(2017) Ensiferum: Two Paths

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Artist: Ensiferum
Album: Two Paths
Release: 15.09.2017
Label: Metal Blade Records

 

It’s been a mere 2 years since Ensiferum’s last release, One Man Army (2015), but it’s time once again for these Viking metal Finns to show us what they’ve got. The biggest news about this album is the changeover from Emmi Silvennoinen (keyboards) to Netta Skog (accordion). While the band themselves have been in a bit of a creative slump since 2009’s From Afar, perhaps the small lineup change was enough to bring them back to life. At least I, as a long-time fan, hoped so.

 

The album opens with “Ajattomasta unesta”, which loosely translates to “From Timeless Sleep.” Ensiferum has been consistently solid with their intro tracks in the past, including nice pieces like “Ferrum Aeternum” (Iron, 2004), “Ad Victoriam” (Victory Songs, 2007), “By the Dividing Stream” (From Afar), “Symbols” (Unsung Heroes, 2012), and “March of War” (One Man Army), and not all of those were good albums otherwise. As such, the standards were set high for this intro, and this song. It starts out feeling slightly industrial (in that sort of Lord of the Rings, Saruman and the Uruk Hai sort of way), with a female voice (perhaps Skog?) singing the opening bits. The traditional Ensiferum chant is present, and overall, it builds up dynamically into the main riff from the following track before the song changes over officially.

The second track, however, I have some words about. First of all, “For Those About to Fight for Metal”? Really? Is this Manowar now? Secondly, the guitar part in the beginning sounds like they’re trying to be Iron Maiden but aren’t quite as creative. If the riff moved around a bit more instead of just repeating the same notes, it’d be cool, but as such, it’s just kind of boring. The backing music and orchestrated parts are considerably more interesting than the guitar-work, fortunately. The verses are fine, no complaints, as is the decent and traditional Enska solo maybe two thirds of the way through. As such, my next comment is that the pronunciation is really awkward in the chorus, which likely comes from them not being native English speakers. They stretch out the word “metal” to fill the musical timing in such an odd way that it ends up sounding kind of silly because they end up saying “met-ALL” than “MET-al.” To my native ears that’s a solid mispronunciation that doesn’t work, but, well, judge for yourselves – if you’re not a native speaker it may not bother you. There is hope though, because as I said, that backing orchestration and main riff are bringing me back to From Afar, so my fingers are crossed that this is still going to be a good album.

“Way of the Warrior” is next, and my belief that this album was written by Manowar is not chased away by this song title, nor by the straight-up heavy metal intro. The song itself though is actually pretty catchy and full of very standard Ensiferum riffs that everyone who’s heard any Enska song should recognize. They might, in fact, sound almost a bit too familiar. That’ll depend on how picky you are. There are some Finnish spoken-sung parts toward the end, but I’ll need to see some lyrics before I say anything about that. Overall, this is one of the most solid all-around tracks on the album and feels like Ensiferum still has some tricks up their sleeves.

“Two Paths” follows and my initial thought is… who is singing and why (I’m reasonably sure, based on their live shows, that it’s guitarist Markus Toivonen)? These clean vocals are around in some other Enska songs, but they’re usually kept in the background and don’t last too long, thus keeping the effect minimal, but here they are the lead vocals. Even Pete Lindroos‘ sweet, sweet growls don’t save this song. Disappointing though, as this could’ve been a rather good track if they had someone who could actually… carry a tune. There’s also a really odd solo about two thirds of the way through that I’m not sure I am for or against. Then comes in the first notable accordion parts, which kind of make the song turn into a pirate shanty. Apart from the vocal complaints, the intro to the song is very non-traditional for Ensiferum or folk/Viking metal in general. This song could definitely have used some more refining before going onto an album. I guess props for experimenting with this one, but I can’t say I liked it on the whole.

“King of Storms” (more Manowar?) throws back a bit to the days of Iron with its speedy, shreddy guitars and fast rhythm on top of the big ol’ growl from Lindroos in the beginning. There are some more distracting and low-quality gritty ‘clean’ vocals on this one as well, but fortunately they aren’t the central aspect of the track. I wonder if the ‘keyboards’ that can be heard at times in this track were actually done by Skog on the accordion.

“Feast with Valkyries” opens with some more notable accordion and female vocals, the latter of which are… a little awkward. They’re a bit flat and the timing is too drawn out at some points and too quick at others maybe, and they hit a note or two that doesn’t quite sound in tune. The choir takes over after a while though, bringing it back into the good Ensiferum territory. I’m not sure if this is Skog on vocals, and I’m likewise not sure how I feel about it. I thought she had a pretty decent voice at other shows I’ve seen her in, but these vocals aren’t living up to the quality I’ve heard from her in the past. It does make sense to have the female vocals on a song about Valkyries though. Again, this is another song that might’ve needed a bit more polish before release.

