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.

Review: Ensiferum – Unsung Heroes

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.

Burning Leaves

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.

Song of the Day: Goblins’ Dance (by Ensiferum)

Ensiferum’s self-titled debut in January 2001 was a prophetic landmark in metal, and I remember the feeling I got when I first heard it, probably about a year later. It wasn’t groundbreaking in its originality. No, I’d heard music like it before, here and there, scattered throughout my earliest mp3 collections. Blind Guardian and Rhapsody (of Fire), with their epic folk-infused triumphal marches and war cries, Thyrfing, with their stomp-along anthems to some Nordic specter, that peculiar absurdity Finntroll, so difficult to describe at the time… these bands had all been brought to my attention before Ensiferum.

I did not perceive at the time a common thread connecting them all. I was just frantically whipping my 28.8 kilobit per second modem headfirst into a musical fog, oblivious as it began to coalesce around me. Napster was dead, and with it passed my inclination to only pirate the most popular metal and grunge’s dying embers. Audiogalaxy was the new center of musical civilization, and with it came enlightenment. You didn’t just type in what you wanted and download it. You discussed it in chatrooms. You discussed it in forums. You carried the discussions over to more general-purpose forums. The internet became more united among music enthusiasts than it has ever been before or since.

Thus it was that 2001 served as a landmark year for me. I would look up Blind Guardian, and an hour later (well, this was 2001, so more like a day later) I would be enjoying Elvenking’s To Oak Woods Bestowed demo, Within Temptation’s Mother Earth, Therion’s Deggial… I didn’t know that these were all relatively new releases, I couldn’t categorize them into genres, and I had no real means of becoming informed about the bands save word of mouth (like anyone had heard of Wikipedia or Google back then). All I knew, or at least thought I knew, was that certain people had an incredible aptitude for finding and recommending music I would consistently love. I had not yet recognized the phenomenon at work here–the significance of the fact that all of this music was appearing at around the same time.

It must have been around the end of 2001 that I stumbled upon Ensiferum. By then I had heard dozens, maybe a hundred non-mainstream metal bands that I loved, and I was starting to pick up on their common themes, but I hadn’t fully put my finger on it. Then I saw this album cover, heard this song, and went “Ah ha! This is viking metal.” It might not be the precise term I would use today, and it might sound rather trivial, but at the time it was a sort of epiphany. This was the amalgamation of all of the metal Audiogalaxy had offered me under one roof. All of the amazing new things going on between about 1996 and 2001 suddenly took form as a conscious whole; Ensiferum was a glorious sign of things to come, heralding a new age of metal.

“From the three ascending moons,
moonshine was spilling onto the ground.
Gruesome trophies were all around,
in the halls of the Goblin King.
Now the victory is ours!
Let us dance the dance of immortals!”

Happy Halloween!

Review: Nekrogoblikon – Stench

Up until late July, Nekrogoblikon were a nearly forgotten gimmick. Their first and only previous album, Goblin Island, was released in 2006, and that was the last I ever heard of them. Aside from telling the story of an extra-terrestrial goblin invasion of the most heinous sort (they even ruin Christmas), it featured, among other things, sound clips of the band screaming like little girls, an actual stereotypical Christmas song, a cover of In Flames’ Artifacts of the Black Rain with all the lyrics substituted for banter about goblins, and a dance beat chiptune outro. Musically, it was simultaneously a mockery of a lot of the bands that probably influenced them and a pretty decent, enjoyable imitation of them. But it was never funny in say, a GWAR or Alestorm sort of way. It was more like a Weird Al thing–a novelty. You laugh, but you really don’t want your friends to know you listen to it, and you never play through it twice in a row.

Goblin Box

Their new album is a very different beast. Over the past five years they’ve actually matured into really good song-writers. Don’t get me wrong, Goblin Island had some really catchy tracks, but in the music just as in the lyrics there was a sort of audible immaturity, by design of course, that made light of the bands they were imitating. On Stench this notion is more internal. That is, they’re still parodying Children of Bodom, Finntroll, and just about anything in between, but instead of hearing a bunch of kids making a joke you hear a bunch of goblins being goblins. The immaturity is no longer in the execution; it’s encased in really solid music that, given better production value, could rival many of the very same albums it pokes and prods.

Basically, on Stench the line between a musical parody and a successful cross-genre epic metal masterpiece is very grey indeed. Yet the lyrics are just as blatantly whimsical as ever. The result is hard to swallow, because it’s so good and so bad at the same time. I imagine the spoken ending of this song is a rip on Rhapsody of Fire’s infamously lame spoken lines; it goes approximately “The humans had opened the box to torture and maim all kinds of magical creatures, but the goblins were not to be trifled with. No, not to be trifled with at all. And as the humans laid there, a pulsating mound of bone and flesh, dead and mutilated beyond all hope and reason, the goblins feasted upon their rotting corpses, filling the halls with the shrill sound of chilling laughter….. Forever!” And yet when you listen to it, beneath the cheese you get the feeling that it’s a really badass ending.

It took quite a while for me to get sufficiently passed the fact that it’s a parody to enjoy it in its own right. That was Stench’s initial impact: a part of me was left feeling like I’d been cheated out of something awesome on par with Ensiferum and Equilibrium, but the more I listened to it the more I wanted to click repeat, plant my hand firmly in the center of my face, and grin from ear to ear underneath it. At this point I can safely say I love it unconditionally.

