Sword Bearing Hips
Ensiferum are about blending. The Finns have been combining elements of heavy metal, Scandinavian folk, Norse religion, Celtic sounds and punk rock for two decades. This spring brings a retrospective – Two Decades of Greatest Sword Hits. 2015’s One Man Army was a collection of grandiose Viking metal tunes with a few experiments included as well. The new compendium also has that pillar of adventurous metal standing firm, but reveals a few other stylistic outcroppings in Ensiferum’s discography.
Songs like “From Afar” and “Heathen Horde” show Ensiferum at their most shields-and-horns. “Afar” is more of a straightforward bruiser, fast, but without the technical fireworks of similarly-themed power metal excursions. There is a focus on lyrics and atmosphere, with touches of choir and keyboard filling out the sonic headspace. “Horde” is more of a Viking meat lodge sing along, with gang vocals shouting in the background (in the background!), before raising their voices in a rousing melody (albeit with brutally jingoist lyrics). The marriage of Norse picturesque and heavy metal is very robust here, and elsewhere on the disc.
“One More Magic Potion” however, is a diversion. Ensiferum execute a droll feat of songcraft here, grafting fantastical themes and heavy metal composition onto what sounds like some kind of highlands drinking song. Musically “Lai Lai Hei” dips into the same deep loch of Celtic punk (though it actually appeared three years earlier), but has the distinction of clean vocals. The collection’s most striking departure by far is “Two of Spades” in which the band, carousing at home after a long pillage, catch a severe case of Saturday Night Fever.
One thing that Ensiferum seem to lack is the narrative dexterity that would make their history, mythology and fantasy come alive. Opeth’s Still Life (to give one example) took place in a similarly antiquated, somewhat idealized and mysticized Euro-Scandinavian folk-past. Akerfeldt and company used tools of pace, dynamics and character more fully however, to draw the listener in, engross them, and make them care. Ensiferum really only have one setting, and that is ebullient. One might say “well it’s Viking, duh.” But over two decades, it would be nice to have some successful material that is humanly compelling, in contrast with all the sword-bearing warrior anthems.
Said anthems become tiring over 76 minutes. Since Sword Hits is a greatest hits, it doesn’t necessarily need to flow or be listenable front to back, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt. As is, fatigue sets in, and one realizes that no matter who was in the band at the time, Ensiferum pretty much stayed Ensiferum.
Sword Hits does benefit from its release on the heels of Amon Amarth’s buffoonish The Tired Sounds of Amon Amarth. Ensiferum represent a competing brand of Viking metal – one still keeping their balance on the line strung between seriousness and silliness. There is enough metal crunch and vocal dirt in their makeup to raise them above toothless fantasy metal acts, and enough real folk to drape their compositions in the textured cloth of history. They may not do subtlety well, but that’s not really their game. Two Decades of Greatest Sword Hits is a well-earned release, but not necessarily a needed one – there’s no indication that Ensiferum songs and albums vary much in terms of quality. Think of it more as a sample platter for new fans deciding where to start, or as a validating document for the band and their longtime listeners. Either way, Sword Hits is a brimming horn of mead for anyone who enjoys the tempestuous marriage of metal and Viking.