I don’t think I’ve listened to a Leaves’ Eyes album at the time of release since Vinland Saga came out in 2005, and yet here I am, AMG’s apparent self-proclaimed queen of symphonic metal for early 2018, giving Sign of the Dragonhead a few spins. The cover art, like King of Kings, is more evocative of bands like Rebellion and Stormwarrior than Leaves’ Eyes symphonic brethren, and the overall approach is quite similar to the band’s last pair of albums as well: mid-paced symphonic heavy metal with flourishes of folk-inspired tonality and more than occasional nods to north European nautical themes. Appropriate, as several third-party sources claim that this album is a continuation of the conceptual story begun on King of Kings, regarding Harald “Fairhair” Hårfagre, first king of Norway.
While some of the band’s fanbase has been rather worked up about the change in singers after the less than amiable departure of Liv Kristine following a divorce from keyboardist Alex Krull, I’m interested only insofar as the impact the lead singer has upon the music. Which is to say, not much. New lead Elina Siirala (Angel Nation) has a voice that I would assess as slightly deeper and huskier, her enunciation is better, and her presentation overall a little more enjoyable than Kristine’s. This isn’t overly consequential, however, as I find the band’s general formula of layering gratuitous orchestral hits and drawn out vocals over fast-paced instrumentation to be awkward and frustrating to my metal sensibilities. Take opener “Sign of the Dragonhead” as a primary example. This song might make for a cool, bombastic opening to the album if it weren’t for the childishly simple chorus, which is just flat out dull.
Leaves’ Eyes suffers continuously from this tendency to blend interesting ideas and clever musical swells with irritating oversimplification – which may be the inevitable result of a varied band like Atrocity attempting to water down some of its ideas for mass consumption and taking the practice too far. I don’t care for either band, but they’ve both experienced some measure of commercial success, so clearly I’m missing something. Songs such as “Like a Mountain,” the bare-bones ballad “Fairer than the Sun,” and “Shadows in the Night” are fraught with exhausted subgenre tropes and devoid of much of anything redeeming. Granted, Leaves’ Eyes’ approach these days is a bit more straightforward than the swirling orchestrations and effects of Meredead, but these are unacceptable. Confusing, too, is the instrumental “Rulers of Wind and Wave,” which, as a fan of ambient music, is actually pretty nifty in my book, but it’s got nothing to do with the rest of the album and could as well have been forsaken entirely without the pacing of the album skipping a beat.
All right, I’ve been coming down pretty hard on this album for a while now, but there’s some stuff here that’s actually pretty cool and, for fans of the band and subgenre as a whole, will probably be redemptive of the album as a whole. “Across the Sea” is a bouncy anthem with some fun vocal turns, and a solid, folky mid-album run beginning with “Jomsborn” (Jørnsborn, if you prefer) and “Völva” culminates in the silly fun of “Riders on the Wind,” which is basically an excuse to get a beautiful woman to sing a sea shanty on a metal album1. None of it is groundbreaking in any sense at all, but Siirala has enough charm and talent to assist in carrying the band in certain places where other elements fail. The harsh vocals of Alex Krull are muddy and pretty much useless, but the full choir backing and shouted gang vocals are maybe some of the most professional I’ve heard on a metal album. It’s a pity they’re not employed in a more interesting fashion.
The end product of Sign of the Dragonhead is as the last couple of Leaves’ Eyes albums have been: pasteurized, homogenized, medieval Norwegian-flavored symphonic metal that’s been boiled down to something digestible en masse by artisan mixer/masters and programmers. This album doesn’t offend me in the least, and I wouldn’t mind hearing it as background music. I might even sing along, but there’s nothing here for me to get invested in, intellectually or emotionally. Just about everyone knows Leaves’ Eyes these days, so I’ll close this review by revisiting my most relevant comment for existing fans: I like Elina better than Liv, but it doesn’t matter because not only has nothing changed, but it sounds like you’re going to get direct competition for Leaves’ Eyes in a resuscitated, Kristine-fronted Midnattsol.