The general consensus is that ENSIFERUM lost steam after Jari Mäenpää left, and while this is an accurate assessment, by all standards this is a great release. In some respects the songwriting on here shows improvement over “Iron”, particularly in the ballad and acoustic department. In other respects, this is an obvious downgrade from the overwhelming triumph and majesty that this band built their earlier material to portray.
The obvious area where this album doesn’t quite measure up is the vocal department, not so much because it lacks any passion or power, but because there was so much of those things before that pretty much nothing could measure up to it. Jari is not someone that you can replace, he’s in a class all his own. With the entrance of Lindroos the harsh vocal department is perfectly maintained, but all the husky baritone solo vocal parts and Rob Halford vocal gymnastics are gone. He is very much capable of singing a tuneful melody in a gravely, high edged tone similar to Hansi Kursch, but all clean and low singing is handled by two other members, neither of who fill out an arrangement the way Jari could on his own, which a quick listen to WINTERSUN’S self-titled album will prove.
Despite a slight downgrade in the vocal prowess of the new front man, musically this measures up very well to the precedents set before it. In many cases, the Folk instrument and ballad sections prove to be slightly more interesting than previously heard. The principle theme of opening track “Ad Victoriam” lends itself a good deal more to humming a cappella after the album has ended than the opening theme of the debut, and is far more climactic than the one that leads off “Iron”. Choruses such as the one heard on “The Wanderer” and “Raised By The Sword” also upstage the previous album’s single “Tale Of Revenge”, though they don’t quite reach up to that same magical level that the debut’s two single worthy, though they didn’t actually become as such, songs “Guardians Of Fate” and “Abandoned”.
In fact, this changeover in personnel has predisposed the band to augment the catchy melodic aspect of their sound, while playing down the Thrash Metal and Neo-classical shred work that made for a more varied listen previously. The riffs move more towards a Power Metal feel, particularly on the extremely catchy speed track “Deathbringer From The Sky”, which is arguably the most riff driven and least Folk inspired of all the songs on here save the Thrasher “The New Dawn”. Tempo and feel changes are not quite as frequent, making them more noticeable when they occur, and pull things into a more accessible arena. The guitar solos, which are few and far between, do not display the virtuoso shredder qualities that Jari’s did, but function more as an elaborated extension/variation of the Folk themes dominating most of the music. You could almost argue that for people not familiar with the band, this might be a better place to start than their debut, despite it not being quite as riveting.
The songs that really stand out from the pack of extremely catchy and memorable anthems are the title song and the album’s single. “One More Magic Potion” has one of those really memorable yet elaborate chorus melodies that grabs you the same way that “Guardians Of Fate” did, while it also has some interesting flute and acoustic sections that are also quite animated. The closing epic “Victory Song” is a grower if there ever was one, mostly because of how powerful that main theme that also appears in the opening song is. It is varied a little at the start and then used repeatedly in every chorus amidst a sea of atmospheric beauty. When you combine all of the majestic clean singing, mellow string synthesizer ambiences, pounding rhythm section and guitar riffs, everything just explodes into a celebration of glory and lives up to its title.
In the end, no matter how great this actually is, anyone who has followed the band up until now will wonder what this would sound like with Jari still at the helm. It probably would have been very different considering his status as a principle songwriter on the band’s earlier releases, but even if he had just done session vocals you could hear this thing getting just all the more closer to its actual potential. It’s a solid album, and at times outright superb, but it is also a good deal different from the last two. Nonetheless, this is worthy of the ENSIFERUM name and should please anyone who follows them and their genre, as well as most fans of Finland’s Power Metal and Melodic Death Metal scene.
(Online December 8, 2008)