Ensiferum isn’t small fries when it comes to the folk metal scene. Since their debut record in 2001, they have been one of the favorites of the Finnish scene for everyone who loves good folk metal. Their unique approach – well, at the time anyway – of blending Children of Bodom solos and Sonata Arctica speed with folk music influences and instruments is one that has been eminently successful for them. I’ve always had a soft spot for these guys, to be honest, and I’ve always thought they improved with time. Their style is powerful, their melodies catchy and while not every song on every record is a slam dunk, they’ve not succumbed to deterioration in quality. Though, frankly, they set a pretty high bar with 2009’s From Afar – which was a mile a minute in speed and packed to the brim with exciting anthems.
Unsung Heroes is not a sequel to From Afar by any means. Instead, Unsung Heroes is split into two types of tracks: the former, which starts with opening anthem “In My Sword I Trust,” are mid-paced, often backed with Jani Parvialainen’s simple rock beats and simple, chunky riffs on the guitars. The first three tracks – the aforementioned “In My Sword I Trust,” as well as title track “Unsung Heroes” and “Burning Leaves” – all follow this pattern, never getting up to the blistering speed we’ve come to expect from Ensiferum. The other type of track are the slow, almost melancholy tracks. Here you have “Celestial Bond,” which is made up of beautiful female vocals and a dramatic chorus, its brother “Star Queen (Celestial Bond II),” and finally “Last Breath.” These songs sport folk melodies, acoustics and sad stories – but here the vocal constraints of singer Petri Lindroos (I think) get in the way of the songs being enjoyable. While “Star Queen” isn’t bad, the vocal performance on “Last Breath” gets painful as he strains his voice to try to hit the notes – with middling success. “Celestial Bond,” on the other hand, is gorgeous and genius: a real winner.
The only place where the heavy, fast Ensiferum we’ve come to know and love really comes to a head are on the tracks “Retribution Shall Be Mine,” which is straight up thrash in its staccato riffing, and “Pojhola” which sounds like a mix of the high octane Ensiferum with Turisas‘s later material. The choirs are immense and the orchestrations work perfectly.
Still, while I was a bit disappointed at first, I kept coming back to Unsung Heroes again and again. The core of what Ensiferum is – Finnish folk metal, with all the idiosyncrasies of that particular idiom – is still intact and these songs grow. The riffs that seemed boring at first proved infectious in the long run, and the preponderance of clean vocals just gives a Drunk Metal Guys more to chant while raising a glass. And while the record as a whole clocks in at over an hour, you hardly notice the time passing by because the musicianship is so strong.
So aside from a poor “Last Breath,” which is easily skippable, Unsung Heroes is a record that changes the game for Ensiferum, but doesn’t really succumb to Angry Metal Guy’s Law of Diminishing Recordings™. In going through my Ensiferum collection, Unsung Heroes feels like some of the material on Ensiferum and Iron than the band’s later material. This should please older fans, and should at least keep the angry newer fans who want something bigger at bay. Pay special attention to the epic track “Passion Proof Power.” While the German dialogue and stuff in the middle is pretty stupid, the song itself is probably one of the better epics the band has written and a perfect end to the record. I especially love the Tuonela-era Amorphis breakdown in the middle of the track.