Tyr - By the light of the northern star 4.5/5
1. Hold the heathen hammer high
2. Trondur i gotu
3. Into the storm
4. Northern gate
5. Turio torkilsdottir
6. By the sword in my hand
8. Hear the heathen call
9. By the light of the northern star
Okay, I readily admit that I have no objective journalistic credibility when it comes to Tyr. From the time I acquired the Faeroese heroes' debut, 'How far to Asgaard', and their sophomore CD, 'Eric the Red', more than 6 years ago, Tyr have ranked among my favorite bands. Their take on the now-saturated viking metal genre is unique, refreshing, and utterly spellbinding. For those who might not have heard them, Tyr's style is and has always been characterized by the skillful alchemy of pairing traditional Faeroese, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, Danish and Irish melodies with traditional, doomy and progressive metal influences. Lyrics are sung in multiple languages, including predominantly English and Faeroese. The vocals are superbly handled by Heri Joensen, whose clear, emotive, compelling voice sounds like no one else, with fantastic choirs that the band reproduces live to perfection (sometimes even a capella). The waters may be infested with pagan metal wannabes, but Tyr's viking longship is riding high on the waves many leagues ahead of the crowd.
The inherent risk of having such a unique sound that depends so heavily on traditional Scandinavian folk melodies is that eventually the band's music may begin to sound recycled as the listener gets a vague feeling of deja vu upon hearing new songs. In reviewing Tyr's 4th CD, 'Land', last year, I alluded to this concern and suggested that the band might be falling prey to it given the marked melodic similarities with their earlier material. That said, from a single listen to 'By the light of the northern star', it is clear that Heri Joensen and company are striving mightily not to make the same album twice. In many ways, this CD is a reaction to 'Land' that, while obviously the work of the same band, falls on the opposite end of the spectrum from what Tyr did on 'Land'. Let me explain. 'Land' was in many ways the band's most adventuresome, experimental and progressive CD, with extended song forms, intricate arrangements, and a pair of cuts exceeding 10 minutes each, with the title track bearing an ambitious 16-minute running time. By contrast, on 'By the light of the northern star', Tyr have stripped down the arrangements, made the songs much more compact, and amped up the speed and aggression factors considerably. The CD is unmistakably Tyr from the vocals and melodies, but it's hard to imagine a much more drastic shift within the parameters of Tyr's style than what they've done here.
The result is a dream come true for power metal fans, as this CD is easily Tyr's most immediate, accessible, speedy and power-metal friendly recording to date. Right out of the gate, "Hold the heathen hammer high" makes a statement with a much speedier tempo than Tyr has generally used previously, an addictive guitar melody, a stupendous lead vocal from Joensen, and a chorus that will go down a storm in the live arena. This song really sets the tone for the CD. Fast, catchy material dominates the 9-track standard tracklist. (There are also a pair of nonessential instrumental bonus tracks on the digipack edition, with a combined running time of just 3 minutes.) Special mention is reserved for "By the sword in my hand", a track so impressive that my mild-mannered, peaceful wife found herself singing along with the chorus (which includes the lines "I will decimate and decapitate / Those who question the sword in my hand") the first time she heard the song. For me, it's already one of my all-time favorite Tyr songs, which is high praise indeed. "Northern gate" has a "woooahhhh oaaahhhhh" part that will be amazing with audience participation in a smoky concert hall. "Ride" boasts another splendid chorus and dancing guitar melodies over an uptempo beat. And the title track is also an unmitigated hammer that will plaster a grin on the faces of power metalheads and Tyr addicts alike.
With any stylistic adjustment of this magnitude, it is a given that the cynics and skeptics will rear their ugly heads. Various Internet reviews of 'By the light of the northern star' have questioned Tyr's motives and suggested that the speedier, shorter arrangements on this CD are a calculated stab at broadening the band's commercial appeal as they attempt to penetrate the notoriously difficult US market. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't accept that criticism. My take on it is that Tyr are writing more with the live setting in mind than they did before, while working to stay true to their signature sound without repeating themselves. After the ponderous 'Land', it makes sense that the Faeroese warriors would mix things up by cranking up the energy level with a set of simpler tunes. The doomier/more progressive segment of the fanbase may be alienated by this move, but the power/traditional minded fans will eat this stuff up. For me, it's way too early to make any definitive pronouncements of where 'By the light of the northern star' ranks in Tyr's discography. But it's unquestionably another jewel in their heathen crown, another notch in their pagan armor, and another unqualified success. Tyr now have amassed a streak of 5 consecutive CDs whose quality ranges between very good and brilliant, with nary a misstep or blemish along the way. With an appearance at the prestigious ProgPower festival in Atlanta on the books for 2010 already, Tyr are poised for greatness. If you haven't yet, there's no better time than the present to see what all the fuss is about and welcome this truly special band into your heathen heart.
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