Ten Years #40: Ensiferum

Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
40. Ensiferum (782 plays)
Top track (38 plays): One More Magic Potion, from Victory Songs (2007)

Ensiferum descended on metal in 2001 with a force sufficient to crush any lingering doubts that folk metal was a genre in its own right. Their self-titled debut coincided with the first instance in which I was aware enough of metal music to fully recognize the birth of something new, and for that I’ll always view them with a sense of nostalgia. When I was first encountering the likes of Finntroll and Thyrfing, metal in general was still something of a novelty for me. The fledgling trend towards incorporating folk-centric fantasy and pagan themes graced my ears uncontextualized and thus timeless. When I first heard Ensiferum, I finally realized that this was an emergent process. The clerics of musical trendiness had been persuaded to change allegiance, and Odin and Thor would have their day in place of Satan for a time.

Ensiferum’s discography is not the sort of thing that ought to necessarily make them the hallmark of that glorious and now fading trend we call folk metal. Their history is a bit more rocky, oscillating between excellence and something less. Iron (2004) frankly bored me, and I could never quite get beyond the feeling that From Afar (2009) was a collection of Victory Songs (2007) b-sides–outstanding to be sure, but extremely similar and never quite as perfect. Unsung Heroes (2012) stands taller, I think, and its negative reviews are likely a consequence of a forgivably weak ending and single-minded fans looking for Victory Songs 3.0. But no, it’s not consistency of quality that makes “Ensiferum” one of the first names to pop into my head when I think of folk metal. It’s more a matter of timeliness–of peaking when it mattered most. Ensiferum (2001) sounds a little washed out now, but it was a triumph in its day, and it appeared at the cusp of the genre’s transition from an underground pulsation to a self-declared musical movement. Victory Songs (2007), their best album (I think most fans can agree to this), emerged at the pinnacle of the genre, when the original artists were coming into their mid-career highs and the best of the bandwagoners were leaving their marks. It was supported by a grand-slam of folk metal tour bar none here in North America the following year: Ensiferum playing in the USA for the first time, closing for a mind-blowing opening line-up of Eluveitie, Týr, and Turisas at Paganfest 2008.

Unsung Heroes (2012) appeared in time to claim ownership of folk metal’s end. I’ve been getting the sad feeling lately that 2011 marked the style’s grand last hurrah. It was a loaded year for metal, with a huge number of releases. The new trend away from earthy folk towards ethereal post-black was ever present, 2000s legends duking it out for album of the year with metal newcomers like Krallice, Liturgy, Altar of Plagues, and Deafheaven–those bands I’ll wax nostalgic about ten further years from now. Ensiferum got their two cents in a year late, in a sense, but perhaps this amounts to the honor of writing the final post-script. Sure, folk metal bands aren’t going away, but the spark of collective musical inspiration has moved elsewhere. Ensiferum happened to leave their greatest marks in the opening chapter, climax, and epilogue.

I’ll leave you with a really beautiful song from Unsung Heroes: Burning Leaves.

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