Turisas - The varangian way 3.5/5
1. To holmgard and beyond
2. A portage to the unknown
3. Cursed be iron
4. Fields of gold
5. In the court of Jarisleif
6. Five hundred and one
7. The dnieper rapids
8. Miklagard overture
Opinions are funny things. Turisas' debut CD, 'Battle metal', received almost unanimous praise on its release in 2004 as it mixed viking metal with Rhapsody-like symphonic elements. In the U.K., the band's over-the-top image as much as anything else saw the mainstream metal press lavish praise on the Finnish band and champion them as some sort of genre-bursting visionaries.
To these ears, though, the CD was no more than 'good' with muddled songwriting, meaning the band only flirted with greatness. They had all the elements in place, but didn't really fit them together correctly – which of course is not only forgivable but almost expected on a debut CD, especially one with such lofty ambitions.
So, with 3 years between 'Battle metal' and the follow-up, 'The varangian way', it would seem not too unreasonable to expect that Turisas would sort out the problems that held back their debut and deliver a truly memorable CD. And they have succeeded. Almost. Many aspects of their sound have improved, but there are still a few nagging problems here and there that hold the band back from making the jump into their genre's A-list along with the likes of Ensiferum and Korpiklaani.
Firstly, and most importantly, the songs are generally far more concise and fluid this time around. There are virtually no meandering passages where the main thread of the songs seems to get lost, only to reappear and suddenly seem out of place. The varied use of violins, accordions and keyboards, and programming as a substitute for a horn section, and more grandiose strings are much better handled. Each comes and goes as the individual song suits, never feeling shoehorned in for the sake of being there. Only the song "In the court of jarisleif" – a metalized representation of Baltic folk music – sees the traditional instruments take over completely, displaying mind-bendingly fast violin and accordion playing as the song hurtles to a crashing halt.
Guitarist Jussi Wickström – now the sole axeman after the crippling injury suffered by Georg Laakso - is not left in the dust though, and unlike on the debut CD, his rhythm playing is never totally swamped by the symphonic elements. There is still no lead guitar whatsoever on the CD – there are only a couple of solos, and both are played by violinist Olli Vänskä via a distortion pedal – but the guitar presence has been beefed up to the levels that were often lacking on 'Battle metal'.
Vocalist Mathias Nygård has taken a slightly different approach this time around, with a bigger emphasis on clean vocals than before. This is a definite improvement, as his growls on the first CD were generally pretty nondescript, and while his clean voice is technically nothing special either, it has a certain raw character to it that lends itself quite nicely to the music. To his credit, he has improved his growls somewhat, and they often fit the music perfectly when used as a counterpoint to his clean voice.
These outbursts of growling vocals are used most prominently on the couple of attempts at taking a heavier style that Turisas have mingled into the music. Unfortunately, this direction really doesn't suit them, which is evidenced perfectly on the song "Five hundred and one", which after a fairly turgid opening 4 minutes suddenly shifts into a bittersweet, neck hair-raising ballad full of the expected bombast. If any confirmation was needed that Turisas do glory a lot better than brutality, it is plain for all to hear in this song.
Similarly, "Cursed be iron" takes an interesting idea of having the song slowly build through the verses, interspersed with a harsh chorus built over a thick guitar riff, before the 2 parts meets in the middle at the song's conclusion. The problem is that the riff under the chorus is completely out of place on this CD – de-tuned and very modern-sounding, the sort of thing Nightwish have used on their last 2 CDs ('Century child' and 'Once') when attempting to sound 'heavy', and just like it did for their countrymen, it falls pretty flat for Turisas.
The real winners on 'The varangian way' are, as you'd expect, the ones of massively anthemic proportions. The battle cry of the opener "To holmgard and beyond" and the grand epic closing song "Miklagard overture", with their massive choir choruses and blaring orchestral arrangements, contain all the best aspects of Turisas' sound, and are a reminder of just how brilliant this band can be when they get it together.
The awkward stabs at sounding heavier are the only moments that really threaten to derail the CD, and neither one does anything significantly bad enough for that to happen. Otherwise, the only real grumbling point is the CD's 43-minute running time – epic so-called battle metal really needs a bit more room to breathe. Overall, 'The varangian way' is probably a stride further to where Turisas want to be, but they still haven't taken the big step. 3rd time lucky, hopefully.
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