Finally, the long-awaited follow-up to TURISAS' 2004 debut "Battle Metal" has arrived, and just to get it out of the way right here and now: no, they haven't dropped the ball.
However, they very much have progressed in those three years -- or have changed, depending on how you want to look at it. For lack of a better wording, "The Varangian Way" is fucking epic. This might not seem like it's worth pointing out, really, for after all "Battle Metal" was all very epic in its own right and definitely worthy of its album title, but "The Varangian Way" vastly eclipses it in this regard. For a great deal of the playtime of the CD, you will feel like you are watching some sort of Viking musical. Soaring strings and wind instruments abound, and those choirs that TURISAS already used to great effect on their debut album ("faaaaaaaar awaaaaaaaaay, where suuunshiiiiine neveeeer faaaaaades") make many a glorious appearance again here.
I will admit to one thing quite freely: this album is not easy to get into. Indeed, "The Varangian Way" has taken me on something of an emotional roller coaster ride, in terms of my reactions to the album. Initially, like any good TURISAS fan, I had high hopes for this CD. After I'd listened to it for the first time, however, I felt rather underwhelmed. The sheer scale of the album was obvious after the first listen, but apart from "In The Court Of Jarisleif" (more on that below) nothing had really "stuck". In my book, that's usually a bad thing: if an album has nothing to offer that is catchy in the broadest sense of the word, it's not really worth listening to for me. Luckily, partly because I figured "this is fucking TURISAS, I can't give up on it already after one listen" and partly because of the CD's incredibly grand atmosphere, I did listen to it some more. And lo and behold, slowly but surely I came to realize its quality and splendour!
What's different about "The Varangian Way" is that overall, it's a more serious album. That's not to say "Battle Metal" was "easy listening" or anything like that, but all in all it certainly seems a bit more playful in comparison now. For the most part, you will not find much in the way of light-hearted, immediately catchy tracks in the vein of "Midnight Sunrise", "One More", "The Land of Hope And Glory" or "Sahti-Waari" on this album. "The Varangian Way" is notably more mature as a whole, both in composition and in atmosphere, and I suppose some of the accessibility of their debut had to be sacrificed in order to achieve what TURISAS were going for.
So did the end justify the means? Yes. In my opinion, anyway. TURISAS have come up with an excellent Symphonic Metal album that embraces the Symphonic aspect without skipping the Metal part. The orchestral instrumentation, while playing a vital role in many songs here, is never out of place or overbearing -- provided, of course, that such orchestral elements aren't overbearing in your book in the first place.
With a playtime of about 42 minutes, "The Varangian Way" is not terribly long, but that certainly is for the better. Many bands who attempt the symphonic thing end up noodling around needlessly and drag out their songs well beyond what would've been necessary. Not so TURISAS. They tell their musical tales of adventure and war (it actually being a concept album based on the historical Varangians) with a minimum of fancy embellishment, choosing rather to establish a certain atmosphere and mood, and then act on it while it's still fresh in the listener's mind. The fact that said atmosphere is built using epic choirs and orchestral accompaniments almost comes as a matter of course; a journey from the North down to Constantinople all but demands such measures. If you think keyboards and all that new-fangled stuff have no place in Metal, this album will hardly sway you, but if you can appreciate quality epic Metal, then "The Varangian Way" is absolutely going to make you happy.
There are two tracks which deviate from the "epic as epic can" formula on this album. One is "Cursed be Iron", a fairly relentless track with a downright brutal main riff (by TURISAS standards, anyway). They've still managed to work in some subtle quasi-spoken word passages, but they serve nicely to get your head bangin' all the harder when they launch into the chorus again. Definitely the most "straightforward" song on this album.
The second track is "In The Court Of Jarisleif", a quirky, rocking folky track somewhat reminiscent of "Sahti-Waari" on the debut album, featuring plenty of accordion and violin action as well as some minor "ethnic" instrumentation. I can already see this being a major hit at concerts if they perform it live, as it's quite simply a catchy, fun piece with lyrics that are easy to shout and sing along to.
But what about the other six songs, you may ask? It's a bit more difficult to talk about them in detail without resorting to descriptions such as "there's this fucking awesome choir and some totally sweet strings", but let me assure you that they're all quite memorable in their own right. "The Dnieper Rapids", for example, tells of the treacherous journey by river required to reach Constantinople and of the rapids the ships had to brave. Musically it will have you on the edge of your seat, evoking a vivid image of the raging river as the rapids are navigated -- almost like a tiny Metal version of Smetana's "Vltava". "Miklagard Overture", the following track clocking in at over eight minutes, is every bit as grand and majestic as the Queen of Cities it is a homage to (though how the pretty Proggy break at 5:10 fits in with that is anyone's guess) and serves as a fitting album closer.
Some of the earlier tracks, too, are especially remarkable. First track "To Holmgard And Beyond" is among the catchier songs on the album with its grand, instantly memorable chorus and the impeccably narrated spoken-word part later on the track (once more proving that smooth British-sounding gentlemen make the best Metal narrators). "A Portage To The Unknown" proves similarly catchy, thanks to a great choir-driven chorus and some fairly dramatic string passages. "Five Hundred And One" cannot go mentioned either, combining some really nifty, almost experimental passages and powerful vocal lines with the more traditional, epic stylings of the remaining album. Finally, the last one and a half minutes or so of this song are nothing but utterly gripping and passionate; TURISAS at the top of their game.
Make no mistake: "The Varangian Way" is, for the most part, not an album you simply put in when you want something to rock out to. It's something you have to be in the right mood for, thanks to its extremely sweeping, grand atmosphere, which may well come across as rather being pompous and overbearing instead if the time is not right. As this holds true for essentially all Symphonic Metal, however, it's hardly something to be held against this album in particular.
Overall, TURISAS have delivered an exceptional sophomore album that is sure to make fans of the band's bombastic style very happy indeed. Everybody else should at least give it a listen, though a general affinity for the more symphonic and epic side of Metal is strongly recommended.
Both thumbs up! A strong contender for "album of the year 2007".
(Online July 11, 2007)