Artist: Leaves’ Eyes
Album: King of Kings
Label: AFM Records, Nuclear Blast
I really want to love Leaves’ Eyes. Liv Kristine is one of my favorite female vocalists of all time and Viking metal is one of my favorite genres of all time. However, Meredead (2011) and Symphonies of the Night (2013) were rather big disappointments to me and I started losing hope for this band in the last few years. In spite of the potential they have, they haven’t had a single truly excellent song since Njord in 2009.
Listen along if you like:
I preordered the EMP Collector’s Edition of their latest release, King of Kings, with trepidation. I made the decision to order the CE because I couldn’t afford to do it when they had the Viking ship edition of Njord and have regretted it since. I suppose I ordered this one simply because (1) I love Sverd i Fjell, and (2) I guess I wanted to make it up to myself that I missed out on the Viking ship. However, the anxiety was in that I may have just spent a good deal of money on an album that was as painfully mediocre as the last two.
The album arrived a few days late due to the shipping time, and the first thing I wanted to see was, how does the Collector’s Edition look. The box was large, but not too heavy, and I opened it up to find my certificate of authenticity, the sealed letter, and the disassembled Sverd i Fjell replica. The color and quality of the replica is nice – the paint job isn’t too cheesy and the material isn’t too flimsy. If I have one complaint about it, it’s that the swords don’t seem to specifically fit into their designated slots. It’s likely not important for everyone to have them in their correct place, but the swords don’t fit perfectly into any of the slots as a result, so they can tilt to one side or another. Overall I think it’s a really cool little replica though, and I definitely recommend EMP’s regular colors over Nuclear Blast’s gold swords – they are awfully cheesy/cheap-looking. After setting it up at my desk, I popped in the album to give it a listen.
“Sweven” gets the album going to a promising start. The 2:03 long intro track brings me back a bit to the days of Vinland Saga and Njord with the strong Viking feel. The drums make a big difference, as do the subtle chants by the London Voices Choir. It blends perfectly into “King of Kings,” the title track, and again I’m hopeful that the album will improve on the last two. The vocals still show how beautifully Kristine can sing but they haven’t gone up into Epica levels. The singing ends up being very balanced with the choral parts – Kristine isn’t doing an excessive amount of high notes, and the choir, which can often be adynamic, is keeping things quite lively. It does get a bit repetitive towards the end, but I admit that I like the melody enough that it doesn’t really bother me.
I rather enjoy the upbeat energy in “Halvdan the Black.” The song sings the story of Halvdan the Black, the first king of Norway, from his conquests to his death by falling through ice. While not one of the most exciting songs on the album, it serves a strong purpose from a narrative perspective.
One of my favorite tracks off this album is “The Waking Eye.” This could, in fact, be a contender for a top favorite Leaves’ Eyes track. There is a definite hook in the music, and I love that Kristine is singing in a lower octave, which is where I personally find her voice at its strongest. It reminds me of “Northbound” from Njord, or even “Elegy” from Vinland Saga, which are some of my favorite songs. This is definitely one of the highlights of the album for me, and having Oliver Palotoi from Kamelot on piano certainly doesn’t hurt anything. The lyrics are poetic and lovely too, and the song has some definite potential for live sing-a-longs!
“Feast of the Year” is a delightful little musical interlude that really does sound like music you might hear at a Viking feast. It’s so brief that it could’ve almost been tacked onto “Vengeance Venom” that follows, as the little hiccup between them isn’t as smooth as it could’ve been. If you were to put “Feast of the Year” on another playlist, it would stop quite abruptly, which is a shame. “Vengeance Venom” continues the trend of Kristine not overusing her highest vocals. I think a lot of these songs really benefit from the extra instruments, like the pipes (done by Christoph Kutzer) do so much for making the music sound more Viking and adding dynamic.
I don’t have much to say about “Sacred Vow.” It’s a nice song and doesn’t offend me in the least, but I’m also not especially drawn to it for any particular reason. It’s a good gap-filler between interesting tracks, and gives me a positive slice of “Scarborough Fair” nostalgia, only far faster and more upbeat. On paper, “Edge of Steel” should be my least favorite song on the album because half of my complaints about the last few Leaves’ Eyes albums have been that the vocals sound too much like Epica, and this particular track has Simone Simons as a guest vocalist. However, they actually harmonize beautifully and bring out the best qualities in each others’ voices. The thing is, I actually love Simone Simons, but I just don’t like that style of very high soprano or mezzo-soprano singing when it’s constant. I find it rather adynamic and boring. Here, however, both women are using a lower range throughout the song and the choir takes over the highest parts, which is likely why I find it so fantastic. Apart from the vocals, I also love the heavy guitar sound at the beginning – very catchy. This is absolutely another favorite from the album.
At first I was tempted to label “Haraldskvædi” a regular, semi-uninteresting slow Viking chant song, until I realized how much it resembles “The Misty Mountain Cold” dwarf chant from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I think that song is one of the main highlights and selling points of that whole series, so anything that brings it to mind is okay in my books!
“Blazing Waters” is the other song to feature a guest vocalist, with Lindy-Fay Hella from Wardruna assisting. I must confess that I’ve never even heard of that band but I like the vocals on this song enough that I’m curious to give them a listen. This song has a bit of the high vocal thing that puts me off in it at times, but it’s been so seldomly present on this album that it doesn’t even register – I’m only opposed to it in high quantities. Also, this song has some pretty nice soloing at the end, making sure that we don’t forget that it is metal after all.
“Swords in Rock” is the last track on the album and is very playful in atmosphere and a rather cute/fun way to finish things. The energy is very bouncy and positive and ultimately leaves things off in a nice way, even if it is a rather cheesy song. I have to say though, as odd as this may be, I wish this song had been sung in Norwegian. This seems like the perfect song and band to include a “native tongue” song, and also, Sverd i Fjell sounds a lot cooler than “Swords in Rock,” if we’re being perfectly honest. I do like that they have a song about the monument, as well as the story that led up to it. It is a bit of a silly song, but I still think it leaves the album on a good note.
I enjoyed this album far more than I have Leaves’ Eyes’ last two albums, and can probably say that I like it more than Njord and Lovelorn. There has been an all-around improvement in the sound, from the use of vocals to the addition of other instruments, and the Viking sound. Kristine said that the album is very personal for her, not only because of the history, but because Hafrsfjord, where the king won his battle, is also her hometown. Perhaps it was this element that Leaves’ Eyes music has needed lately. Whatever the element the last two albums lacked, I feel King of Kings regained. I hope this means that they are back on track to return to their place as one of the better Viking metal bands out there!
Rating: 9/10, 4.5 stars
2. King of Kings
3. Halvdan the Black
4. The Waking Eye
5. Feast of the Year
6. Vengeance Venom
7. Sacred Vow
8. Edge of Steel (ft. Simone Simons)
10. Blazing Waters (ft. Lindy-Fay Hella)
11. Swords in Rock