Ensiferum isn’t Finland’s most popular or well-loved melodic folk/viking metal band, but they certainly are a band whose legacy cannot be ignored. For me, they revolutionized the music I was listening to in 2001 with their immense self-titled debut Ensiferum, which took Children of Bodom and made it fruitier. It was a revelation for me and my group of friends. Impressed with their songwriting and self-presentation, though, I was forced to wait 8 years before I got another record from the band that genuinely inflamed my enthusiasm. I’m sure die-hard fans will consider it to be blasphemy, but neither Iron nor Victory Songs flared the deep love that I had for the debut even if they were good records. However, when they released From Afar in 2009 I was convinced that they were back on the proverbial longboat, ready to conquer, pillage and
convert to Christianity when they settled in Ireland all that pagan horde stuff. Alas, rather than pounding listeners with full-on thrash attack like From Afar, Unsung Heroes was a plodding, if enjoyable, release that didn’t inspire a lot of return listens. But 2015 is upon us, Ensiferum has signed with Metal Blade and have unleashed their newest record on the world: One Man Army.
On its face One Man Army is a straight-forward release: it’s a no-frills Ensiferum record. The band executes mid-to-fast-paced melodic folk metal with alacrity. The Drunken Finnish Man-Choir bombasts its way1 through immense choruses like on “Warrior without a War,” “Cry for the Earth Bounds” and “Heathen Horde” and litter mid-paced tracks with unforgettable melodies. Long-time fans know the score, here: these songs are built to support epic choruses carried by what sounds like a pagan horde swaying their drinking horns and belting lyrics. These more plodding moments are offset by the occasional soft parts—keyboards, violins, mandolins and female vocals offering contrast and respite from the epic highs. Despite being a rather slow record across the board, Ensiferum‘s europower influenced breakneck speed makes an appearance on opener “Axe of Judgement” and the 8th track “Two of Spades.” Even here, hopes that Ensiferum might take up the athletic speed of From Afar is quashed when the latter track breaks into an absolutely ridiculous (but totally awesome) Boney M./eurodisco breakdown, and these two songs basically mark the beginning and end of the band’s need for speed.
Despite being a record that’s made up of mid-paced orchestral tracks—which place the band a lot closer to Turisas than I’d remembered—One Man Army is an engaging album. On the other hand, one gets the feeling that the band wants to break out of its mold but doesn’t know where to go. Two of the most engaging moments on the album are the track with the aforementioned funk breakdown (“Two of Spades”) and Netta Skog’s totally awesome/ridiculous Finnish tango “Neito Pohjolan”2 which is the first time I’ve heard a Finnish band just drop the pretenses and seriously rock the slide guitar and accordion. These two distinct moments are engaging—and combined with the bombastic Drunken Finnish Man-Choir’s melodic they help to hold things together—but they leave me wondering whether or not Ensiferum shouldn’t “pull a Nygård” and just start making weird-ass music with which their fanbase can develop a love/hate relationship.
For all this, One Man Army is essentially on par Unsung Heroes. I liked Unsung Heroes quite a bit at the time, and while one could easily say that One Man Army outshines it, I’m not sure it demonstrates the skill for album building that its predecessor had. Still, the songs are stronger and with “Axe of Judgement,” “Heathen Horde,” and—my personal favorite—”Warrior without a War,” One Man Army is still a worthy addition to the Ensiferum discography. While it doesn’t pop with the sheer excitement and virtuosity of From Afar, it reminds me quite a bit of Victory Songs; that is to say, it’s a solid record with solid writing from a solid band that doesn’t revolutionize the band’s sound or improve on what’s gone before. This record won’t change how you feel about Ensiferum, but fans of the style and the band will find plenty to love.