Ensiferum – Unsung Heroes
It seems to me that there are two distinct camps when it comes to the recent developments of Finnish folk metal group Ensiferum, as illustrated by their fourth album, From Afar. Specifically, From Afar saw the band augment their traditional folky melodic sound with symphonic elements, creating a sound that was a bit less “pagan-folk” in tone but a bit more “massive,” for lack of a better word. Some old-school fans didn’t like this as it marked a decisive move away from the band’s woodsy pagan aesthetic, but I for one think of it as their masterpiece; From Afar marks the actualization of Ensiferum’s epic sound, retaining their folk sensibilities while moving toward much broader musical horizons.
For this reason, I jumped at the chance to listen to and review the new Unsung Heroes, and it is also for this reason that I am somewhat chagrined to describe what I feel to be the first significant regression in Ensiferum’s development. Stylistically, Unsung Heroes is quite similar to its predecessor, but in terms of execution is is decidedly lacking.
One thing I loved about From Afar was the way the band utilized their new sound. Certainly I liked the symphonic and choral touches in some of the speedier songs, but one of my favorite moments of the album was the massive fade-out at the end, which added a bit of a spiritual tenor to the proceedings and closed a worthy album brilliantly. What made it even more brilliant was that it added a new angle to the music; most folk metal bands seem content to battle, drink, and tell old tales, but there are a few that have moved on to using their sound in more contemplative (if no less epic) ways (Moonsorrow, I’m looking at you), and with From Afar Ensiferum made their leap into this new vanguard of folk metal.
Evidently the band was also impressed with their more ethereal vibes, and so they tried to take it a (number of) step(s) further with Unsung Heroes. The unfortunate paradox, then, is that however glorious the aforementioned outro may be, there is no way to transform it into a good song; it is simply too repetitive. Coasting on the collected power of almost an hour of excellent, focused music, the band was able to repeat the same thing for over two minutes with only minor variations and end up with something great; however, this doesn’t work very well as a backbone for songwriting, and so the band ends up sounding a bit stale on Unsung Heroes.
Additionally, it seems like in trying to take their new direction further, they’ve created something of a duality; they have some metal stompers and some folky songs (some of which remain acoustic and some of which don’t), and all of these seem to stick around long enough for the orchestra to come in and play a few variations on the theme before it’s time for the next thing. In other words, by trying to develop and explore their sound, they disassembled it and couldn’t quite fit it back together again.
However, when Ensiferum gets themselves out of this formula they truly shine; see “Burning Leaves,” a dark, folky gallop reminiscent of Falkenbach, “Pohjola,” a fun orchestral metal romp, and “Passion Proof Power,” an amorphous monster of a 17-minute epic which closes the album with a bang. And it should be pointed out that nothing here is really bad – the problem is that some tracks seem awfully formulaic, a dangerous road to take in the world of folk metal.
Ultimately, I’d recommend Unsung Heroes to fans of Ensiferum. It’s not very good by their standards, but at least it sounds like they’re trying, too hard if anything. It is neither a lazy album nor a commercial grab (nor even a bad album), and if they can figure out how to reconcile their new vision with their actual product, we can expect to hear some great material from them in the future.
Tom’s Rating: 3.0 out of 5