Ensiferum - Unsung heroes 3/5
2. In my sword I trust
3. Unsung heroes
4. Burning leaves
5. Celestial bond
6. Retribution shall be mine
7. Star queen (Celestial nond part II)
9. Last breath
10. Passion, proof, power
Expectation as much as the actual quality of the product being examined can be hugely important in colouring a consumer’s satisfaction. Order a steak at a restaurant and find yourself with a bowl of spaghetti in front of you and it won’t matter how delicious a pasta product it turns out to be – you wanted a steak, damnit, and everyone’s going to hear about it.
Such seems to be the case with Ensiferum’s 5th CD, ‘Unsung heroes’ which has met with at least a degree of fan disillusionment despite the by now expected glowing praise from the metal press at large. Chief among the complaints is that the vibrant ferocity has left the music, with the overall tempo much decreased as the band pushes the epic and atmospheric approach they brought in on ‘From afar’ to the maximum.
These grievances are hardly unjustified, but it shouldn’t exactly have come as surprise to an experienced Ensiferum listener as it’s not as if this shift hasn’t been gradual and well signposted. Change by itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but, despite still being a good listen in its own right, it would be hard to argue that this easily the weakest CD they have released to date.
The fear I had going as far back as ‘Victory songs’ that the new multi-singer arrangement would lead to a predictable set-up of growled verse/melodic chorus proved to be unfounded at the time but is more or less the law as far as this CD is concerned. Clean vocals are all over the place, with nearly every chorus a massive sing-a-long. In this respect they are starting to sound in places like the modern incarnation of their old influence Amorphis, notable on “Burning leaves” and particularly “Star queen”, where the dreamy, melancholy chorus bears great similarity to something their fellow Finns might have come up with in their place.
This isn’t by itself a bad thing though, as Markus Toivonen’s vocals are sounding better than ever, and bassist Sami Hinkka’s growing influence sees him getting a fair share of the singing at last, his booming baritone offering something different to Toivonen’s rather limited range. Hinkka even muscles in on the harsh vocals from time to time, and his guttural bellows also provide a decent counterpoint to Petri Lindroos’ yelping shrieks.
Lindroos is actually starting to seem a bit like the odd man out here, and a degree of sympathy can be felt for someone who is really only the nominal frontman nowadays. The reduced speed across the CD also takes the sting out of his performance and leaves his vocal contributions sounding flatter than they ever have, and a lack of guitar solos reduces his role even further.
Despite a largely agreeable rota of songs, the problem isn’t so much the new elements that have been incorporated but rather the old ones that are conspicuous in their absence. One of the things that made Ensiferum such a wonder, especially in their early days, was how tightly-wound their songs were, maintaining a furious pace while still managing to cram in all sorts of twists and turns.
In contrast to this, “In my sword I trust”, the most sedate opening track the band have yet penned, follows a fairly standard structure with a traditional instrument-led bridge featuring Hinkka’s first harsh vocal contribution, and runs to nearly 5-1/2 minutes long. Back in the day, songs like “Token of time” and “Guardians of fate” managed to fit in all this and more into nearly half the time, and it leaves some of the songs on ‘Unsung heroes’ sounding a little hollow by comparison.
For example, “Retribution shall be mine” features a decent thrashy riff that it proceeds to completely ride into the ground with very little accompaniment to keep it fresh. That this is the only properly fast song on the CD leaves the feeling that it was included as a sort of concession to the fans of the faster stuff and that the band’s collective heart wasn’t really in it.
It has to be said that though that, despite some faffing around that make the running time seem to be deliberately and needlessly drawn out by a few minutes, the 17-minute closer “Passion, proof, power” is a really impressive piece of work. Comprising as many different segments as a song of such size would need to remain fresh, it features plenty of rampaging fast sections and great vocal interplay, as well as a dazzling neoclassical guitar solo the likes of which hasn’t been heard since Jari Mäenpää’s days. All the things anyone would want to hear from Esiferum are in this song somewhere, and it’s just a shame really that they couldn’t have portioned this sort of stuff out more evenly through the CD as a whole.
‘From afar’ seemed at times to be the sound of a band in transition, and with ‘Unsung heroes’ that chrysalis period seems to have ended with a different outfit coming out the far end. What it really does though, is throw into sharper contrast the niggling notion that Ensiferum have been on a gentle, but inexorable decline ever since their debut, but even with a comparatively weak offering here, they’re nowhere near the bottom yet.
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