Reviews Cluster! Ensiferum, Napalm Death, Marilyn Manson and more!
Back with more reviews of early 2015 releases! It wasn’t just all power metal so far in 2015, as the following reviews for Napalm Death, Marduk and even Ensiferum will attest to. There’s more reviews on the way too, including one for the just released Scorpions album Return to Forever (remember when they were gonna retire?), as well as the upcoming Steven Wilson solo album Hand. Cannot. Erase., expect those soon as well as some other non-reviews features!
Ensiferum – One Man Army: First a mild rant: There was a time around the late 90s and early to mid 2000s when folk metal wasn’t an overcrowded subgenre, when the balance between folk and metal was handled deftly by a small cadre of accomplished bands, and when their lyrical subject matter had depth and richness. I’m thinking of those heady times when folk metal meant Skyclad, Amorphis, Subway to Sally, Otyg/Vintersorg, Falkenbach, among a few others. It was a subgenre that was creating vital, shimmering music that was stretching the boundaries of what metal could sound like —- it was fresh and exciting, the sound of things you didn’t know you always wanted to hear. Ensiferum’s first two albums were part of this wonderful era, being near-perfect marriages of thrashy guitars, power metal songwriting, and folky instrumentation.
Sometime around the mid 2000s, folk metal lost its way. I’ll point the finger for the catalyzing moment being Finntroll’s “Trollhammaren” music video in 2004 from the otherwise excellent Nattfodd album. That single/video got a lot of attention and its upbeat, Finnish polka (humppa) laden sound seemed to break down barriers for major metal magazines to begin covering the subgenre. Labels noticed, and a horde of bands followed through, with increasingly upbeat takes on the style, boasting more and more outlandish band “concepts” until we finally arrived at the current hokey state of folk metal with the likes of Alestorm, Trollfest, and the dreadful Korpiklaani. Folk metal today is largely associated with songs about ale, beer, rum, partying, and what have you —- I realize that I’m oversimplifying and that there are some artists out there who are still doing great, inspired folk metal. But at least in my eyes, the genre took a walk down a sad, sad road.
Some years ago, Finntroll seemed to publicly demonstrate some semblance of shame for their role in this sordid mess, and released the very black metal Ur Jordens Djup, and supported it with a tour consisting of utterly brutal live performances. But I suppose fans of the new model of folk metal were too numerous to ignore, because when I saw Finntroll last in 2014, the band came on stage with every member sporting plastic elven ears. They humppa-ed it up that night. Gone was the ferocity experienced during the Ur Jordens Djup tour, instead the band kept things tame for their enthusiastic crowd which seemed to largely consist of people who would otherwise never set foot into a metal show. Clearly myself and a few other disoriented looking metal fans were the odd men out in this situation. I walked away more than a little disappointed.
Ensiferum have managed to keep out this proverbial quagmire by releasing a string of albums that are in keeping with the thematic tone of their first two classics, while simultaneously damaging their image by associating with those aforementioned bands who contributed to folk metal’s current state. Just this past week, Ensiferum announced a North American headlining tour with support coming from Korpiklaani and Trollfest. How wonderful. I could dream up a handful of better touring packages than that in my sleep. I remember catching Ensiferum headlining Paganfest in 2007 with support coming from Turisas, Tyr, and Eluveitie —- now I suppose a lot of blame could be placed upon Turisas for coming up with the ludicrous “battle metal” tag, but they’re generally a decent band that has delivered good to great albums —- point is, that was a fantastic bill.
The band’s choices are unfortunate considering that One Man Army is the closest they’ve come to replicating the magic of their early, Jari Maenpaa-led era. The title track for starters is one of the most fierce, unrelentingly brutal, thrash metal assault-on-your-senses that they’ve ever unleashed. Throughout the album in fact, Ensiferum seem to have consciously redressed the balance between their thrash/power metal foundation and their folk influenced melodicism. On “Two of Spades”, the song kicks off with a Megadeth-ian intro and riff progression, and Petri Lindroos’ vocal is almost Dave Mustaine-ian in its subtle snark, heard underneath his ferocious, rapid-fire roars. The thrash metal bookends an upbeat folk-metal bridge, the closest the band ventures to the party-metal territory of some of their peers. Its sandwiching in between slabs of thrash is what is welcome here, it stands out because its not overdone —- there’s room for moments like these, just sparingly. Another favorite of mine is “My Ancestor’s Blood”, a seriously groovy epic with dual clean and grim vocal layering (that chorus is magnificent!), while Lindroos and fellow guitarist Markus Toivonen conjure up some rather beautiful intermingling melodies.
