Ensiferum (reissue)

Written by: GR on 28/11/2009 20:24:09

As this review is of an album that has been reissued I feel I should include a qualifying statement regarding my approach towards it. Most reissues tend to include a slew of bonus material and/or revamped packaging in order to tempt dedicated fans into parting with their cash as well as those who don't yet own the album. In the case of Spinefarm's Ensiferum reissues (this and second album "Iron"; review to follow) the only difference from the originals is the inclusion of a single bonus track on each release (in this case a demo version of "Old Man"). That's it. While this might seem rather pointless and could have led to some reviewers marking the overall package down, I see it as a signal that Spinefarm aren't trying to cash-in on existing fans. Rather, they were just aiming to get these albums back on the shelves in a year when the band was gearing up for a new album, the excellent "From Afar". This, combined with the fact these albums have yet to be reviewed here on Rockfreaks.net, means I'm going to treat these as historical reviews, rather than worrying too much about the merits of their reissue over the music contained within.

As some of you might remember if you read my review of Ensiferum's last London gig, the Finnish fivesome are one of my favourite bands (now reigning the top of my Last.fm charts). It wouldn't be a wild stab in the dark, then, to assume this review of their debut album is going to be rather positive - Hell, it's going to be more than that, as for me this might just be one of top metal albums of the last decade. Not that I was even remotely aware of Ensiferum's existence upon it's original release in 2001, being but a schoolboy discovering the joys of rock through Hendrix, Guns N' Roses, AC/DC and the like, with only a vague but growing awareness of the beast known as heavy metal.

Had someone played this record to me back then I'm not sure what I would have made of it's furious mix of highly melodic death/black metal, folk and epic traditional/power metal panache - generally placed under the 'Viking metal' banner - but luckily my musical tastes had developed when I discovered this most glorious album and I was hooked. It's easy to forget how much Ensiferum have changed (internally) since those days too; guitarist and main song-writer Markus Toivonen is the only remaining member of the line-up that recorded "Ensiferum", which makes their success all the more impressive - instability has been the undoing of many a promising band, after all. The most major personnel difference between this disc along with it's follow-up "Iron" and their current incarnation is original frontman Jari Mäenpää, who left in 2003 to concentrate on Wintersun (we're still waiting for that second album, Jari). There are many fans that still lament his leaving and insist the band are not as good with his replacement - former Norther member Petri Lindroos - but whatever your view (personally I love both 'eras') there's no denying the huge contribution Jari's vocals and guitar playing made to the Enisferum sound.

An atmospheric intro (a feature that would be developed even further on subsequent albums) that has a certain sadness about it leads perfectly into "Hero in a Dream", the first of eleven classic tracks. A blast of drums makes way for a fast-paced and brilliantly catchy melodic riff that should have you nodding along instantly, before morphing into a masculine gallop as the harsh vocals join the mix and regale us with a typical fantasy tale of warriors, witches, kings and dragons. This might sound a bit cheesy, but unless you are really concentrating on the lyrics it's unlikely that you'll realise what is being growled about anyway and the song - like all of the others too - is so well written that even those with an aversion to fantasy-based material would surely not complain. Just this first song alone encapsulates many of the great elements of Ensiferum - catchy riffs, brilliant melodies, contrasting and emotive growled and clean vocals, top-notch playing skills and engaging song-writing. With next song "Token of Time" some of the more folky elements are brought to the fore with use of acoustic guitars and keyboards as well as deep choir-like (and quite 'Viking', I suppose) clean vocals. These vocals are employed more prominently and to great effect throughout the album, particular highlights of their use being on the furious "Guardians of Fate" (a favourite of mine), "Treacherous Gods" and "Eternal Wait".

The songs on offer do not follow an entirely simple path, with most featuring changes in pace - folky acoustic passages and clean vocals are used to break up the fast metal sections to great effect - and every one being made up of a series of differing riffs and sweeping melodies that are seamlessly sewn together. It's this that keeps every track interesting and the sheer quality and 'memorability' of each one makes them worthy of an infinite amount of listens. One word that comes to mind, especially with regards to the middle third of the album, is epic. The soundscapes created on the likes of "Old Man", "Abandoned" and "Windrider" draw from black metal and conjure up images of the band performing atop a wind-swept mountain, long hair flowing. Elsewhere a more upbeat and heroic mood is created on anthemic live favourite "Battle Song" and the rousing closer "Goblin's Dance" - the latter in particular is one of the most fun tracks and should have you raising a beer, pumping your fist, jigging and windmilling in equal measure. It's difficult however to place any selection of the songs as highlights above the others , as each is a master class in genius melodies, genuine passion and dynamic epic metal vision, and where they stand up as brilliant in isolation they become an even more potent force as a collective; the album flowing perfectly.

Even with this being their debut album, Ensiferum achieve an all-important distinctive sound - one which is developing to this day - that sets them apart from their peers. Being the fan that I am, it would be easy to say they sound like no-one but themselves, and whilst this is true there's no denying the influence of bands like Amorphis and Children of Bodom and the natural comparisons with the likes of Finntroll and other folk-infused Finnish exports. I enjoy these and other similar bands, but for me Ensiferum stand at the top of the pile in terms of song-writing and sheer enjoyment. I could quite easily have crafted this review by describing each and every song, as I love all of them, but I don't think that level of fandom was really needed. From this extraordinary beginning, Ensiferum have gone on to gain deserved popularity as one of the top Viking/folk metal bands in today's burgeoning scene and most of you will probably have heard something by them. If, however, you're only familiar with the more recent output then I implore you to check out this earlier material, as whilst Ensiferum's sound is still largely similar these days, the Jari era does have something special about it.

Download: The whole damn lot
For the fans of: Wintersun, Finntroll, Equilibrium
Listen: Myspace

Release date: 07.04.09 (Originally released 2001)

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