Ensiferum – Thalassic Review

2020 finds Ensiferum at the end of the plank. From early years cross-decking with Wintersun to coloring their feelings on a decade’s worth of mood-ring motifs, the Finns sought comfort in any port that would have them. Try as they might though, Ensiferum’s glory days seemingly sailed on without them after From Afar. 2017’s Two Paths aptly laid out the options before the band: death or glory. Without righting the ship fast, the hallowed melofolk act would scuttle all hope of escaping brand and exile. So they did the one thing guaranteed to sell nowadays: write some pirate metal. Yes, Thalassic is just a fancy way of saying “sea shit,” and Ensiferum’s eighth full-length is affirmatively jovial. Yo ho, motherfuckers.

“Rum, Women, Victory.” Lead single or Running Wild CliffsNotes, who can tell anymore? But if all that Ensiferum gleaned from 30 years of pirate metal are those three words, up the crossbones anyway because this song rips. (Rum) A deck-rattling stomp spirals into a full-sail melostorm that’s almost power metal in execution. (Women) The tailwind catches just in time for the sweet nectar of paired folk lead and shout-it-out chorus, punctuated by three simple words. (Victory) In context, the track is one of Ensiferum’s most encouraging entries in a decade. It’s everything that’s great about the band. (RUM) It’s everything that their recent material wasn’t. (WOMEN) It’s fun, it’s fresh, it’s fancy fuckin’ free. (VIC-TOR-Y) The rest of Thalassic dutifully follows suit. The band’s recent trend toward orchestral backing recedes with the tide, a boon for a sound that used that crutch to avoid the issue too much on recent releases. Combine that with a heavier reliance on boisterous pop-folk structures, and Markus Toivonen and Petri Lindroos manage to plunder back some of the folken magic they lost to Equilibrium over a decade ago.

Putting big reaver energy first and all other fucks second goes a long way, and thankfully so. For as strong as its ideas are, Thalassic still suffers from a laundry list of creaks and leaks. The vocal melodies on “The Defence of the Sampo” drag laggard guitar lines behind them, and its Western break section is less “Stone Cold Metal” and more “I wrote this shit, I like this shit, use it or I quit.” The chorus of the otherwise delightful “Midsummer Magic” grates on me every time. “One with the Sea” is the album’s only true clunker, a quiet reminder of the band’s on-going struggles with ballads, while closer “Cold Northland (Väinämöinen Part III)” just doesn’t make sense. Its epic throwback first act stomps along fine before a blackened frost storm avalanches into the record’s finale. However, the song sits tonally and thematically at odds with Thalassic’s peg-leg pursuits. Worse, it’s only ever vaguely reminiscent of the original Väinämöinen pairing from Ensiferum’s titular debut, rendering the entire detour forced, if not entirely pointless.

But as Thalassic takes on water, newcomer Pekka Montin bails it out. Rather than stuff him below deck with his keyboard and an empty bottle of rum, the band makes Montin sing for his stay… and holy shit can this guy belt. His squint-and-it’s-Joutsen croons lay it thick on the already-Amorphis-inspired “Andromeda” and “For Sirens,” and his impressive range and swashbuckling attitude make his dueling chorus with Lindroos on “Run from the Crushing Tide” the best in a decade. Ensiferum could easily have relegated Montin to the background or isolated him, as on “Rum, Women, Victory;” better bands have made worse mistakes. Instead, they let him prowl the entire record with the vigor of a young Bruce Dickinson, just looking for a verse to plunder. It’s the difference between a young, mischievous ship’s monkey with an eye on your MacGuffin and a young, mischievous ship’s monkey’s eyes AS your MacGuffin. Because of Montin, Thalassic doesn’t just feel like a good Ensiferum album, it feels like a new one.

That’s the biggest success of Thalassic. That skull and crossbones on the horizon turned out not as a desperate grasping of straws as everyone (me) thought, but the revitalizing collection of shanties everyone (also me) has waited for since From Afar. Perfection is still a long way off, and perhaps the glory days really have set sail for good, but Thalassic is the first Ensiferum album in a decade worth a full-throated endorsement. Yo ho one time for me.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Metal Blade Records
Websites: ensiferum.bandcamp.com | ensiferum.com | facebook.com/ensiferum
Releases Worldwide: July 10th, 2020

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