Written by Andrew.
When I made up my mind to write this retrospective, I had little idea what to expect of “Unsung Heroes.” Ensiferum played their cards pretty close to their chests in the weeks leading up to its release, putting two songs online (“In My Sword I Trust” and “Burning Leaves,” both of which I was ambivalent about upon first listen) and nothing else, a pretty sparse promotional campaign by today’s standards of Youtube and Last FM where whole albums distributed for free streaming with no more than a plea for patronage is becoming the norm. Part of the fun of writing like this has been that I’ve had absolutely no idea what note this series would end on. What I can tell you though is that I certainly didn’t expect to end up in this position. The initial reaction to “Unsung Heroes” on the web has been deeply and strongly polarised so far. The album has attracted generally positive acclaim from professional publications and ‘zines, but an unexpectedly large portion of the fanbase seems practically offended by Ensiferum’s new, far more subdued sound; unexpected because Ensiferum fans tend towards the zealous sort who would require a substantial betrayal indeed before they would turn on their idols.
Even stranger is that I find myself rushing to the defense of “Unsung Heroes” (for although I like Ensiferum plenty, I don’t consider myself to be one of their fully fledged apostles). Perhaps it’s because it seems to directly address many of the complaints I had with its immediate predecessor, or perhaps it’s precisely because I was never that invested in Ensiferum’s established sound to start with, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed “Unsung Heroes.” Not without a few caveats, certainly, but I can listen to it attentively and repeatedly from beginning to end and come away feeling invigorated and enthused rather than exhausted, which is more than I can say for “From Afar.”
Make no mistake though; this is clearly and by far the most radical reinvention Ensiferum have ever undergone between two albums (curiously, it’s also the first time their permanent lineup has not changed whatsoever between full-length recordings). For the first time, the grey-bearded warrior ubiquitous to every Ensiferum album cover has his sword in its sheath rather than in his hand. While a part of me feels a twinge of shame that I’m enough of a nerd to fixate on a detail this minor, the rest of me thinks the symbolic significance of this change should not be understated. For that’s exactly what Ensiferum – the band whose very name means “sword bearer” – have done, forsworn their role as warriors and embraced the mantle of storytellers, forgone the rush and the frenzy of battle to immerse their audience in the grand scope of the Kalevala.
To wit: the average tempo on “Unsung Heroes” has plummeted, with only one song, “Retribution Shall Be Mine,” exhibiting the thrash influence that has been so much a part of Ensiferum’s music since “Iron.” The rest of the album is comprised mostly of rather hymnal, mid-paced numbers like “In My Sword I Trust” and “Burning Leaves,” which have Ensiferum’s characteristic rousing quality in their gang-shout choruses but in a rather steadier, more sober register than usual, and soft, contemplative ballads like “Celestial Bond” and “Last Breath” (the former of which is sung by session musician Laura Dziadulewicz, and hot damn, as much as I enjoyed Kaisa Saari on “Tears,” this is by far the superior female vocal performance on an Ensiferum ballad). In terms of pacing and structure, “Unsung Heroes” actually resembles the band’s debut album more than anything; while far more subdued than “Ensiferum,” similarities can be found in its unhurried but methodical and purposeful composition, alternating as it does between tension and relaxation and taking its time to develop each song’s tone and texture fully in its turn.
It works. “Unsung Heroes” may not be exhilarating the way its predecessors were, but it amply compensates for it with other qualities. Specifically, it is more subtly and richly evocative of its folkloric heritage than perhaps any other Ensiferum recording, bringing a variety of new textures and dimensions beyond “charging into battle” and “flagon of mead after the battle.” “Unsung Heroes” feels more like stepping into a fully realised and inhabited vision of the ancient world, which includes the joy and glory of combat – the dramatic chorus of “In My Sword I Trust” (“Rise my brothers! We are blessed by steel!”) seems destined to become a linchpin of audience participation at future Ensiferum gigs – but also the reverence of nature in the serene “Celestial Bond,” the reality of legends in the exultant title track and the closeness to mortality in the tired-sounding, elegiac vocals in “Last Breath.”
By reigning in the aggression, Ensiferum have here allowed other elements of their sound to come to prominence. The swelling orchestration present in “Last Breath” and the title track is allowed more room to breathe than it was anywhere on “From Afar,” for instance, and Sami Hinkka’s bass plays a more significant role in the heavier songs, bringing new melodic nuance and depth to the table. Better yet, at least in my opinion, is the total absence of goofing around that was worryingly prevalent on “Twilight Tavern” and “Stone Cold Metal”; this is Ensiferum in the most sombre and reflective mode they’ve ever been, and it suits them nicely. At over an hour in length, “Unsung Heroes” is the most diverse, most mature and largest album in scope the band have ever penned.
Not that scope, maturity and variety are synonymous with quality, mind you, and yes, not every new idea the album conjures up is a winner. “Star Queen” finds itself edging over the line from “ethereal and mysterious” to “just plain dull,” and “Pohjola,” the album’s most up-tempo track aside from “Retribution Shall Be Mine,” feels in need of a rewrite, its rambunctious choirs jarring against the dirty, undercooked riffing, the sort that you might expect to hear from a third-tier Gothenburg act on Black Sun Records in the late 90s. The result of all this pointed variety is that “Unsung Heroes” can feel a bit haphazard, lacking for a coherent structural framework or direction.
Perhaps the spirit of the album is best encapsulated by the concluding epic, “Passion, Proof, Power.” With each consecutive album to date, Ensiferum have beaten their personal best for their longest track length, and for their fifth outing, they’ve pulled out absolutely ever stop. “Passion, Proof, Power” stops just shy of 17 minutes long, and the band pack that running time with everything they can possibly think of, folk and melodic death riffs rubbing shoulders with samples, soprano vocals, progressive rock flavoured shredding and instrumental sections, orchestrations… it’s all somewhat messy and chaotic, but I love it all the same. There’s something to be said for this sort of disjointed, train-of-though composition that takes the most roundabout possible way to get to its eventual climax; a certain boyish overenthusiasm for the sheer act of creation. The song is a rich primordial stew of ideas, 17 minutes crammed wall-to-wall with incident that I found utterly refreshing after the rather cynically padded likes of “Heathen Throne.”
That’s “Unsung Heroes”; over-eager, ahead of itself, all too ready to sever ties with the past and run off in any direction regardless of what that direction may be. However, it’s that same eagerness that gives the album its renewed sense of vigour and vitality, makes it endearing with its willingness to become more than That Band Who Do Those Songs About Battle And Shit. Ensiferum could quite easily have let themselves fall into an AC/DC-like groove for the rest of their career, but it’s quite clear on listening to “Unsung Heroes” that it is this new path and sound that they’ve chosen to pursue. It might be a scattershot first attempt, but on listening, my feelings are overwhelmingly of gladness that Ensiferum have decided to broaden their horizons and push their boundaries as a creative enterprise. It’s a move that will probably lose them some old fans and possibly gain them some new ones, but in any event, more bands ought to be willing to take the plunge as boldly as Ensiferum have.