m complaining, mind you. A halfway point between “Ensiferum” and “Iron” is a perfectly sound place from which to cultivate good songs, and the Songs on “Victory Songs” are Victorious indeed. The album gets off to a roaring start with “Blood is the Price of Glory” (which, if nothing else, is the sexiest song title Ensiferum have ever come up with) and “Deathbringer from the Sky,” two incredibly fast and heavy tracks whose purpose seems primarily to be to assert that no, the difficulties the band have faced have not lessened their aggression or passion one iota. “Ahti” is deliriously fun with its alternation between its bouncy chorus hook and vicious main riff, and “One More Magic Potion” has an endearingly bawdy, drunken tavern jig quality that thankfully doesn’t overwhelm the “metal” component of folk metal. My pick for the album’s best track though is “The New Dawn,” the song on here that most hearkens back to “Iron” with its speedy, intricate riff-driven structure and luscious dual-harmonised guitar solo (curiously, this song was Petri Lindroos’ sole songwriting credit).
If I were to voice a complaint about “Victory Songs,” which I’m not especially inclined to do, it would be that the dynamism, the relentless forward push to get to the next musical idea that frequently made the first two albums so compelling is less evident on this one. Songs tend to pick a tempo and a main riff and stick with it. For the most part, this is fine, Ensiferum’s aura of exuberance and charisma carrying them through to the realm of “very good” comfortably. However, the track lengths on “Victory Songs” are substantial, averaging between five and six minutes, and there come points where this counts to their disadvantage, making them feel a little less tight and a little more flabby than one would have come to expect from Ensiferum. “Wanderer,” the customary mid-paced track, is catchy as it goes, but at six-and-a-half minutes, its languid pace can start to drag in a way that “Old Man” and “Lost in Despair” never did. The title track that closes the album sits at just shy of eleven minutes, and after three minutes of build-up, most of the remaining eight minutes are spent plugging away at a single rhythm. The band manage to keep things interesting with a delightful recurring chorus hook (“Swords in their hands/They killed each and every man!” gets very easy to sing along to very quickly) and a couple of sweet solos and other variations, but the song as a whole still feels like less than the sum of its parts, and a less effective epic than the supremely well-balanced “Lai Lai Hei” before it, a song fully three-and-a-half minutes shorter.
There seems to be a widespread feeling among fans that Ensiferum’s golden age ended with Jari Mäenpää’s departure. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel that Ensiferum were diminished by the loss of most of the lineup that made them famous; however, if “Victory Songs” is the product of a diminished Ensiferum, then the diminishment wasn’t by very much. “Victory Songs” is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a moral victory for Ensiferum; an album which, while it may not quite surpass the two created by the “classic” lineup, can stand proudly and confidently next to them. Lindroos, Toivonen and Hinkka manage the album’s vocal duties handsomely, and the musicianship is of just as high a standard as it was on “Iron.” In fact, “Victory Songs” manages one important thing the previous two albums couldn’t: “Ad Victoriam,” with its subtle and lovely synths, is the only one of Ensiferum’s album intros which I enjoy enough to listen to repeatedly. I might enjoy it even more if the melody that kicks in around the two-minute mark didn’t sound so distractingly similar to Highland Glory’s “From the Cradle to the Brave,” but that’s probably just a coincidence.