It’s hard not to be in the mood for some folk metal when I wake up every morning surrounded by towering pine trees and solar-eclipsed mountains. The birds chirping incessantly, the sun patiently ascending the treetops, and the gentle breeze carrying the sweet smell of dew-tickled pine needles. These are the surroundings that make folk metal. And what better way to take in this lush atmosphere than with a new Equilibrium release? Sure, there are bands better suited for my morning cup of coffee, but these Ensiferum and Finntroll worshipers have been delivering quality folk metal for close to fifteen years. 2016 finds them in a dark mood—a mood altogether surprising to a band known for being folking fun. So what happens when the band unleashes Armageddon on its fans? Is it too late to shut this off before the trees catch fire?
First a disclaimer: a “dark mood” for Equilibrium is not like a dark mood for other bands. The goofy synths still rule the roost and there still exists that signature upbeat tempo. But Armageddon is packed with brooding melodies, emotional instrumentals, and general atmosphere of pain and suffering. It all begins with the somber orchestrations of “Sehnsucht”; the track’s loneliness further exaggerated by the Eluveitie-like narration and sets the mood. “Erwachen” follows by not only charges through its starting gate but removes it from the hinges. The track is laden with power, precision, and one of the slickest key-driven choruses on the album; the chorus is big, catchy, and is chock-full of layered, multi-vocalist performances destined to haunt the rest of the album.
“Katharsis” and closer “Eternal Destination” also share these moody qualities. Both are heavy and brooding, but the closer is the climatic representation of the entire album. Though the band is well known for their lengthy closers, the Evergrey-esque “Eternal Destination” is one of the more effective album conclusions of their entire catalog. It may not be as captivating as Sagas‘ “Mana,” but its crushing blasts and emotional atmosphere make it the perfect conclusion to the album.
Armageddon still has a lighter side, however. “Heimat” is a rather typical, happy-go-lucky Equilibrium song with an uplifting attitude and a whole shitload of silly synths. The key work is so sappy it would fit right in on Trans-Siberian Orchestra‘s Christmas Eve and Other Stories. “Koyaaniskatsi” is another lighthearted ditty and the most beautiful song on the album. It’s full of hope and acts as the true contrast to the rest of the album. It would even be the perfect album closer if “Eternal Destination” had not performed its duties so well.
But for all the love I have for “Koyaaniskatsi” and “Eternal Destination,” the track the stands out the most for me is “Prey.” This track is killer and has perhaps the heaviest riff the band has ever written. But this is no thrash epic. It still has all the Equilibrium catchiness and emotion but with a riff fitting for a neck brace. Conversely, my least favorite tracks would have to be “Zum Horizont” and “Helden.” “Born to Be Epic” may have the most absurd lyrics, but “Zum Horizont” and “Helden” are the sore thumbs of the album. A lot of this is due to the keys. The performances and songwriting aren’t bad, but these tracks are fucking odd. The former rolls along pretty well until it encounters the Barnum and Bailey Circus; almost derailing the album with its over-the-top clown trot. And the synth lead midway through “Helden” is so vintage video game that it hurts. But, it gets worse when it transitions into a hopping build suited for a Beverly Hills Cop reboot.
In general, Armageddon is a winner. I love the darker elements, the crushing riffs, and the beautiful choruses stitching this album together. Furthermore, the album has the best dynamics the band has ever put to tape. Normally in the DR5-6 range, Armageddon is allowed to breathe a bit more. And what a difference better mastering makes. This album feels warmer than previous releases and the instruments, orchestrations, and Dethklok-like vocals are better for it. The songwriting isn’t quite to the level of Sagas, but it is on par with 2013’s Erdentempel (which ain’t so bad [I beg to differ – AMG]). But the moodier and more melodic approach works, and I look forward to seeing how they expand on it with future releases.