Ensiferum - Victory songs 4/5
1. Ad victoriam
2. Blood is the price of glory
3. Deathbringer from the sky
5. One more magic potion
7. Raised by the sword
8. The new dawn
9. Victory song
The time is finally here to see how Ensiferum can cope with the loss of their talismanic frontman and guitar wizard Jari Mäenpää. Since his departure shortly before the release of their 2nd CD 'Iron', Ensiferum, led by guitarist and sole remaining founder Markus Toivonen, have been carrying on with Norther vocalist Petri Lindroos at the mic, releasing the very satisfactory 'Dragonheads' EP and an excellent live DVD to commemorate their 10th anniversary. During this time bass player Jukka-Pekka Miettinen and drummer Oliver Fokin have also left under quieter circumstances. Despite Toivonen always having been the main songwriter for the band, line-up upheaval of this sort, and especially the loss of a maverick like Mäenpää, is always cause for concern when awaiting new work from a band.
2 of the biggest concerns I had for Ensiferum's future that I left unsaid for the sake of conciseness in my 'Dragonheads' review have thankfully not come to pass. Firstly, there was the worry that the raging speed would be lost from some of their songs - Mäenpää certainly contributed a great deal to this part of their style, and with the more sedate nature of "Dragonheads" (the song), it was a nagging concern that Ensiferum would be slowing down. From the minute "Blood is the price of glory" comes blasting out of the speakers, however, it is evident that this isn't going to be the case. On the whole, things may have been taken down a slight notch, with some more melodic passages breaking up the faster songs than before, but Ensiferum have always been a band who don't forget about the 'metal' in folk metal, and 'Victory songs' keeps that tradition going. The folk influence is probably more overt than it has been in the past, with the melodic death influence on the wane somewhat, but the band have thankfully lost none of their fire.
In addition, there was the concern that Toivonen would allow his ego to cloud his judgement with his new role as one of the band's vocalists (along with new bass player and lyric writer Sami Hinkka, he now provides the clean and choir vocals). There was the danger that the songs would end up horribly formulaic with harsh and clean vocals constantly trading off, but a lot more time, effort and basic creativity has been put into this CD. Toivonen and Hinkka don't really get into the spotlight until the single, "One more magic potion" that sits 5th out of the 9 tracks. Until this point they only really provide the odd choir passage and background shout, along with a brilliant harsh/clean dual performance with Lindroos on "Deathbringer from the sky". Toivonen also sings solo on the semi-ballad "Wanderer", and his slightly strained and anguished style suits the melancholy atmosphere perfectly. He has improved as a vocalist in the short time since 'Dragonheads' (looking at their live show, he has certainly had enough practice), but people who dislike his voice aren't likely to be won over here.
As noted, the songs have slowed slightly, and this has allowed the folk influences to come to the front a little more. As a result, keyboard player Meiju Enho gives her most varied and prominent performance so far. Her main role is still in providing the usual background symphonics, but she is also given the opportunity to allow her keyboard dance over the top of the less thrashy songs more often than before, imitating a variety of traditional instruments.
Petri Lindroos, of course, has been given an unenviable task of not only fronting the band, but also replacing a truly excellent guitarist to boot. He (as anyone would have been able to tell you) doesn't match up on either front, with his vocals more monotone and his instrumental skills not on the same level as his predecessor, but it would be very unfair to criticise him on these grounds – he certainly does the job he has been brought in to do well enough and the overall sound doesn't suffer at all as a result. Mäenpää should really be looked on as something of a bonus Ensiferum had in their early days, someone just a little special that they would do well to hang on to as a secondary songwriter, and just because Lindroos isn't of the same high calibre doesn't mean he should be viewed as some sort of hack.
'Victory songs' sees Ensiferum's first attempt at tackling a truly epic song in the 10-minute almost-title track "Victory song", and they succeed at the task with breathtaking results. Going through the expected folky intro section, the song builds and builds before eventually gives way to a middle-to-fast tune that alternates between harsh and clean singing. The song covers a wide range, also boasting an acoustic section that features Toivonen and Hinkka singing in Finnish, and closes the CD on a rousing and powerful note.
While there will inevitably be criticism levelled at 'Victory songs' by people unable to see past Mäenpää, Ensiferum have well and truly proven that there is life after their former vocalist, and have turned out an excellent CD that comfortably holds its own alongside their first 2. Mäenpää's shredding guitar solos and varied vocal performances may have been lost, but despite this, Ensiferum's heart is still beating strong and with any luck will continue to do so for years to come.
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