Folk music and metal just shouldn’t go together, should they? Most Old World Folk music tells of fabulous tales, heroes, mystical occurrences, magic, potions, and can even make bold statements against injustices in society. Sounds like a good platform for Metal music to me. There was a time, many moons ago, when I wouldn’t have thought that Classical music and Metal could make such a wonderful pairing. But modern day genius’ like Opeth and Yngwie Malmsteen create some of the most powerful and moving music you can put in your ears. That’s exactly why we should give Classical music’s red-headed step child a shot.
Ensiferum emerged from a kids cover band playing in a rec room in Helsinki, Finland back in 1995. Founded by guitarist/vocalist Markus Toivonen, they were a group of guys that loved metal, but loved European folk music as well. They have combined the two in a surprisingly seamless marriage. Blast beats can nuzzle up to piccolo lines, and beautiful, layered vocal harmonies belong with blistering guitar runs here. Some songs are more in the vein of traditional Metal, while some are really just pure Folk Music. Most are a nice mix of each. There aren’t a lot of rules with this band. Be heroic, epic, unrestricted, Viking, Folk, and Metal. That pretty well covers it. Throw in some real virtuosity and good song writing and you have a band that is truly original. There have been others to fuse these styles before them (Skyclad, for instance), but none better.
“From Afar” (Spinefarm Records) is the title of their latest full-length recording. It is a ten track rollercoaster that keeps you on your toes for its entirety (even with a couple of 10+ minute epics on the roster). The opening track, “By the Dividing Stream”, is an acoustic, very Folky song best listened to by the firelight with a horn of mead and a contemplative soul. But don’t get to comfortable. Track two, “From Afar”, will make you spill your drink if you do. Sweeping, classical orchestration mixed with a quick and driving double bass (courtesy of Janne Parviainen) wakes you up instantly. There are brass and strings everywhere. And over the top of it all is Petri Lindroos’ cutting, gruff vocal delivery. Bassist Sami Hinkka shines on this track as well as all the others. His performance is a real stand out, and the mix let’s you really hear it. Choral vocal harmonies accompany almost every section. This song is really more Wagnerian classical than folk. But the lyrics still retain the folk element themselves.
Studying the lyrics shows you that they are definitely not an afterthought. They are the real essence of the folk spirit of this band. The “Folk” element here is not like an Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, or Kingston Trio. Folk in this instance is the folk of the North, heathens, Vikings. But they do write protest songs in a way similar to their Vietnam War era American predecessors. They are protesting the conversion to Christianity of the Scandinavian and Northern European people. Conversion of the North was especially brutal compared to most of Europe. These occurrences happened relatively late as well. All this was going on about 1000 years ago. And it is obviously resented to this day (remember murders and burning churches in Norway?). But don’t get me wrong, this band is not burning and killing. They are truly protesting through their music while celebrating the ideals of a past time. But they are not limited to telling of former injustices. They sing of adventure, betrayal, and honor as well. I really get the feeling that this band has not set up its own limitations, and therefore all is an option to them. It’s kind of refreshing to hear a band that does not fit into a neat, little, tight mold.
“Twilight Tavern” is an inspiring telling of a firsthand experience of getting to Valhalla all wrapped up in a Power Metal package with a beer drinking, rousing chorus:
Their warrior’s souls forever rejoice
With our ancestors we raise our horns
Their warrior’s swords forever shine on
Welcoming our brothers at the break of dawn!
“Heathen Throne” clocks in at just over 11 minutes. Enjoy the powerful melodies, tempo changes, and varying instrumentation. The peaks and valleys bring you along on the adventure. Petri Lindroos and Markus Toivonen display some wonderful guitar work throughout this track. Emmi Silvennoinen masterfully weaves her keyboards and clean vocals with precision, making this epic song truly epic. “Heathen Throne” is definitely one of my favorites among a strong line up of songs.
“Stone Cold Metal” is the most diverse track on this disc. As well done as it is, it’s still done with a wink and a smile. It’s a real hybrid. Try describing a Folk, Metal, Classical, and Spaghetti Western tune to someone. It’s complete with whistled melody lines, bar room piano breakdowns, and jamming banjo solo. For the uninitiated this one might be a tough sell, but you have to acknowledge the originality and balls this band has.
I’ll have Ensiferum’s newest release in rotation for a long time to come. They are a band with many facets, and have a lot to say. I look forward to their continuing saga…………