Elvenking is another one of Italy’s most famous
cheese mongers power metal establishments and they’ve been pumping out folk/medieval influenced power metal since 2001’s extraordinary Heathenreel. Unfortunately, since their debut record the band hasn’t produced an album worth all the hope invested in them because of their debut work. In terms of Angry Metal Guy’s Law of Diminishing Recordings™, Elvenking is possibly one of the fastest drop-offs in recent memory. I’ve checked in with the guys from time to time over the years, as I want to like them, but I genuinely haven’t ever been able to get into their stuff. The last one I spent any longer amount of time with was 2010’s Red Silent Tides which left me cold and bored, and Era wasn’t great from a songwriting perspective, but the record was genuinely killed by its mastering job.
So it was with basically no expectations, but a seedling of hope, that I started listening to The Pagan Manifesto. And, like bright, April sun, cheese-metal of the highest quality shone forth; bright, overmastered, but warm and satisfying. The Pagan Manifesto truly is a manifesto of sorts, with a special energy and feel that the band hasn’t produced in ages—and that I haven’t heard from a power metal record in a long, long time. The melody is strong, the songwriting stronger, and the band succeeds at what was the calling card of Heathenreel—the sweet blend of powerful, fast, melodic metal with pagan themes, copious emasculating folk-melodies and lyrics, and anthemic-as-fuck choruses. This is exactly the energy and output that you should expect of Elvenking.
Ironically, as far as I can tell, the band hasn’t really changed up the formula, they just executed it very well. While they did break with founding/long-time members of the band during 2010-2012, there doesn’t appear to be a desire to separate the band from its previous material. Instead, The Pagan Manifesto is a confluence of good timing and rediscovered songwriting and melody construction. While “Midnight Skies, Winter Sighs” (from 2012’s Era) came across as a cheesy ode to shitty ’80s cock rock, the same electric acoustic sounds and sultry melody breakdowns in (functional) epic opener “The King of the Elves” work as a contrast to the band’s buoyant sound. And while songs like “Moonbeam Stone Circle” could have been on any of the band’s previous records, the melody and energy hearkens back to Nocturnal Rites and Stratovarius in their best years and reignites the flame for power metal in the heart of this bitter, aging metal guy.
Some of this re-found energy may actually rest out of the band’s control in the mastering and production, as well. While crushed to death in line with modern standards (AFM is one of the worst offenders in the Loudness War), The Pagan Manifesto‘s DR6 rating is actually still a serious improvement from the band’s previous couple albums which are sonically pulverized, horribly flat and don’t give the material any life at all. The Pagan Manifesto allows for some dynamics and drums that sound like, well, drums. Much better production, along with backing off the dynamic range compression has allowed the material on this album to breathe more (note: it’s still crunched and could be much better), but it might explain why songs here seem to pop with energy compared to flat and lifeless Red Silent Tides and Era.
But it’s not just the production or mastering, sometimes a band just “cracks the code” and drops a bunch of songs that do precisely what they’re supposed to. The Pagan Manifesto does that. Despite being over an hour long, it doesn’t ever lose steam. Slower-to-midpaced tracks like “The Solitaire” and “Grandier’s Funeral Pyre” pace the record, while “Witches Gather” and “Black Roses for the Wicked One”—which has a wicked Jim Steinman introduction—round off the record on a heavy note that is unexpected but that works well. Hell, even the ballad “Towards the Shores” reminds me of the best of Rhapsody‘s forays into medieval folk and allow me to reminisce of times when I threw my days into Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights games when I wasn’t playing D&D and listening to Sword Swinging Elf Metal like this.
Do not doubt the quality, however: it is most certainly not nostalgia that makes The Pagan Manifesto great. Instead, it’s the band’s fresh feel and approach to a sound (and scene) that is stagnant that separates this record from the herd. The songwriting and album construction on The Pagan Manifesto is a statement. With powerful performances from all members of the band—particularly the Coverdale-wannabe crooner Damnagoras—The Pagan Manifesto teems with life, smartly written songs, beautiful solos, catchy folk melodies and reclaims the promise that once was so prominent with the band.
A manifesto, indeed.