Get ready to break out the ink soaked feather quill and the mile long roll of parchment because EQUILIBRIUM have just upped the ante on what the term epic actually entails. With all the classic Folk clichés at the forefront, followed by an army of keyboard sounds that could intimidate RHAPSODY OF FIRE and all of the bands they’ve influenced, “Sagas” is the perfect treat for any fantasy fiction fanatic who is fluent in coarsely vocalized German prose. Throwing caution and any iota of subtlety to the wind, this album is basically the most unapologetic thing to ever rise out of the Viking Metal since the concept was pioneered by the likes of BATHORY and UNLEASHED.
It’s important to note, that despite the conventional wisdom regarding Folk/Viking Metal, the style does lend itself to a good deal of variety. This tends to help and also hurt various bands within this label, as despite the very Metal concept of Norse mythology and glory, many can wander off the map and lose sight of the musical aspects of the Metal genre. Aside from the simplistic melodies, familiar chord progressions and obvious lyrical subjects, bands have a good deal of wiggle room in what they put in and take out of their sound. In the case of this album, nothing is really omitted, but a lot is added on, resulting in something that is heavily Progressive, almost to the point of becoming akin to SKYFIRE’s work at times.
The comparisons to the older and non-Folk oriented Swedish outfit in question go pretty far, as this basically blends a large number of Melodic Death, Power and Progressive ideas together into one complex, though slightly easier to follow whole. There’s a greater emphasis on the RHAPSODY and BLIND GUARDIAN usage of string synthesizers, combined with the accordion and period instruments common to TURISAS and ENSIFERUM, but occasionally off the cuff ideas are thrown in to make this very much its own beast. Two really obvious examples include “Unbesiegt” and “Snüffel”, the former of which is loaded with Avant-garde moments almost akin to modern Techno music, while the latter has a host of older Rock riffs thrown in here and there, essentially bringing a bit of DEEP PURPLE and JETHRO TULL to the halls of Wotan.
The biggest commonality this album holds with SKYFIRE’s work, particularly their debut “Timeless Departure”, is the large sounding production. That really grand character common in many modern film scores is present here, due in no small part to the incorporation of several famed guest musicians. If you took all of the instrumental epic “Mana” and broke it up into several parts, you’d likely have all you would need to score a Sci-Fi/Fantasy film from the opening to closing credits. The panpipe sections put forth by “Lord Of The Rings” famed flautist Ulrich Herkenhoff are unforgettable, upstaging much of what you’d often hear on a FAIRYLAND album.
Vocalist Helge Stang proves to be one of the less versatile vocalists in this style, as he doesn’t try to match wits with Jari Mäenpää in the high end “Painkiller” vocal department, or even try to emulate the clean sung passages heard on BATHORY’s Viking trilogy or many other Folk outfits of yesterday and today. His approach is mostly in line with a various assortment of Blackened Death and Melodic Death Metal vocalists, falling somewhere between the Mikael Stanne (DARK TRANQUILLITY) and Henrik Wenngren (SKYFIRE), though occasionally he leans towards a more guttural, Johan Hegg character on songs such as “Blut Im Auge” and “Des Sängers Fluch”, and pulls it off quite well.
The area where the album is held back a little is where all of these very well etched parts come together in the respective whole. There are some really good riff ideas mixed with some pretty catchy melodies, the beats are Thrashy and fun, the vocals are passionately delivered, but each song is presented in a very similar format. Some songs almost become interchangeable with others, the various solo sections don’t really try to outdo the ones on the previous song, nor do they try to be more subdued, but are content to get the job done each time. Combined with a slight over-emphasis on quiet, atmospheric instrumental breaks, what ensues is a pretty longwinded and largely 2 dimensional sound. It’s slightly more interesting than what you’d get out of AMON AMARTH and NORTHER, but it doesn’t have the same continuous fire and intrigue that you’d get from ENSIFERUM or SKYFIRE.
Ultimately this will appeal the most to Melodic Death oriented Folk Metal fans, particularly those who like the merging of pristine melodies and harsh vocal work who also complain that the Gothenburg scene wasn’t Thrash/Power Metal oriented enough and dwelled on tremolo riffs far too much. It may also carry some charm for those who really like the Symphonic material being put out by MANOWAR of late. It’s definitely more aggressive and metallic than what some in this genre put forth, but it will likely not be as capable of crossing genre lines to the extent that ENSIFERUM has been able to. It’s a very good release for 2008, just edging out “Twilight Of The Thunder God” by my own reckoning, and is a worthy pickup.
(Online April 8, 2009)