While checking out a music video for one of the lead singles to Elvenking‘s latest record, Reader of the Runes – Divination, I stumbled across a comment that deeply resonated with me. To paraphrase: “This is pretty good, but I still feel like a Pagan Manifesto widow.” It’s rare for a band to drop their best album seventeen years and eight LPs in their career, but 2014’s The Pagan Manifesto was precisely that. That record’s focus on power metal bombast was retained in 2017’s Secrets of the Magick Grimoire, but ultimately that record struggled in replicating its predecessor’s success. Unsurprisingly, Divination also fails to match Elvenking‘s high water mark; this time, however, the quality gap has lessened significantly. A comprehensive overview of everything that makes Elvenking‘s trademark folky power metal so uniquely charming, Divination comes across as one of the most confident records in the band’s lengthy catalog.
Though perhaps not the Pagan Manifesto sequel I had wished for, Divination is striking in its impressive balancing of Elvenking‘s strengths. It’s a sort of tour through the band’s history, with songs recalling their earliest, folkiest days (“Eternal Eleanor”) and more bombastic recent material (“Heathen Divine”) making welcome appearances. There’s even a pair of tracks bound to appease fans of their divisive The Winter Wake phase. “Silverseal” and “Under the Sign of a Black Star” expertly reignite that same guilty pleasure combo of power metal and alt rock, but neither of these tracks would succeed without Elvenking‘s distinct, folk-borne charisma. This record is awash with their trademark cornball exuberance, making even hairpin turns into outright melodeath aggression (“The Misfortune of Virtue,” “Malefica Doctrine”) feel downright earnest. While not Elvenking‘s most inspired work overall, this constant genuineness makes Divination one of their most consistent records.
Though immensely enjoyable as a complete package, Divination often feels deficient in one area: Its choruses. Excellent refrains can still be found – I especially enjoy the uncharacteristically restrained chorus of the otherwise raging “The Misfortune of Virtue,” and the bittersweet bombast of “Warden of the Bane” – but others fail to live up to the tracks accompanying them. The biggest disappointment in this field lies in the immense closer “Reader of the Runes – Book I.” Though it sports a wonderfully kinetic lead riff and a downright inspired pivot into full on melodic black metal around the six minute mark, the track’s chorus feels plodding and uninspired. This is especially disheartening when considering that this chorus also serves as the album’s main theme. Even as Divination‘s lowest point, however, this chorus isn’t bad so much as a notable low point in an album relatively free of major blemishes.
While much of Divination sticks to Elvenking conventions, the band has never been afraid to embrace current trends1. This is made evident on this outing with “Divination” and “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” which filters Sabaton‘s distinct sound through tried and true Elvenking-isms. The latter is a highlight, akin to Sabaton‘s “Gott mit uns” with a nautical bent, but the former spotlights a seemingly new issue with Damna’s voice. He sounds strained and hoarse, but as some tracks are without vocal mishaps, I wonder if this is a botched attempt at taking a gritty approach with the material. Even so, his hokey yet clever and endearing wordplay is in top form, and the band as a whole shines thanks to a wonderfully adaptive mix courtesy of one Dan “The Muthafuckin’ Man” Swanö. With his guidance, the distinct Swanö snare drum “pop” bolsters energy throughout the record, and crucial components are always front and center without drowning out other instruments.
Reader of the Runes – Divination is the first in what is planned to be an ongoing story spanning multiple records. Taking this knowledge into account with just how well the record represents Elvenking‘s core strengths, it’s hard to think of a better jumping off point for those who want to dive into the back catalog of a band which I’ve always seen as a unique alternative to the power metal genre. Divination might not be as immediately appealing as Elvenking‘s best records, yet it is so consistently good and instantly memorable – seriously, I was whistling along to songs from this thing after only one full listen – that I feel it should reside very close to the upper echelons of their discography. It’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re in the middle of a long overdue renaissance for the band, and as long as Elvenking can keep up the charm, I’ll be eager to hear them capitalizing on their renewed vigor.