During my more experimental phase of trying to further evolve and refine my tastes in various types of metal, I would occasionally struggle with certain genres, until I found that one band that would eventually convince me to dig deeper. For anything relating to folk metal, that band was Ensiferum. As soon as I heard their album From Afar I was instantly hooked, and since then they have become not only my favorite band in their genre (as well as the band that opened the door for me discovering such excellent bands as Turisas, Equilibrium and Eluveitie) but probably one of a handful or so of my absolute favorite bands at this point. Some fans were disappointed with their more slowed down and melodic previous release Unsung Heroes, but I found it to be just as incredible as their previous two. With their upcoming sixth full length release One Man Army, they have kept their streak alive, with yet another brilliant album that both builds on their previous work, and throws in some big surprises on a couple tracks.
In case it wasn't made obvious in the opening paragraph, I’m very much in the minority when it comes to most Ensiferum fans, in that while I enjoyed their two releases with Wintersun frontman Jari Mäenpää, I find they really came into their own as soon as Petri Lindroos joined. Every album they've done starting with Victory Songs has been fantastic in its own way, with each release maintaining certain key elements while moving their sound into new and exciting directions. By comparison, One Man Army is their first one in a while that doesn't feel like a huge step forward. Instead, it largely feels like a spiritual successor to From Afar and it’s epic, speedy melodic death power metal sound, once again infused with tons of symphonic and folk elements, while occasionally mixing some of the slower sections that Unsung Heroes had, and introducing a few new tricks here and there. The opening track “Axe of Judgement” in particular feels like the closest they've come to being a symphonic power metal band, complete with an excellent section in the middle where the choir vocals and orchestras take over. The only thing separating them from having a symphonic power metal tag on that song is the fact that it still heavily features Petri’s excellent growls. Fans of From Afar should love that one as well as the equally awesome title track, which is pretty much a pure melodic death metal song, only sparingly using symphonic and folk elements.
As with any Ensiferum album, there’s a great range of different vocal styles on One Man Army. Obviously, the bulk of the load is carried by Petri Lindroos, who sounds as powerful and energetic as ever. In fact, on songs like “Cry for the Earth Bounds” and the later parts of “Descendant, Defiance, Domination”, he shows off a higher end to his growls than normal, and these vocals sound especially strong and epic. I almost wish he’d use that voice more often, it sounds that good. Clean male vocals are handled by guitarist Markus Toivonen and bassist Sami Hinkka. As always, the clean vocals sound great and help enhance the melodies, most notably on “Warrior Without a War”, which is another epic speedy track. Elsewhere, the choir vocals and various forms of gang vocals are still used frequently and sound as awesome as ever. Like with Unsung Heroes, a couple songs also feature clean female vocals and they sound great.
While most of the album feels closer to From Afar, and perhaps even Victory Songs at times, the song “Heathen Horde” is very similar to the title track of “Unsung Heroes”, in that it’s more of a mid tempo track where the folk melodies dominate, and the gang vocals during the chorus are quite epic. Other songs show their symphonic elements coming through even more strongly than they did on From Afar, most notably on “Cry for the Earthbounds”, where the operatic choirs sound especially epic. Later on in the song we have one of two instances on the album where a solo female voice is heard, as well as well as one late section in the song where Petri showcases those higher growls I mentioned earlier. On the whole, that track is a clear hi-light.
Of course, the biggest connection to From Afar comes from the tracks “My Ancestors’ Blood” and “Descendants, Defiance, Domination” which join together to make up a new chapter in the “Heathen Throne” saga. These tracks really do feel like one 16 minute epic (the first track even ends with some ambient keyboards which continue into the start of the second track) and once again Ensiferum has delivered spectacularly on that front. They do sound somewhat similar to the first two parts, with the first track being a bit more mid tempo and featuring a catchy chorus, while the second track is largely instrumental, at least in the first half, and features several tempo changes. Near the end Petri delivers more of his epic higher growls, but perhaps the most surprising thing about the track is the effective use of narration. I generally find narration in music to be very distracting, but in this case it’s used in very quick bursts and helps to push the music along, without ever getting in the way. The first half of the track does an excellent job of setting the tables, while the second half is some of the band’s best work to date.
And then we have the two oddball tracks. First up is “Two of Spades”, which starts off as a fast paced, rather straight-forward and super catchy power/melodeath song, but then in the middle it transforms into what I can only describe as some kind of weird retro dance music or something. I really can’t put it into words, but the music goes really weird for a while, and even the vocals sound a bit cheesy in a fun way, with the lyrics switching to Finnish, I believe. Whatever the heck they were attempting in that song, it worked, because it’s somehow one of the most addictive songs on the album, and it certainly sounds unique. The other surprising track is the closer “Neito Pohjolan”, another track I have a hard time properly describing. It’s a fairly upbeat track, but it’s not at all metal, and it features all female vocals, sung entirely in Finnish. My first reaction was one of utter shock, especially considering how strong a finale the previous two tracks would have made, but once I got over that I found it to be a rather fun and fresh sounding track. They even included an English version as a bonus track on the Digipak release, though this alternate version features a low singing male vocalist, and at least based on the name, the lyrics seem to be entirely different, but the music remains entirely the same. The other bonus tracks are also fun, with the appropriately named “Bonus Song” in particular being really fun and humorous.
While the previous three Ensiferum albums have shown the band constantly evolving, One Man Army feels more like a celebration of everything the band has become, with occasional glimpses into a lighter, more humorous side of the band. Fans of Victory Songs and especially From Afar should be very pleased with this one, while even those who preferred Unsung Heroes should find a lot to like. And of course, I highly recommend it to all fans of melodeath infused folk metal and symphonic metal. Overall this is yet another fantastic album from a band that has proven to be the best in their field time and time again.
(Originally written for myglobalmind: http://myglobalmind.com/2015/02/02/ensiferum-one-man-army-review/)