Finnish melodic folk metal band Ensiferum have been carrying the sword (literally, this is what the band name means) since 1995. The band lineup has changed quite a bit since then, but has been essentially stable since 2004. The band have emerged again from the north woods with One Man Army, their sixth studio album.
Ensiferum have a sound that straddles a few different subgenres. There is a very explicit sense of proud Viking metal here – flanking maneuvers, galloping steeds, swinging battle-axes, great bearded men bellowing to rally the troops – but also a sense of fantasy and whimsy – power metal in spirit, if not in composition. However, even a multiple pigeonholing is too simplistic. Ensiferum are also well known for their folk influence, and it shows clearly in songs like “March of War,” “Burden of the Fallen,” and (is-this-still-the-same?) album closer “Neito Pohjolan.” In a very noticeable wrinkle, guitarist and harsh vocalist Petri Lindroos sounds an awful lot like Emperor’s Ihsahn, adding an edge to the music that may turn off the less evil-inclined power metal set. Also, guitar theatrics are not a priority here. There are melodies galore, but they are usually tailored to the needs of the song. Those expecting technical showboating from any of the instrumentalists will need to look elsewhere.
But using Occam’s stylus to cut away all the subgenre talk, One Man Army generally sounds like grandiose Christmas music. The chord progressions, melodies, choral sing-alongs and keyboard tones (tubular bells!) all build to tableaux of swirling snow, orange fires and green conifers against the endless white, armies gathering on hillsides, men and horses mingling their clouded breath. Is this the sound of the War on Christmas? Well, yuletide or no, songs like “Heathen Horde” and “Warrior Without a War” will have audiences pumping gauntleted fists in the direction of Valhalla.
One Man Army has no real dissonance or minor key moodiness to speak of, and the mix is big, bright and polished. This makes for music that is exclamatory and invigorating, but ultimately middling. With harsh vocals that sound almost risqué in contrast to the rest of the music, there is somewhat of a heaviness gap, one that could be addressed by some small concessions to darker songwriting. The songs are well appointed with melodies, but without any real textural or technical boldness, One Man Army is left to fend for itself in a very crowded melodic metal field.
There are some diversions and surprises, and whether they are smashing successes or not, the variety is appreciated. There are the aforementioned folk songs, each in a different style. “Two of Spades” breaks character lyrically and musically, with boozy hints of Motӧrhead-inflected rockabilly poking through in the lyrics and chugging, twanging guitars. This is before the song turns into fiddle-adorned disco, with tuneful whistling, handclaps and background shouts of “Hoo!” and “Hah!” prefacing a section of tremulously delivered Finnish-language vocals. Those who end up with the bonus tracks can experience a goofy cover of “Rawhide,” as well as “Candour and Lies,” an alternate version of “Neito Pohjolan” with American country music-style vocals in place of keyboardist and vocalist Emmi Silvennoinen’s Finnish verses.
One Man Army is not an instant classic. The metallic portions do not crack into the realm of the sublimely epic, nor do the folk parts exude enough warmth and intimacy to be epically endearing. Nonetheless, the album gets the job done, kicking up an aura of wintry might that is melodic and well-crafted. Ensiferum have made a fitting soundtrack for those of us still in the throes of winter, but they will have to push themselves a little harder to make a monument that will not melt away with the coming of spring.