Top positive review
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Ensiferum + Orchestra = suberb album
on 29 August 2009
I wasn't expecting much from their last album 'Victory Songs' but was really surprised and impressed with the quality overall and, aside from a few wee complaints, it was for sure a welcome addition to Ensiferum's discography. So naturally, i was expecting a decent outing from the Finns on 'From Afar', and it is my pleasure to report that i wasn't dissapointed.
'From Afar' starts like any other Ensiferum album with a token acoustic introduction. Nothing new there eh? But as soon as the title track leaps forth from the speakers there can be no doubt that this is definitily bold new sound for the band. Don't get me wrong, it still oozes that instantly recognisable 'Ensiferum' sound of folky-power metal-meets-melodic death, but whereas the keyboards and other instruments were usually more of a background thing adding texture and atmosphere, they now take the forefront of the music. This started on Victory Songs with the addition of banjos, bagpipes, whistles etc, but on From Afar the lads threw in the entire kitchen sink complete with a full-on orchestra, huge choirs and a number of different instruments i can't even spell. As such the songwriting has been altered slightly to incorporate the new elements and as such the guitars are pulled back a tad and it is not so heavily riff-based, even though this album is still chock with killer riffs and leads. for the most part it works really well; Ensiferum have always been a band who dabbled in the 'epic' with their 'heroic folk metal', and From Afar sees them indulging this side like never before. We also see much more variety then previous albums, with only really 'From Afar' and 'Elusive reaches' taking the classic fast-paced Ensiferum mantle but with added bombast. 'Smoking Ruins' is the token 'clean-singing' track, but really a lot darker and more melancholy then anything on Victory Songs and a highlight of the album - thankingfully the clean singing has improved by the shed-load in the last 2 years. Which leaves Twilight Taven and Stone Cold Metal as the more bouncy folky songs, but both have rather strange interludes which adds a nice bit of spice to the proceedings; Twilight Taven has a beautiful female choir popping up mid way through the song and Stone Cold Metal surprises with a bizzare mid-section, with full on piano and banjo segments, straight out of 'The God the Bad and the Ugly'. Overall the song has a quasi-spaghetti western feel and its pretty obvious the band had a lot of fun recording this one. Most surprising of all, however, are the two part 'Heathen Throne' songs, both clocking over 10 minutes and evincing a much darker and more sombre sound then before. The centre peices of th album, they really show just how much the band have matured as song writers in that they can write these long, proggressive songs with many different time changes and segments but i never felt bored listening to either of them or one second. Heathen throne 2; the longest journey especially is really epic, hair raising stuff and a killer ending to the proceddings - kinda what Wagner's 'Ring' operas might have sounded like if he was a Viking Metal fan.
I really enjoyed From Afar, and loved the way the band managed to keep the roots of their music intact while streching their limits in both songwriting and by adding the orchestration, giving the band a 'more epic then thou' feel. And the symphonic elements are really fantastic, with a more of a cinematic/moive soundtrack feel then an operatic one which really suits the band and blends magestically with their sound. Sure, the orchestra can be a bit over bearing at times and you will find yourself wishing the rythym guitar was a little louder, but for the most part its just sublime. I was also really impressed with Petri's vocals - he sings slightly lower then before with more of a meaty scream and less of a shrieking quality to his voice, making it less irritating. I also loved at the start of 'The longest Journey' when he drops for a lower growl - hopefully they'll use this more in the future.
However, i can see already that this is going to be an album that divides the fans of the band, as some were probably hoping for Victory Songs pt.2. Like i mentioned before, the guitars are a little pulled back to make more space for the orchestra which might dissapoint some, and its also worth noting that this album isn't as immediatly catchy as any any of their past albums, especially the longer and brooding 'Heathen Throne' songs.
My final verdict is that this is still an Ensiferum album at its heart and a great one at that. Approach this album with and open mind, give it a few listens to absorb all the different sounds and let yourself fall in love... don't forget that this is really the first time the band have substantially changed their sound since their debut.
Recommended (unless you really can't stand orchestration)