Written by Andrew.
In stark contrast to “Victory Songs,” there was only one change in Ensiferum’s lineup in the time separating “From Afar” from its immediate predecessor, this being the replacement of keyboardist Meiju Enho, who left the band in the summer of 2007, with Emmi Silvennoinen. Whether or not this made a significant impact on the sound of the band’s fourth record I cannot say, although I’m inclined to believe it didn’t, given the newcomer’s lack of songwriting credits in the liner notes. What is certain though is that after the formula and familiarity of “Victory Songs,” “From Afar” did represent incremental but decisive change and progression for Ensiferum, for better and for worse.
I won’t beat about the bush: “From Afar” is my least favourite of Ensiferum’s albums to date by a substantial amount (including their latest, “Unsung Heroes,” assuming my initial impressions at the time of writing remain intact). This is not, I wish to stress, the same thing as it being a legitimately bad record, which it isn’t – Ensiferum’s finely honed sense of balance between melody and aggression as well as their seemingly boundless exuberance ensure that they’ll always remain well on the right side of listenable, assuming Markus Toivonen never completely loses his mind and starts writing disco or something. Nor do I necessarily object to the tweaks “From Afar” brings to the Ensiferum formula. It is, however, the only one of their records which I often find wearisome to listen to from beginning to end; while entirely melodically palatable, I frequently find I have to prevent myself from skipping tracks, fighting a sense of “for Christ’s sake, just get on with it already” ennui.
Allow me to explain; while they had flirted with expansive folkloric evocations before, “From Afar” feels like Ensiferum’s first real, self-conscious attempt to create an album which would be described, first and foremost, as epic. By 2009, “epic” had become something of a coveted designation in the metal scene, more so than it had been a decade earlier when Ensiferum were taking their first steps. While still big hitters in their own right, Ensiferum now shared the stage in Europe with the likes of Turisas and Equilibrium, bands whose success they had at least in part facilitated and yet whose odes to battle and triumph were by this point far more opulent and cinematic than their own. Moonsorrow, by now, had made a name for themselves writing their own monolithic brand of folk metal with songs frequently breaching the 15-minute mark, and Wintersun, the private project of Ensiferum’s own ex-frontman, had achieved cult status with an album whose arrangements left Ensiferum for dead in terms of their intricacy and technicality. Considerations of whether or not they were good aside, Ensiferum were in danger of sounding small in comparison to their contemporaries, and this would be unacceptable in a time when being grand and cinematic had become the thing to aspire to.
If we look at “From Afar” as Ensiferum’s attempt to catch up with the zeitgeist, an awful lot of things seem to click into place. Where a paucity of pomp and circumstance had once been a key factor in Ensiferum’s appeal, here pomp and circumstance are practically cultivated. Rather than the band’s previously rather limited use of synthesisers, “From Afar” contains honest-to-God full-blown orchestration accredited to Mikko Mustonen, with samples taken from the Vienna Symphonic Library (I guess we know it must be epic stuff if it comes from Vienna). Something on the order of a dozen session musicians are credited, interludes and instrumental sections are longer than ever before, and the album contains not one but two songs that break the 11-minute barrier.
Again: I don’t object to any of this in principle. Indeed, when all of this grandiosity pays off, it pays off in spades, most particularly during the album’s first song proper, the title track. “From Afar,” bolstered as it is by layers of orchestration, is an absolute beast of a song, possibly even my second favourite Ensiferum track ever after “Slayer of Light.” Unrelentingly fast rhythm guitars dance with hauntingly melodious strings and choirs, and it doesn’t hurt that Petri gives what is possibly the standout vocal performance of his career (enough for me to forgive him for that awful ultra-distorted horse-shit on Norther’s “Death Unlimited”), a livid, authoritative battle roar. “Elusive Reaches” (Petri’s sole writing credit and, like “The New Dawn” from “Victory Songs,” the shortest song proper on the record) is another standout, its focused, driving structure and short-but-sweet solo reminding briefly of the incisive exhilaration of “Iron.”
It may be telling though, that the two tracks I feel most compelled to revisit on “From Afar” are also the shortest. For the songs which stretch over five minutes, the album becomes, not more compelling in its scale and scope, but distressingly insubstantial. “Twilight Tavern” is structurally sound, with a respectably catchy shout-along chorus (the more I think on it, the more I think the post-Jari incarnation of Ensiferum has more of a feel for legitimately infectious hooks), but it’s just too damned jovial to take seriously, far more of a drunken jape than even “One More Magic Potion.” I like my metal to be joyous, certainly, but I prefer it to be exultant in the register of Aragorn giving his speech at the Black Gate, not that of Merry and Pippin getting shit-faced at the Green Dragon Inn. “Stone Cold Metal” is even more tonally disorienting, spending its first three minutes as a standard-issue up-tempo Ensiferum track before careening off into an extended instrumental section seemingly designed to emulate the scores of Ennio Morricone for Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy, including the song’s melody rearranged for piano and whistling and an actual banjo solo. Leaving aside the fact that Leone’s sweat, dust and grime are texturally about as far as it’s possible to get from the Finnish tundra, it’s just so irritatingly flippant, seemingly incorporated for no better reason than a chuckle at the disingenuousness of it all.
As for the two show-stopping epics, “Heathen Throne” and “The Longest Journey,” the former is the more frustrating, all the more so because it summarises my complaints about the album as a whole; for all its bluster, there seems to be much less to it than there should be. Remorselessly padded, it extrapolates its main riff to the point of exhaustion, dragging out melodies with interminable flourishes rather than moving things along. “The Longest Journey” holds up much better, conveying the gravitas and import appropriate to its girth with a spectacular recurring orchestral motif. I probably wouldn’t bear the song any ill will if it wasn’t for the fact that it cheats; of its near 13-minute runtime, the last four minutes contain nothing but repetitive and superfluous orchestration. It’s only marginally less obnoxious than ending the album with ten minutes of silence then five seconds of white noise, the favourite gambit of many “clever” bands.
On the whole, “From Afar” isn’t bad, it just feels like less than the sum of its parts, moments of fleeting brilliance interspersed with too much padding and a few head-scratching structural and aesthetic choices. It feels like the band were shooting for grandeur and hitting its superfluous aspects but missing the substance of it, Toivonen and Hinkka struggling to move from writing metal songs as lithe little packets of adrenaline to writing a metal album as a big, all-incorporating monolith. Anyone who has ever enjoyed anything else by Ensiferum will find something to like on “From Afar,” but it’s a gangly, awkward creature; by my reckoning, Ensiferum’s only real misstep to date.