Like a river originating in the form of a small stream from a glacier and rushing forward growing more and more powerful as it flows towards its destination, the same way has Ensiferum’s might gotten more impressive as we follow their career from the sparkling originality of their self-titled to the bombastic nature of Victory Songs. When I got familiar with this famous folk metal-band, I instantly learned to love their s/t a great deal, was totally hooked into Iron and completely blown away by Victory Songs. Against this background, From Afar faced a challenge no less than the highest standard I had set for any album thus far. On the other hand, I held Ensiferum as perhaps the only band that could meet my extremely demanding expectations. I wondered whether Ensiferum could still take their perfection a little further. Then came the moment when I first kicked in the title track on Youtube and holy fucking shit, it almost maimed me with its sky-cracking epicness and superb songwriting. After that there was no doubt: Ensiferum were back and better than ever.
The first major thing I noticed when giving From Afar a number of careful listens was the added symphonic elements. While Victory Songs already had a touch of symphonies in the mix, it never crossed my mind to call it symphonic metal by any standard. It was soon revealed to me that From Afar could be called that anytime. Straight from the beginning of the title-track, it was clear that the guys had really found out how to unleash an overwhelmingly wonderful symphonic assault upon the listener. Still, this new feature is brilliantly woven around the traditional core of Ensiferum and not used continuosly. Combined with eargasmic guitar riffs and melodies that burn as fiercely as ever, the listener is drawn to a maelstrom of vivid images of distant lands where the sun visits the horizon only briefly during the deepest winter and where the light of the Midsummer sets nights ablaze. The atmosphere is enriched with flute, kantele, mandolin etc. with all the instruments giving their own share in creating the folkish atmosphere and Petri's harsh vocals, supported by clean choirs, seal the astonishing work with glory, melancholy and hatred.
On From Afar, Ensiferum offer us a selection of songs that each differ from the rest in their own, spectacular way. We are introduced to two longest Ensiferum-songs of their career, Heathen Throne Part 1 & 2 which clock at 11:09 and 12:49, respectively. With all my heart I can say that Ensiferum have truly mastered the art of making long songs. These songs are thoroughly interesting, coherent and flow intensely, never escaping from the band's grasp. The first part concentrates more on the blasting metal-attack with brain-melting guitar harmonies and solos, epic arrays of symphonic keyboard-arrangements and a strong, if a bit clichéic, message. The chorus makes every proper folk-metaller rapidly grow half a meter in height and stand tall while the waves of heathenry crash on the shores of Christianity like a tsunami. The second part takes one to a great journey through planes of existence with every single second filled with adventurous vibe and monumental songwriting. Clean vocals are used a lot which fits perfectly into the atmosphere. I must admit that the majestic fading in the end doesn't really add more substance to the song than if it was a couple of minutes shorter but it also doesn't lessen the song's value in my eyes.
A capella-track Tumman Virran Taa is something that might come as a surprise. This minute-long piece of choir-singing in Finnish is, in any case, another proof that these guys can come up with something quite different that still doesn't make a tiniest crack in the spine of the album. Stone Cold Metal is also a unique piece of art that mixes bombastic folk metal with Western-themes. It is a tribute to the likes of Ennio Morricone with its long, winding, breathtaking Western-interlude. It even has a banjo-solo! All of the songs mentioned so far are something that make From Afar different from the previous Ensiferum-albums. They have experimented with a bunch of new things and incorporated them ingeniously to their traditional sound. From Afar is a flawless example of an album that has brought fresh new ideas onto the table but that has still remained true to the band's roots.
Even though aforementioned songs deserve all the praise I gave to them, the ones left are as good or even better. Elusive Reaches is a fast, blazing track that has some of the most amazing guitarwork on the album and that, my friends, is really something! Smoking Ruins is a kind of equivalent to Wanderer on Victory Songs with its almost 100% clean vocal-approach, lighter songwriting and story of a man's hardships. By the Dividing Stream is an enchanting build-up to the whole album, like a calm before the storm. Two tracks following this magical intro are perhaps the pinnacle of the album, if there can be a pinnacle in perfection. The title-track is a majestic offering that sends waves of stunning epicness from the speakers, knocking down everyone who is not prepared. Everything is executed with accuracy: mindblowing symphonic-arrangements, furious guitar, bass and drums, breathtaking vocals, both harsh and clean, and all this finished with an impressive spoken part, an excerpt from Kalevala. No less than one of the best songs of all time. Twilight Tavern is virtually of equal quality. It uses the common folk metal-formula (for example: harsh vocals in verses and clean choirs in choruses) but every detail is carefully planned and with added uniqueness that comes mainly from female vocals and the superfast ending, it reaches a level of catchyness and general awesomeness possibly only surpassed by the title-track. The bonus track Vandraren also deserves praise. It is a cover of a song by Swedish folk/pop-duo Nordman. I heard the original for the first time in my early childhood while traveling in the epic landscapes of Lapland with my family. As soon as I learned that one of my all-time favourite bands is going to cover it, I got extremely excited. And the cover didn't disappoint me. Crowned with guest vocalist no other than Heri Joensen of Týr himself, it is a rocking tune with strongly folkish vibe; a great tribute to the original song.
I'm fully aware of all the fanboyism going on in this review but oh well, deal with it. *puts sunglasses on* From Afar is honestly one of the best albums I have ever heard in my life, if not the best of all. There's basically no flaws to be found on the album. I recommend this to all fans of folk metal, symphonic metal and epic metal in general. See you at the Twilight Tavern!
Np: Jex Thoth - The Banishment