Gallows & Graves

There’s something of a third dynamic going on here as well, and it’s what really tips the scale towards greatness. In some odd capacity this really is, well, goblin metal. If we think of them as those short, mischievous little tinkers that are a good bit like gnomes with the added plus of being spawns of Satan, you can actually hear something of this in the music. Goblins ARE both comical and evil, and while Goblin Island was too much of a joke (albeit a good one) to capture this, Stench pulls it off. Trolls and vikings and pirates have all acquired a sort of musical imagery, much of which isn’t meant to be taken entirely seriously. The idea of a goblin is a good deal less serious than all of those to begin with, and if I was going to “seriously” create a metal sound to capture them, well, Stench seems pretty on the mark. The frantic intro/chorus melody of Gallows & Graves and the kind of childish clear vocals really do call to mind some small, obnoxious, vicious little bugger hopping around your feet, and this same musical imagery reoccurs throughout Stench with a consistency that Goblin Island lacked.

A Feast

It’s really hard to talk about what Nekrogoblikon “accomplished” on this album with a straight face, but the fact of the matter is Stench is really damn good. They manage to successfully combine elements of more metal sub-genres than I can count. It’s also got the clever bonus of thematically justifying all of its potential negatives. Goblins are as obnoxious as they are evil, right, so if they’re mocking a bunch of their metal predecessors musically it’s only natural. This is goblin metal.

Beer Metal

Anyone who’s gone out after a Dropkick Murphys concert knows that barroom singalongs are not a thing merely of the past. But metal fans might not be so inclined, drifting off rather to less accessible places than the pub: enchanted meadows, the depths of hell, their parents’ basement, etc. Me, I would go to Finland. It was not until Ensiferum exploded into the world in 2001 that I realized quite how compatible beer and metal could be. I distinctly recall making pretty much everyone I knew at the time listen to “Goblins’ Dance”:

Ensiferum were not the first Finns to cross the Baltic at three hundred and twenty kilobits per second, but Finntroll, who released their debut in 1999, Midnattens Widunder, were just too bizarre at first to be more than a novelty. The band sang in Swedish (because it sounds more evil than Finnish, so they say) and merged some pretty dark metal with a Finnish folk style known as Humppa. On Visor Om Slutet they went acoustic and introduced kazoo solos. On Nattfödd and the Trollhammaren they incorporated something I can only properly describe as “pirate metal”, and on Ur jordens djup they went Caribbean. There newest album, Nifelvind, came out this February, and your guess is as good as mine. Raise a pint and bang your head, there’s really no other way to react to this. Here’s my favorite track off of it, “Under bergets rot”:

Korpiklaani really perfected this weird Finnish folk metal genre though. They appeared in 2003 out of the ashes of another folk metal band, Shaman, which I’ve not heard, and managed to release six albums in seven years. Korpiklaani are probably the most tame band on this list, a feat they accomplish not by turning down the distortion so much as by really infusing the folk and harnessing a talent to write an endless number of catchy, fairly optimistic songs. It wouldn’t matter which album I take the sample from; they all sound the same, and believe me, a decade from now I hope I can still say that. Enjoy “Kohmelo”, off of their 2009 album, Karkelo. The bitrate on this video is horrible, but you’ll get the idea:

After releasing a string of demos in the late 90s, Turisas put out their first full length in 2004. What can I say? It wasn’t very good. Despite offering drinking songs like “One More” (during which the frontman consumes an obscene amount of vodka live), they really seemed to miss the wave. But oh how the beer gods shined upon them in 2007. The Varangian Way was easily my favorite album of the year. It combines an odd mix of folk and prog (that word bears a horrible connotation in my mind, but Turisas do it right) with a ten track concept album telling the journey of Finnish viking mercenaries to Constantinople. I can’t call the whole album ‘beer metal’, though it’s a masterpiece, but the party atmosphere is a lot more apparent live. I present you with “In the Court of Jarisleif”, in which these viking travelers reach Kiev and well, get really wasted:

I could go on to tell of how Lordi won the 2006 Eurovision competition, an interesting testament to the odd ability of Finnish bands to be heavy, ridiculous, and yet still oddly appealing to the masses, but this topic does not require I stick to one country necessarily. I think I will conclude this chronology of heavy metal drinking music then with a short sail over to Scotland. Alestorm did not form until 2004, and released their first album in 2008. Upon doing so, pirate metal was no longer just a quirky side of Finntroll. (Interestingly, Trollhammaren and Nattfödd were released the same year Alestorm formed. A coincidence? I don’t know. The two bands have toured together.) I never liked rum personally, but I’ll take a shot for these guys. Enjoy “Keelhauled”, off of 2009’s Black Sails at Midnight. Yes, someone just said “yo-ho-ho” in a song and you didn’t roll your eyes:

And there our short journey ends. Folk metal emerged in the 90s, and due credit should be given to the likes of Skyclad and Cruachan, but the 21st century, and specifically Finland, marked its explosion from a small niche genre into one comparable in scale to big guns like death, black, and power metal. More to the point of this post though, always remember that folk is a celebration of the past, and that our forefathers were all alcoholics.

Thankfully, Finntroll, Korpiklaani, and the like incorporated humppa into metal and not the reverse. I leave you with a terrifying alternative: