Friday, October 5, 2012

Review: Ensiferum - Unsung Heroes (2012)

Ensiferum [ Website | Facebook | ReverbNation ]
Unsung Heroes
(2012)
Spinefarm Records


Finland's Ensiferum, for those not already familiar with the band, have established themselves as a folk metal juggernaut by combining Norse-inspired concepts with traditional melodies, blackened vocals, and gate-crashing power metal. As much of a sucker for folk metal that I am, I've never been drawn to Ensiferum's take on the style. I chalk that up to my general aversion to Euro-styled power metal. For the band's fifth album, Unsung Heroes, I threw caution to the wind and decided to experience Ensiferum first hand. What I found was an album that appealed  to me much more than I anticipated it would, which probably means that long-time fans will be somewhat disappointed with it. Be that as it may, Unsung Heroes has the capacity to reach a broader audience of folk metal aficionados.

Ensiferum scales back the flowery power metal during the initial stages of Unsung Heroes. Although the album kicks off with an intro ("Symbols") that sounds like it belongs in a movie score, the band puts their best foot forward right away with "In My Sword I Trust". This mid-tempo power metal beauty delivers meaty, galloping riffs accentuated by heroic leads and a nicely discernible bass presence. The harsh vocals that are a defining element of Ensiferum's style are here as expected, but they're overshadowed by the superb clean refrains and fist-pumping gang vocals. The vocal variety, combined with more traditional metal riff structures, cement "In My Sword I Trust" as the standout track on Unsung Heroes. This masterwork is followed by the rich folk melodies (the catchiest on the album) of the title track. Retaining the deliberate pacing of the previous song, "Unsung Heroes" makes pleasant use of traditional instruments before delving into some Phantom of the Opera theatrics as the song concludes. The very compelling vocal refrains on "Burning Leaves" adds further fuel to the argument that Ensifreum should drop the blackened vocals entirely. Although there are some missteps with the clean vocals (see "Star Queen" for proof), Unsung Heroes is a much stronger release when the harsh vocals are minimized in favor of the wide range of clean vocal elements the band employs.


With "Celestial Bond", a female-led acoustic ballad, Unsung Heroes begins a shift back to the formula most Ensiferum fans are accustomed to. "Retribution Shall Be Mine" is a blistering power metal track overflowing with the requisite double-kick and frantic riffing that are signatures of the genre. Proggy synth passages blend with masturbatory guitar solos  designed to make Blind Guardian fans squeal with girlish delight before the cold shower of "Star Queen" puts an end to the debauchery. The medieval melodies of "Celestial Bond" carry over to this track, which graduates from acoustic to full-blown power metal balladry. To be fair, the song does have a rather nice groove to it and stands out as the best of the three ballads present on Unsung Heroes.

After more uninspiring power metal, the album closes with the truly epic 17-minute "Passion, Proof, Power". Ensiferum pulls out all the stops here, blending the three stylistic realms of this album together with some complexities that remind me of both Amorphis and Trans-Siberian Orchestra (their secular work). It's ambitious, for sure, and for the most part succeeds in providing an appropriately majestic exclamation point to an above average album.

Unsung Heroes took a number of spins to reveal all of its intricacies. I suspect that both long-time Ensiferum fans and folk metal lovers checking out the band for the first time will experience the same slow burn that I did. Unsung Heroes is not a classic of the genre, but the band's willingness to broaden their appeal make it a solid offering.
Track Listing
1Symbols2:10
2In My Sword I Trust5:38
3Unsung Heroes6:13
4Burning Leaves6:22
5Celestial Bond4:33
6Retribution Shall Be Mine4:45
7Star Queen (Celestial Bond II)6:14
8Pohjola6:23
9Last Breath4:48
10Passion, Proof, Power17:17
Total Runtime1:04:22



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