Ensiferum - One Man Army (Metal Blade)

Something of a new beginning...
Release Date: 
23 Feb 2015 (All day)

This is the album I have been looking forward to all year, in fact since Ensiferum first announced the initial details of this, their sixth full length studio album.

There has been a small delay in writing this review though and that is because after my first couple of listens to One Man Army I went back and revisited the whole of their back catalogue, several times, because with One Man Army Ensiferum have created something very different to their previous five albums and comparison was necessary.

If you're not aware of Ensiferum, then shame on you and here's a little bit of history so you can get with one of the best modern metal bands around. They've been going for two decades now and the word "ensiferum" means "sword bearer" in Latin and when they were formed in 1995 by guitarist/vocalist Markus Toivonen they were a trio. Now they feature current and former members of October Falls, Rapture, Norther, Barathrum and Sinergy.

The third demo, Hero In A Dream which was released in 1999, included the band's first-ever integration of female vocals (Johanna Vakkuri) and landed them a deal with Spinefarm Records where they would remain for their first five studio offerings. One Man Army is the first album from the deal they signed with Metal Blade in April 2013.

Heavy touring, multiple festival appearances and quality and unique recordings have gained them a huge worldwide following and One Man Army should see that increase.

On all five of the previous albums the band made a marked musical progression on the last and they've done it again this time but in places, it is not what you were expecting at all. I'll come to that shortly.

Ensiferum are big in the folk metal scene. And the Viking metal scene and the Finnish metal scene and the battle metal scene too and each previous album justifies those categorisations in its own way but it's almost impossible to classify One Man Army completely, which is a great thing.

There's definitely battle metal in there in very large doses but it's different to the Iron album and there's definitely Viking metal in there but it's way more advanced than Victory Songs; and as for fantastical themes of Scandanavian lore, you get lots of that as well but it's a step further than Unsung Heroes.

The point is, you could well have justified labelling Ensiferum by one of those tags in previous times but now they appear to have transcended all of those categories and are now heading swiftly towards becoming their own entity and creating their own niche.

The biggest thing they've done on One Man Army is use a full blown choir on several tracks and it is truly magnificent. It's the sound of glorious victory, a symphony of heathen hammers proclaiming the day as theirs. It adds a certain majesty to proceedings and it's grandiose without being overblown. It's magnificent.

One Man Army begins with March Of War, an instrumental intro which utilises a cacophony of different sounds and is dramatic and tense and a wonderful tune to get this quality album underway before first track proper, Axe Of Judgement bursts out of the speakers and grabs you by the throat. This is a real slab of immensely powerful war metal (did I just create another pigeon hole there?) and it's on Axe... that the choir makes its first appearance and the symphonics give it that epic feel you so often get on this album.

We are "hungry for blood, steel and war" next with the magnificent Heathen Horde and here the choir comes into its own, taking the complete chorus and after the plundering and bombast there's a fabulous violin refrain before battle re-commences and this anthemic piece of brilliance leads us with its full on "strength, valour and determination".

The album's title track is up next and you can have a listen to it right here. The choir again features and this track is a perfect demonstration of the sheer brute strength of this album and a great example of the progression Ensiferum have made since their last album, Unsung Heroes.

Here it is - turn it up loud...

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If you liked that, then it's highly indicative of the style of the first four tracks but then the mood of the album changes completely with Burden Of The Fallen, a melancholic and dreamlike track that clocks in at just under two minutes. The lines "I will take the lives of my enemies, yet still this battle feels like a defeat to me" sum up this track perfectly.

And then we're straight back into epic territory again with Warrior Without A War, a track which carries on the theme of Burden Of The Fallen and even uses that line in it's lyrics. Indeed, the two tracks are almost as one.

What sounds almost like a Gregorian chant starts off the seven-and-a-half minute long Cry For The Earth Bounds before the choir takes over and it's dramatic to an extreme with a refrain led by Ensiferum's trademark female guest lead vocal.

And now for something completely and totally different. Two Of Spades is going to receive a mixed reaction from the Ensiferum faithful and may take several listens until you become completely sure what to make of it. It's completely off topic, off kilter and nothing like anything the band have ever attempted before.

It's got a distinctly wild west feel about it both musically and lyrically and is set in what feels like a rowdy saloon/gambling den/whorehouse. As a stand alone track, it's fun but many will say that is does not fit in with this album at all. And get this - there's a part in the middle that sounds exactly like Boney M's Ma Baker. Seriously - I kid you not.

Now I only know this because they are my colleague Mark Taylor's favourite band and in return for me throwing his Boney M records out of the office window he went and hid all my folk metal albums so imagine the confusion when at 1.55 of this track the synth kicked in and hallucinations of Reggie Tsiboe appeared.

But let's move on and get back to the real stuff and we've got two absolutely blinding tracks next in My Ancestors' Blood and Descendants, Defiance, Domination where parity is more than restored.

The main riff on ...Ancestors... is something to behold and it twists and turns into a guitar frenzy as the strife for conquest enters full swing before Descendants... takes over with a moody, doomy beginning then morphs into a song of glory and hope and it is here that the choir really becomes Beethoven's Ninth-esque.

It's the longest track on the album at over eleven minutes and it could possibly be the best song that Ensiferum have ever written. It's absolutely my favourite track of the lot; it's complex, it's glorious and it's so epic that the word "epic" does not quite do it justice.

The album proper is completed by Neito Pohjolan, which translates to Lady Of The North and is sung in Finnish by Emmi Silvennoinen. It's a beautful and unique song but may have been better placed before Descendants, Defiance, Domination as that is such a hard track to follow and the "country" feel to it is not what your final memory of this opus should be.

There are four bonus tracks as well and in keeping with the wild west theme of Two Of Spades and the "country" effect of Neito Pohjolan, the band have done a raucous cover of Rawhide which is a bit of a hoot. There's also a cover of Barathrum's Warmetal which is incredibly hard and heavy, a track called Candour And Lies which is the English version of Neito Pohjolan sung with clean male vocals and a track called Bonus Song which is well worth a listen as the lyrics are hilarious. They've gone and self parodied themselves here and the result is wonderful.

Where Ensiferum go from here is anybody's guess. They've pulled off something courageously magnificent here and rather than let themselves get pushed into a pigeon hole, they have expanded and broadened their horizons in a massive way.

One Man Army is not being marketed as a concept album but there is definitely a theme running throughout which you will no doubt pick up on when you hear it.

The children of thunder have risen again. This album is one mighty triumph.