I read so many negative reviews of Unsung Heroes that I actually avoided listening to it for four months. My acquaintance with Ensiferum goes all the way back to their 2001 full-length debut, and I was in no hurry to hear such an essential and formative band for me fall by the wayside. I finally gave it a spin for the first time last night, and frankly I don’t know what everyone is bitching about.
In My Sword I Trust
I mean, sure, Unsung Heroes isn’t the explosive powerhouse of Victory Songs and From Afar. But was I the only person who got the feeling on From Afar that their standard formula was growing really stale really fast? Ensiferum may have set the standard for folk metal as we know it today, but beneath the fist-pumping and epic folk interludes of even tracks like Twilight Tavern and Stone Cold Metal I got the sneaking suspicion that they were beginning to succumb to the very genre stereotype they established. Victory Songs certainly stands as my favorite Ensiferum album to date, but I kind of felt like From Afar was riding too much on its success. Almost every song followed the formula that made Victory Songs so great, and while this certainly facilitated a fresh batch of great songs, it was less than I’d hoped from a band that had consistently paved their own way over the years.
Is Unsung Heroes a washed out version of Victory Songs and From Afar? Only if you claim that those albums capture exactly what Ensiferum ought forever more to sound like. I for one think it’s a breath of fresh air. It reminds me, if anything, of their 2001 self-titled. It humors the possibility of rocking out without lightspeed double bass. It dares to occasionally divorce overbearing synth and “epic” orchestrated overlays from the folk passages. It drops, I think, the degree of pretentiousness that concerned me on From Afar. I have no interest in listening to the musical equivalent of 300 spin-offs ad nauseam. The total testosterone indulgence of Victory Songs was exciting in its day, but in music and film alike it grows old quickly.
I really feel like Unsung Heroes is Ensiferum’s most mature work to date. That doesn’t make it their best; Victory Songs was just too perfect and the self-titled too nostalgic to be trumped any time soon. But on Unsung Heroes I can again feel like I’m listening to a band who share my nerdy lust for all things fantasy. There’s none of the glam and special effects that dazzled me on Victory Songs but made me begin to feel distanced from the band on From Afar. I’m absolutely thrilled to be able to connect with these guys again in the more personal way I felt on their first album.
And really, what can you possibly complain about on a track like Pohjola save that it doesn’t fall into the formula of their last two albums? I’ve heard people say they’re becoming a Turisas knock-off. That’s absolutely ridiculous. Post-Battle Metal Turisas has served as the ultimate Hollywood blockbuster band–glossy and refined, if Victory Songs was Ensiferum’s 300, Varangian Way was Turisas’s Lord of the Rings. Tracks like Pohjola might have epic operatic vocals and orchestration, but the surrounding atmosphere is completely different from either of those works. The viking metal riffs that really start to pick up at the 3 minute mark ought to be a revealing sign that this song is all about the steady drive. The orchestration ebbs and flows without many hard, dramatic stops. The synth whistle that accompanies the main riff in the earlier stages of the song gives it a light-hearted, positive feel that carries throughout. The acoustic guitar outro is beautiful, but it’s also accessible. It’s something you the listener could pick up your guitar and play.
Unsung Heroes isn’t perfect. Sami Hinkka’s clean vocals leave a bit to be desired, especially on “Last Breath” where they take center stage. That, the ninth track, is really the first moment on the album where I begin to see where any complaints might have a leg to stand on. If the 17 minute-long closer which follows–”Passion Proof Power”–was as good as we’ve come to expect from an Ensiferum grand finale, any petty complaints about “Last Breath” might be easily forgotten. The problem is that “Passion Proof Power” is frankly pretty bad. It starts off a lot slower than the rest of the album’s non-acoustic tracks, more inclined to bore me than build anticipation. When it does pick up there’s no clear direction as to what’s going on. The song gives way into some really, really lame progressive rock, coupled with boring, unconvincing spoken passages and completely misplaced operatic vocals. The song never really builds up into anything. There are moments here and there where you might find yourself drawn back in–at the 13 minute mark for instance–but as the song continues to go nowhere you’ll forget about it again soon enough. I can’t make any excuses here; “Passion Proof Power” is a waste of 17 minutes, and if you skipped ahead to it expecting to hear Ensiferum’s finest effort–a reasonable thing to do considering how they’ve concluded past albums–you may well be left with the impression that Unsung Heroes is terrible. Follow that up with an embarrassing bonus track cover of Gypsy Kings’ Bamboleo and yeah, you definitely have a right to demand the last 20 minutes of your life back.
In conclusion, this is perhaps Ensiferum’s most down to earth album to date. It’s all about moderation and maintaining a steady drive while never over-extending or burning out into a bore. It doesn’t crush or dazzle; it rocks along, and does so with some really compelling orchestration that’s uniquely accessible. I think there’s this common misconception that fantasy-themed music has to sound larger than life, but for me that’s a detriment in all but the most perfect, Victory Songs/Varangian Way-level instances. If it sounds fake it’s not doing a very good job of creating fantasy now, is it? Unsung Heroes paces itself and transitions in ways that feel legitimate. I love it, at least for the first 40 minutes. It doesn’t so much progressively decline from there as stall mid-air and nose dive; they should have put “Last Breath” before “Pohjola” and made the latter the finale. “Passion Proof Power” and “Bamboleo” are garbage B-sides better suited for some bonus disc on a collector’s edition. (I suppose Bamboleo technically is a “bonus” track.) To say Unsung Heroes is a great album while chucking out a full 20 minutes of its content is a bit of a stretch, but because the weak points are condensed on the fringe rather than interspersed throughout the album, and because 40 minutes of outstanding new Ensiferum is certainly sufficient, I am content to delete the last two tracks from my playlist and call it a success.