I gave the fourth album from Finland’s Ensiferum an initial listen with some trepidation, as I’m always leary about folk metal descriptions for bands. Usually this means silly sing-a-long melodies and an overuse of miscellaneous folk-style instruments. From Afar strikes a perfect balance of these elements and good old-fashioned Viking metal aggression to deliver an album that surprised me with how enjoyable it is. A more accurate might be symphonic Viking metal with From Afar’s heavy use of piano, horns, strings, and operatic background vocals that sit well alongside the gruff vocals and heavy guitar riffs. An acoustic instrumental openers the album before the title tracks explodes into an epic speed metal track complete with bombastic horns and operatic vocals. “Twilight Tavern” has the mid-tempo bounce of a Helloween song that’s hard not to hum along with. The 11 minute “Heathen Throne” is the gem of the album, and finds Ensiferum incorporating all aspects of their sound into a single song. Things pick up again with the frenetic pace of “Elusive Reaches” before taking a dip with the more folksy-sounding “Stone Cold Metal” and “Smoking Ruins”. All isn’t lost here, and I particularly enjoyed the calm, whistled interlude in “Stone Cold Metal”. A short barroom chant precedes the nearly 13 minute closing track, “The Longest Journey (Heathen Throne Part II)”. This epic isn’t nearly as intriguing as “Heathen Throne”, but certainly showcases the ambitious nature of Ensiferum. All in all, From Afar succeeds at expanding the scope of what a “folk metal” band can be, and raises the bar for this nascent genre. The album is dogged by a couple weak tracks, but the remainder of From Afar is a refreshing listen that should greatly enhance the international profile of Ensiferum.
Ensiferum will be appearing at Station 4 in St. Paul on Saturday, November 28. Support will come from Hypocrisy, Blackguard, Cold Colours, and False Oath.