Fans of furious oompah and cirrhosis-inducing levels of drinking rejoice; Korpiklaani are back. Of course, they’ve never really been away. With the release of their latest album “Manala”, the prolific Finnish folk metallers have notched up their eighth record in nine years. It’s fair to say that over the last five years or so, the band have worn themselves a comfortable groove with their tried-and-tested formula of thundering metal anthems supported by fiddle, accordion and thumping polka beats but recent releases have started to feel a little unimaginative and, well, complacent. A year on from the creative low-point of “Ukon Wakka”, can the band find their feet again?
“Manala” is based on the Finnish national epic the Kalevala, which has been the subject of albums by Korpikaani’s countrymen Amorphis, Turisas and Ensiferum over the course of their careers. The record was written almost entirely in the Finnish language, although label Nuclear Blast have stated that copies shipped to other countries will come with an accompanying bonus disc containing English vocals. The title refers to the realm of the dead in Finnish mythology and explores the tale of a shaman who travelled to the underworld seeking forbidden knowledge about the dead.
The sombre subject matter seems to have instilled a different approach to the music; “Manala” lacks a high tempo drinking anthem of the sort that has made Korpiklaani a staple on the summer live circuit. All things considered, it’s probably for the best – the band’s attempts to crank out a festival favourite on each record have become increasingly subject to the laws of diminishing returns. 2009 single ‘Vodka’ was essentially derivative of ‘Beer Beer’ and last year’s ‘Tequila’ was a poorly-judged exercise in ridiculousness that left a bad taste in the mouth and helped drag “Ukon Wacka” a step further into mediocrity.
But although there’s no instant crowd-pleaser, the trade-off is that the overall quality of songwriting on “Manala” has greatly improved. The more stripped-down metal numbers have a focus and drive that was lacking on recent efforts and songs like ‘Kunnia’ and ‘Rauta’ are simply catchy as hell. Elsewhere, folk instruments are used much more creatively across the record as a lead instrument rather than being relegated to support duty for the guitars and bass.
New violinist Tounas Rounakari shines on the fiddle, adding layers of extra depth to slow-burner ‘Synkka’ and the brooding closer ‘Samussa Hamaran Aamun’. That descriptive belies one of “Manala”’s most notable differences from its recent predecessors; Korpiklaani seem to have finally lost their fear of slowing down. It doesn’t happen often but when the band drop the tempo, the achingly beautiful folk melodies that fill the space show a level of craft that’s not always readily apparent from the more breakneck tunes.
A handful of songs see the band at the top of their game. ‘Ievan Polkka’, a reworking of a traditional Finnish song, lets the folk instrumentation carry the song, with the metal elements complementing rather than overwhelming the natural rhythm of the tune. The aforementioned ‘Samussa Hamaran Aamun’ is as close as Korpiklaani will ever come to doom metal. It’s a radical departure from their usual style but one that they pull off with aplomb. ‘Rauta’ stands out as a pleasingly infectious first single (and if somebody finds out what that percussion instrument that sounds like a woodpecker inside my skull is, please do let me know) while ‘Dolorous’ is another impressive foray into more atmospheric territory.
After nearly half a decade of competent but ultimately samey and slightly forgettable albums, Korpiklaani have finally delivered a record that matches up to the quality of early releases “Spirit of the Forest” and “Tales of Wilderness”. They’re still the oompah-along feel-good folk metal act they’ve always been but “Manala” sees Korpiklaani flourish as a more fully rounded outfit, willing to experiment and challenge themselves.