So this year I’ve decided to induct the Fall season with a welcoming, light-hearted, cheery mood — mainly to counteract the eventual headlong plunge into all that excellent dreary, depressing metal that traditionally serves as the soundtrack for the autumn months. And I’ve been keeping my ears open for new music that would fit the bill. I’m talking about tunes that bring to mind sloshy mead horn raising, overeating at Renaissance Festivals type gluttony, lingering outside in the bracing air of the nighttime chill, and the warmth of standing near the fire pit. Still don’t know what I’m talking about? Think “The Bards Song” by Blind Guardian, or “Stand Up and Fight” by Turisas. I’m in the mood for some fun in my metal, and lo and behold, here’s a new album by Ensiferum, and a re-release of a year old album by a Hungarian power metal outfit called Wisdom. Can these two deliver the goods?! Someone get the mead ready!
Ensiferum – Unsung Heroes:
Here’s my thing with Ensiferum. I love their first two albums, in fact, lets capitalize that LOVE. I consider the self-titled Ensiferum and its follow-up Iron to be amongst the finest folk metal albums of all time. As for the band’s releases after those two albums?…Eh, really hit or miss to be frank about it. There’s usually a few good, not great songs per album, and a load of formulaic filler. Some coincidence then that I’m writing this as we all sit on the near eve of the release of the long awaited Wintersun album Time I, as it was Wintersun brainchild Jari Mäenpää that was at the vocal and writing helm of those first two Ensiferum albums. Together with Markus Toivonen, the longtime Ensiferum founder/guitarist, the pair created memorable folk metal anthems that are every bit as fresh today as they were upon release. And since seeing the two parties split off and hearing their individual results, I feel that it was Mäenpää whose musical vision was the larger voice showing up on those records; so easy is it to trace the similarities to the music in that first stunning Wintersun album. Toivonen has soldiered on though, with the aid of vocalist/guitarist Petri Lindroos and bassist/lyricist Sami Hinkka. What they’ve managed to come up with on what is now the third post-Mäenpää Ensiferum album can be best summed up as well meaning songs suited to their strengths, and a fair share of unrealized experiments that fall flat.
First the good stuff, and that starts off with the lead single (and lame video), “In My Sword I Trust”, a strike directly at the comfort zone of fans of the first two Ensiferum releases. Their last record, From Afar, had quite a few of these as well, the type of emblematic song that defines the core sound of the band in a catchy, energized, and inspired fashion. One thing I’ve been lamenting about modern day Ensiferum however is their tendency to rely too heavily on choirs to provide a musical uplift to a songs chorus, as is the case on this particular song. When I imagine them using harsh vocals all the way through, I feel the song would’ve been stronger, darker, and fiercer. Maybe its the production that’s bothering me, but things seemed a little too Korpiklaani-ish during a handful of moments throughout this album. The other gem here is a rare moment where some radical experimentation works rather well, as displayed in the female vocal laced ballad “Celestial Bond”. Its every bit as overwrought and sentimental as you’d anticipate, but stirring all the same and a nice bit of delicate atmospherics.
Then comes the drop off — the rest of the record ranges from the passable to the skippable, and the primary culprit is the reoccurring problem found with Lindroos’ vocals. Quite simply he just isn’t very exciting as a harsh vocalist — I’ve never been able to put my finger on it, but I’ve felt the same way about his performances in Norther. Its almost as if he can become so overtly monotone, or staid, that I find myself losing interest and not feeling anything resembling the crackling excitement I found in those first two Ensiferum albums, where Mäenpää’s vocals were a vicious mix of Dave Mustaine-esque snarl and Alexi Laiho sandpaper grit. There is a wide variety of tempos, sounds, and volumes on this album, but the trouble is that most of it isn’t very memorable. Why bother discussing the details of songs that don’t draw a reaction out of me one way or another? I’m sure some fans will enjoy it, but at what effort? I don’t mean to disparage the band, or this album, its worth a listen on Spotify at least. I suppose you could conclude that I’m disappointed, but it didn’t even do that, it just left me shrugging my shoulders.
Wisdom – Judas:
This album may be the biggest surprise coming out of European power metal in the past two years. It is certainly the most enjoyable front to back album in that vein since Blind Guardian’s At the Edge of Time; and while I’m not attempting to directly compare the two albums, with 2011’s Judas these Hungarians deliver the same gratifying, big-meal satisfaction that the Bards provided in 2010. The album had been severely limited in distribution until August of 2012, when it was re-released through a worldwide deal with NoiseArt Records. I had been aware of Wisdom in the past, but despite being impressed with their always rockin’ and bare-bones musical approach, their previous vocalist István Nachladal didn’t do much for me.
The new guy is another Hungarian, Gabor Nagy, who completely dominates the album with a powerful vocal performance that I can only best describe as blending together prime era Ronnie James Dio, a dash of good Ozzy, with a splash of Hansi Kursch thrown in — all filtered through a Hungarian accent that gives Nagy a stamp of personality all his own. Of course such talent would be wasted if not for what is arguably the strongest collection of Wisdom songs to date, led by the songwriting of guitarist Gabor (must be like Mike over there amirite?) Kovacs. The album highlights here are led by the single “Heaven and Hell”, a vaguely sludgy mid-tempo stomper where Nagy takes center stage over a chorus that is as aggressive as it is soaring, set over a bed of guitars that are perfectly thundering in their short bursts of riffs. “Somewhere Alone” is another mid-paced gem, led along by a strong guitar melody that serves as the song’s true refrain directly after its choir-laden chorus. The band does pick up the tempo to spectacular results, such as on “Live Forevermore”, where the vocals in the chorus seem to race against a drum beat that is putting on the brakes from its all out double bass assault in the verses — the resulting effect being bracing and adrenaline inducing.
I suppose its worth mentioning that Wisdom base their songwriting around a lyrical concept that has run all throughout their discography, where each song is based around a well-known quotation, hence tying this all together with their band name and mascot (the cloaked guy on all their album covers). Its an interesting idea I suppose, and although I’m often puzzled at what quotations are actually being utilized within the songs, I feel its worth the tip of the cap to the band for attempting to put some thought and weight behind their lyrics in a genre that sees so little of that. But the lyrics aren’t the selling point here, its the music that will win you over. This is that rare breed of power metal that is done with muscle and aggression, all while emphasizing great melodies and harmonies in the guitars as well as vocals. I realize that’s a fairly vague description especially since we’re talking power metal here, but think of the sparseness of Falconer’s approach mixed with the cheery melodies of Gamma Ray or Iron Savior and maybe you’ll get a better idea. Or better yet, check out the video for “Heaven and Hell” below (which I might add despite its expected corny aspects is one of the most well done power metal music video’s I’ve seen in a long time).