In the eight years that have passed since Jari Mäenpää left to form Wintersun, Finnish folk metallers Ensiferum have struggled to recapture the glory of their musical high water mark, 2004’s “Iron”. While Jari has spent the intervening years labouring on Wintersun’s sophomore record “Time”, extreme metal’s answer to Guns N’ Roses’ much-delayed “Chinese Democracy”, Ensiferum have dusted themselves off and moved on to new endeavours with replacement vocalist Petri Lindroos, albeit with varying success.
If “Victory Songs”, released in 2007, showed that the band could survive and even flourish without Mäenpää, then 2009’s disappointing “From Afar” asked serious questions about whether guitarist Markus Toivonen could fill the creative void left by Jari’s departure in the longer term. Three years on and the release of “Unsung Heroes” finally gives us our answer; a guarded “Yes”. The new record doesn’t get everything right but it confirms once and for all that Ensiferum have finally stepped out from beneath the shadow of Mäenpää and that the 2012 incarnation are worthy of a place alongside Finland’s folk metal elite.
After the obligatory acoustic intro track ‘Symbols’, ‘In My Sword I Trust’ is a rollicking return to the pared-down style of Ensiferum’s debut record. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric battle hymn in the vein of ‘Guardians of Fate’ or ‘Windrider’, with a simple rhythm augmented by catchy guitar hooks and rich layers of vocals and keyboards. The title track, ‘Unsung Heroes’, is a more down-tempo affair again dominated by thick swathes of choral singing and keys before moving to an acoustic interlude and a crushing, doomy finale. ‘Burning Heroes’, revealed a couple of months back, is very much representative of the overall direction of the album, capturing the classic Ensiferum sound but adding new emphasis to atmospheric elements that previously sat further in the background.
‘Celestial Bond’, a folky ballad with female lead vocals, is poorly timed and almost kills the pace of the album just as it has started to build up momentum. Thankfully, ‘Retribution Shall Be Mine’ gets things back on track with another blistering number featuring some very impressive guitar leads. ‘Star Queen (Celestial Bond Part II)’ revisits the same territory as Part I but is executed with a lot more panache and is more in-keeping with the spirit of the record. It reminded me a little of a more reserved ‘Lost In Despair’ from “Iron”; by no means a bad thing.
The final three songs are where “Unsung Heroes” really comes to life. ‘Pohjola’ is another rousing battle anthem with hugely impressive choral vocals combined with speed metal riffing, keyboard backing and folk instrumentation to sound as if the very doors of Valhalla itself were opening. ‘Last Breath’ is an imaginative, progressive ballad that, unlike ‘Celestial Bond’, fits perfectly with the rest of the record, although an ill-advised stint on clean vocals from Lindroos almost derails it at the end.
I confess that I’m not much of a fan of Petri Lindroos as a vocalist; his growls seem one-dimensional and anaemic compared to the range of singers like Amorphis’s Tomi Joutsen. His guitar work is competent throughout however, and the harmonised clean vocals from Toivonen and bassist Sami Hinkka are enough to make up for any shortcomings in Lindroos’s delivery. Unfortunately, the production on “Unsung Heroes” is poor, leaving the album sounding flat and robbing it of the dynamism that the complex instrumental and vocal arrangements need to cut through the mix. It makes the album a more difficult listen than it ought to be; a shame, since there’s rather a lot to enjoy here.
On which note, the closing song ‘Passion Proof Power’ is simply epic in every sense of the word. At seventeen minutes long, it’s the culmination of half a decade of experimentation with longer form songs and marks a complete departure from the Mäenpää era. It’s just as progressive as anything Jari has achieved with Wintersun but instead of focusing on raw technicality, Markus Toivonen has created a complex, interlinked suite of musical ideas that clearly demonstrates his maturation as a songwriter. Equal parts Amorphis, Moonsorrow and Evergrey, it’s still indisputably an Ensiferum track.
“Unsung Heroes” is the sound of a band attempting to reclaim their roots and it is difficult not to interpret the record as a broadside against critics (such as myself) who insist on framing whatever Ensiferum do against the achievements of their self-titled release and “Iron”. The album title itself commands the listener to look beyond the long-since-resolved drama surrounding the frontman slot to the talented group of musicians working away in the background who are rarely subject to the level of scrutiny as Mäenpää or Lindroos, a literal group of unsung heroes.
Ensiferum’s latest release is a fine effort, unfortunately hamstrung by technical issues and a sub-par vocal performance by Lindroos. If you can overlook these shortcomings, feel free to add an extra point but neither really takes away from the fact that “Unsung Heroes” has proven post-Jari Ensiferum’s credentials beyond reproach.