Ensiferum may just about be the biggest name in Folk Metal, and with their past successes such as ‘Iron’ and ‘Victory Songs’ they seem pretty undefeatable. They’re a band that set the scene for the Folk Metal sound, with their battle themed lyrics and epic Viking tales, have really revolutionised the genre as we know it today.
It comes as no surprise that I’m a huge fan, but ‘Two Paths’ is an album I don’t entirely understand or know how to feel. Having grown up listening to this band, and their usually unchanging sound, I got used to the formula of harsh vocals here, clean vocals there, female backing vocals, folky riffs, and intense drums, and whilst this album follows suit, it does it in a slightly different way.
I’m not entirely sure what happened with the cleans, but they’re pretty terrible. The line-up change and addition of Netta Skog has given this album some originality, but it sounds like a step down from their previous album ‘One Man Army’. So let’s run through the tracks:
This album begins as expected, with an epic intro track ‘Ajattomasta Unesta’ in a traditional Ensiferum style – setting the scene for the first track ‘For Those About to Fight for Metal’. I can hear a great AC/DC influence here, the title screams ‘For those about to Rock’ and the guitar part screams ‘Thunderstruck’.
This song has a slightly more cheesy feeling to it, mentioning fighting for the metal gods, lyrically it follows a more Manowar theme than a typical Ensiferum one. However, the track has very epic and upbeat elements, complemented with an instrumental bridge building to a galloping verse leading into that epic feeling again. This gives me high hopes for the album.
Following this ‘Way of the Warrior’ feels even more Ensiferum – The rhythm section really compliments the leads in this track and there’s a great use of the typical backing vocal shouts I’ve come to expect from this band. This track also features a spoken word section in Finnish, in a similar style to Heri Joensen’s part in ‘Heathen Horde’.
Moving through the album, and unfortunately, one thing I’m picking up on is that it sounds like all of the tracks have severely compressed in production, gaining volume at the expense of dynamic range. This, in turn, has made the drums sound quite lifeless in particular, and makes the whole thing quite difficult to listen to in one sitting. Which seems to be a theme that has stuck from the previous albums – and it sounds like it’s getting slightly worse.
The title track has a very different feel to it, opening with a simplistic rhythm section accompanied by some pretty bad singing. This is quite a disappointment considering I was looking forward to this track setting the theme for the album as much as ‘For Those about to Fight for Metal’ had. Petri Lindroos’ harsh vocals do redeem this track a little as it progresses, and the guitar parts are very folky and typical of Ensiferum. The solo however quickly lets this section down with some basic wankery on the whammy bar. Thankfully and interestingly it’s quickly pushed aside by the newly joined (at time of release) member – Netta Skog’s accordion abilities, who has now disbanded from Ensiferum. I can’t help but feel like this track is a huge let down to the album even with the interesting new instrumental elements she brings to the table.
Onto ‘King of Storms’ and we hear the epic, fast elements we’re used to, making an entry again. This takes me back to a ‘From Afar’ feeling and again, I’m falling in love with Ensiferum. There’s a very strange section of low vocals/spoken word, which is odd to listen to and creates an almost uncomfortable dissonance. This part breaks the song up really well and is accompanied by Janne Parviainen playing a drum fill, which is the first time so far my attention has really been drawn to the drums which is unfortunate given his abilities. This track has a much better guitar solo and makes use of what sounds like a keyboard, which provides some diversity to the album, but keeps it familiar to the Ensiferum we know and love.
‘Feast with Valkyries’ takes a new path entirely – Netta is fronting this track. We’ve had female fronted Ensiferum tracks in the past, but this sounds a little more pop than the traditional female vocals we’d usually hear in tracks like ‘Celestial Bond’ for example. It almost sounds a little Eluveitie – with Anna Murphy. With that said it is nice to hear them using Netta’s abilities, with the chorus being the traditional group chanting/singing which breaks it up nicely. This track provides a fresh and interesting element to the album and demonstrates a progression in their sound.
Unfortunately ‘Don’t You Say’ features Petri singing clean, over what had the potential to be another great Ensiferum song. The melodies and arrangement are catchy, the song stays in your head, but the vocal just lets the track down. It lacks the balls you’d expect from a traditional Ensiferum song but doesn’t quite hit the epic or folky feeling you’d get from songs that lean to the cleaner side. The intro section does build up a nice folky feeling but the feeling didn’t last the duration of the track for me. It sits somewhere in the middle, and again features some of Netta’s vocals as backing, it really feels like it wanted to be a pop song, but the instrumentation wouldn’t allow it.
‘I Will Never Kneel’ throws you straight into the track, it almost feels like it starts halfway through a song. I’m really not sure what Ensiferum were aiming for with the vocals through this album. It’s not the clean kind of vocals from ‘Victory Songs’ which I find far more enjoyable, there are some great folk-metal riffs and drum fills, however. There’s a strange duet that happens toward the end, with Netta singing clean and Petri screaming – I can’t help but think back to the Jim Carrey interview on Napalm Death. It does work however and is a good track for this album.
‘God is Dead’ opens with the accordion! It’s nice to hear a new and traditional folk instrument setting the theme for the track. Again featuring cleans but these are more listenable. Drums are strong and this just feels like a modern Ensiferum track. The guitar parts are really complimented by the backing shouts on the instrumental sections, the accordion takes a lead and makes this interesting. This is the kind of progression I had hoped to hear from this album. The outro is very strange, featuring an Organ, but flows straight into the next track ‘Hail to the Victor’. I feel like it may have fit better as the intro to this track. This track is much slower and less folky, instead, it makes good use of lead guitar melodies. Petri and Netta’s vocals compliment each other and this song has a kind of ‘Unsung Heroes’ feel to it.
The outro track ‘Unettommaan Aikaan’ uses themes from the intro and ‘For Those about to Fight for Metal’ to bring the album to an end. Netta’s vocals are featured again but in a more atmospheric and emotional way, which rounds off the album nicely.
After the outro, there are ‘alternate’ versions of both ‘God is Dead’ and ‘Don’t You Say’. The difference being that the vocals are harsh. This almost feels like they knew they were taking a risk moving away from the sound their fans love so much and pushing the clean vocals, and feels like an attempt to win back the people that won’t like this album. I think I prefer the alternate versions personally, but this is an odd decision, it almost feels like they weren’t 100% willing to take the risk and potential criticisms so have really tried to cater for everyone.
These versions aren’t bonus tracks either as they seem to appear on every format of the album. I particularly think ‘Don’t You Say’ sounds much better harsh, and it’s made me wonder why they haven’t made the clean versions the alternate ones if they were hoping to test a new style, as opposed to making the ‘alternate’ version the one the fans would generally expect.