Ensiferum - Dragonheads (EP) 4/5
2. Warrior's quest
3. Kalevala melody
4. White storm
5. Into hiding
6. Finnish medley
With the release of what will likely be a make-or-break 3rd CD just around the corner for Ensiferum, it seems as good a time as any to revisit 2006's holdover EP 'Dragonheads', the first release since the major personnel rotation that saw the departure of the band's rhythm section and, crucially, vocalist/guitar extraordinaire Jari Maenpaa.
Maenpaa's departure has meant more than simply finding a new frontman, and some restructuring of existing members' roles has been necessary. While Petri Lindroos of Norther has been brought in to play guitar and provide the growled vocals, the clean singing is now handled by band-leader Markus Toivonen and new bass player Sami Hinkka. Lindroos proves a better replacement than one might expect. Norther seem to be plummeting at an alarming rate (at least in this reviewer's opinion) but Lindroos' shrill vocals are quite similar to those of his predecessor and he acquits himself very well in his new role.
Similarly, Toivonen and Hinkka prove quite adequate – the only complaint that could be leveled is that they mostly play it quite safe with their performances, with the 2 usually singing in unison in a sort of 'mini-choir'. Very appropriate to Ensiferum's music, of course, but also slightly limiting – while they've managed to cover the shrieks and the chants quite well, the middle ground vocals that Maenpaa could provide are gone, and most likely not coming back. The sort of slightly crazed-sounding singing he provided on the likes of "Sword chant", for instance sadly seems to have been lost in the transition.
Of the 6 tracks to be found here there is only one new composition being kept company by 2 re-recordings, a cover version and 2 interpretations of traditional Finnish pieces. The CD opens with the title track, which is a slow burning effort that may take time to grow on the listener. Midtempo up until an expected but still very enjoyable speedy break, the song is based on a simple yet effective riff pattern and an extremely catchy melody that can lodge itself in the brain for days. Some fans of Ensiferum's more frantic songs will maybe be disappointed, but the previous 2 CDs have had their fair share of more pensive efforts, and "Dragonheads" is an admirable addition to the band's song store.
The 2 re-recorded tracks are both culled from Ensiferum's 2nd demo recording and, perhaps as expected, don't quite match up to the other songs from their early days that were used on the s/t debut. Still, they are good songs and the new line-up does an excellent job of fixing them up with proper production at their disposal. "Warrior's quest" features probably the best use of Toivonen and Hinkka's vocals on the CD – the song is relatively sedate, never really getting past mid-pace even when the double bass kicks in, and featuring probably a 60/40 ratio in favour of clean singing. Keep an ear out for a neat little bass solo just before the 3-minute mark as well. "White storm" sounds closer to the band's first 2 CDs than any of the other songs, starting with a furious scream from Lindroos and pelting along over blasting drums, punctuated by a couple of mandatory chanting folk interludes.
The idea of an Ensiferum interpretation of the Finnish epic Kalevala melody is quite a gripping prospect – unfortunately, all they've really done is create a mostly-folk rendition of the melody that runs for a minute and a half between "Warrior's quest" and "White storm". A pleasant little track to be sure, but no more than filler, really. On the other hand, the aptly-titled "Finnish medley" that closes the CD is a much better prospect. 3 traditional songs have been strung together and metalized to create a brilliant, uplifting track. Featuring guest vocals from Kaisa Saari (well remembered from her wonderful performance on "Tears" from the 'Iron' CD) and male vocals entirely by Toivonen and Hinkka, it is a rousing conclusion to what is a more than acceptable stopgap recording.
The cover of Amorphis' "Into hiding" is, understandably, something of a black sheep on the CD, with Lindroos adopting a more traditional low-pitched death growl to accompany the strangely Egyptian-sounding melody. The heaviest song of the 6, the band have done an excellent job of making it fit in with their own material and it injects some variety into proceedings that maybe would seem out of place on a full-length – the sort of thing that EPs are made for, really.
Predicting how Ensiferum will cope in the long run with their new line-up and its slightly diminished abilities is a difficult task on the basis of 'Dragonheads', with only one new song, excellent as it is, to go by. Time will tell, but even if the worst should happen, 'Dragonheads' can sit proudly alongside Ensiferum's previous efforts as an example of how Viking metal should be done – stirring, powerful and mercilessly catchy.
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