The strangest title on the album goes to “Don’t You Say”, which again has these strange vocals that are starting to sound like Christopher Bowes [Alestorm], and really, that guy’s awful voice only works because he’s pretending to be a pirate – it’s an act. With Ensiferum, they’ve had quality vocals for most of their music, so this is just grating and distracts from any potential the music would have had. And again, musically the song is good, but the vocals are just throwing it off and making it worse than it should be. I wonder how this stuff will sound live…

A heavy and somewhat orchestral intro opens up “I Will Never Kneel” aggressively, before it slows down into a nice, almost-marching beat that is broken up by growls and Viking choirs that trade off. Alas though, the bad vocals return. There are Finnish parts as well in this track, but the female vocals are much nicer on this song; they blend nicely with Lindroos’ screaming. There’s a bit of chaotic orchestration in the end that’s very dramatic. This track has grown on me a bit after a few listens, though the ‘clean’ vocals still hold it back from being better than the end result.

Perhaps the best use of accordion that doesn’t sound too pirate-y opens “God is Dead”, before a weird, short shriek comes out and the Alestorm vocals start again. Another song with some potential ruined by these vocals, though either I’m getting used to them or they’re not quite as flat on this track as they have been on the first few songs. Again, great choirs and uplifting music, but I just can’t bring myself to enjoy the singing. Was there a reason for this switch from growls to ‘clean’ in the forefront of the music? The song ends with some organ music in a weird way that I feel like should be the intro music to the next track, as that’ll just be strange if you want to listen to this song out of the album context. To me, this song sounds like Turisas’ “In the Court of Jarisleif” as covered by Alestorm.

I like the slow, heavy intro to “Hail to the Victor”, as well as Lindroos’ solid growls, making this feel like a ‘real’ Ensiferum song. What ruins this song for me is that they’ve layered the bad vocals over top of the Viking choir in the chorus, meaning that instead of the epic power of the choir, you get a good yet muted choir backing up the slumped, tuneless vocals once more. Due to the epic potential in this song and it’s fairly good dynamics, I’ll give a small allowance to the bad vocals; with time they did become less bothersome.

The album then ends with “Unettomaan aikaan”, or “Into the Sleepless Time”, bringing the album full-circle in a way that’s either clever or cheesy – I’m not certain. The song also carries the main riff from “For Those About to Fight for Metal”, with a heavier part taken by the accordion, and sounds like it may be entirely acoustic. There are some soft female vocals in this track as well, but they manage to be gentle and in tune throughout, so no real complaints here.

Perhaps the saddest part about this album is that it ends with two more songs, which are alternate versions of “God is Dead” and “Don’t You Say” that only have Lindroos and the choirs on vocals, showing off how they would have sounded if they had been done in the traditional Ensiferum manner. It’s a bit heartbreaking. These two songs essentially highlight how good the album could’ve been but isn’t – I’m not sure if their inclusion was a blessing or a curse as such. On one hand, it’s nice to have them as alternatives, but on the other hand, damn, this really could’ve been a good album!

 

Overall, I won’t be dubbing this album any sort of masterpiece. I applaud its diversity of sound, their boldness in experimentation, the musical composition on the whole, as well as their desire to include more clean vocals in their sound. However, I’m sorry to say this as an old fan, but they need a clean vocalist who can actually sing in tune. As well, the female vocals are a bit sloppy or lazy in execution and/or mix in the main songs and feel like they could use some refining. I don’t want to give this too bad of a score because it’s really just one aspect of the songs that ruins things for me, and as evidenced by the alternate songs, if they were left as growls, musically and instrumentally, this album would’ve easily pulled an 8/10 or more.

However, I don’t think four good songs (two of which are the intro and outro) and a few more good musical foundations that were poorly built upon vocally can really constitute a good album. Tuomas Holopainen quit singing after noting how bad “The Carpenter” sounded. I think Enska needs to make a similar decision if they want to keep up the clean vocals in the future. It was hard to choose a rating for this, but I suppose I have to pick something, and having a lot of potential doesn’t mean an album is really ‘good’ in the end.

Rating: 6/10, 3 stars

Tracklist:
1. Ajattomasta unesta
2. For Those About to Fight for Metal
3. Way of the Warrior
4. Two Paths
5. King of Storms
6. Feast with Valkyries
7. Don’t You Say
8. I Will Never Kneel
9. God is Dead
10. Hail to the Victor
11. Unettomaan aikaan

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