When I was first exploring metal’s myriad subgenres, I figured out what I like to hear in folk metal in record time. My favorites the style has to offer are those of the fast, infectiously catchy variety; acts like the early incarnations of Ensiferum and Equilibrium make up my personal top tier, plodding mid-paced and accordion-based stuff fills out the bottom tier, and any band in the mid-tier is merely forgettable. Battlesoul falls into this mid-tier, but it’s certainly not due to mediocre songwriting chops; the drama, adrenaline, and melody conveyed on their third record, Sunward and Starward, smacks of something that belongs firmly in my personal top tier. And then they let their guitarist handle the production, and it torpedoed every last shred of potential.
When it comes to songwriting and variety, Battlesoul excels. A huge spread of sounds is presented to the listener, from towering power metal choruses (“All I Understand”) to Ensiferum-inspired melodeath romps (“Totem”) and even melancholic death/doom (“Sunward and Starward”). These Canadians display a clear affection towards Finland’s distinct brands of metal, and Sunward and Starward’s peak moments are so good as to often match the heights reached by their influences. Thinking back on the record after each spin, several excellent passages immediately spring to mind – the sweeping, heartwrenching melodies of closer “Break the Day” in particular are some of the best I’ve heard in recent months – yet even more impressive is the overall quality of the compositions. The level of consistency paired with the breadth of Battlesoul’s sound says much for the band’s songwriting strengths, and it’s exceedingly rare to hear such a multi-faceted album sound so focused in its vision.
Yet for all of Battlesoul’s compositional successes, Sunward and Starward fucking sucks to listen to due to its engineering failures. The guitar tone on this thing is one of the ugliest I’ve heard outside of intentionally lo-fi material; the low-end is inexplicably muddy with a tone that eliminates all traces of the bass guitar and robs every last shred of clarity demanded by the quick melodeath riffs, while the highs sound like they were played on a Walmart practice amp and recorded with a cell phone microphone. The vocals, meanwhile, are somehow mixed even louder than the guitars and sound displaced from the rest of the mix, and the drums tones are so flat and boring that I honestly forget what they sound like in between listens. There isn’t a single aspect of Sunward and Starward’s production that doesn’t sound flat out bad, and while I understand that having their guitarist handle the production was cost effective, I can’t imagine anyone investing significant time with such an awful sounding record.
Yet significant time I did spend with Sunward and Starward, and truly, its merits become obvious after a couple spins spent acclimating to the harsh tones. Even so, Battlesoul isn’t without its share of awkward quirks, especially in the vocal department. Singer Jon Doyle’s main mode of operation is harsh, melodeath rasps (again, as the Finns do it), but his rare attempts at clean singing can come across as cringe-worthy, especially his dime store King Diamond impression in “All I Understand.” Elsewhere, gang vocals far better suited for a metalcore act make unwelcome, tone-deaf appearances in tracks like “Sunward and Starward,” which also features an operatic female vocalist who sounds like she’s actively botching a Nightwish audition. The vocal flubs are rare enough that they never significantly lessen the songs’ impact, but with Sunward and Starward already on thin ice due to its production, they contribute to making it an even harder sell.
Sunward and Starward is the most heartbreaking record I’ve ever reviewed. It ticks nearly every folk metal box in my wheelhouse from a structural standpoint, and I yearn to hear a version of it that doesn’t make my ears bleed on contact. I would buy the absolute shit out of a proper re-recording of this record someday, but the harsh reality is that Battlesoul will likely never have the funds to make such a venture viable, and Sunward and Starward isn’t likely to attract many new patrons in its current state. Give it a try if you’re into melodeath-oriented folk metal, but unless you’re impervious to seriously flawed tones and brickwalled mixing, you’ll likely just find yourself returning to Sagas for the hundredth time to drown the aftertaste.