The band’s primary songwriter, Toivonen seems to be feeling particularly inspired throughout the album, there’s not a half-baked tune to be found, and he even nails the ten minute plus epic “Descendants, Defiance, Domination”. I love its vaguely spaghetti-western sounding intro, and its gradual build up to Toivonen’s rather excellent mid-song clean vocals that duel with Lindroos’ grim counterpoint. I really love his solo vocal from the 8:06 minute mark, there’s something very fresh going on there though I can’t quite put my finger on it. Towards the end of the song, tin-whistle type instrumentation lends a touch of vibrant originality to the orchestral grandeur that unfolds. The keyboard work of Emmi Silvennoinen is instrumental in this, her additions more integral to the cohesion of the music than ever before —- no longer just relegated to window dressing. Something clicked within the band this go around, and its a welcome relief after hearing just how tired they sounded on Unsung Heroes. If only they could get a better booking agent.
Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor: A week or so ago when recording MSRcast #165, our guest Dave mentioned just how surprised he was with the new Marilyn Manson album. It reminded me that I had recently read a story on some fancy non-metal music site about the raves and critical plaudits Manson’s new album was drawing. I had filed it away as something I’d perhaps get around to checking out on Spotify one dull afternoon, but Dave’s enthusiastic praise was enough to get me to include it as an item worth reviewing for the blog. I was never a Marilyn Manson fan in the slightest, even during his late 90s heyday. I thought he was all flash and no substance, and considered the music I’d heard from him as lightweight both sonically and artistically. I remember vividly ignoring a friends suggestion to pick up Mechanical Animals in a Best Buy cd section (remember those?!), choosing instead to get a replacement copy of So Far! So Good! So What!. In fact, he ended up buying the album and we listened to it on the way home, and that marked the last time I listened to a Marilyn Manson album from start to finish, until now…
I can see why its getting the amount of high praise being thrown its way —- for a Manson album, this is exceptionally catchy in a way I’ve never heard his stuff before. Gone is any semblance of hard rock or metal, in favor of an industrial tinged dancy, swingy, loose rock n’ roll amalgam, like INXS remixed by Trent Reznor. Its an interesting listen, and I can easily see this album being licensed by Hollywood and TV studios out the wazzoo, probably in a crime series like CSI, The Blacklist or something of that ilk. The strutting, clawing “Deep Six” is the closest thing to heavy you’ll get here, with a chorus built on atonal guitar screeching and some semblance of riffing —- its not bad. Nor is “The Devil Beneath My Feet”, with its new wave guitar motifs and sly, image conjuring lyrics in the refrain “…when I wake up you best be gone / Or you better be dead”.
But for as good as it all sounds, I’m not sure Manson’s music is for me… I feel no reason to be compelled to return, there’s a lack of any emotional connection to what I’m hearing. That isn’t to say that everything I listen to connects with me emotionally, that’s not the case at all. I do however need to feel something; whether its a surge of adrenaline, or an appreciation of skill or artistry, or the simple quality of feeling like I’m being entertained. It could be his voice that’s doing it, a little goes a long way due to his relatively monotonous and non melodic tone (Its the same reason I think Tom Waits songs are better when performed by someone else). I dunno, I’m missing something here, but good for Manson —- he’s an interesting personality to have around and its nice to not see him fade away.
Napalm Death – Apex Predator – Easy Meat: I guess I never had planned on ever writing about Napalm Death on this blog, not because I don’t enjoy them —- I do, but because I figured that there wasn’t much to elaborate on. Napalm Death will always sound like Napalm Death to me. I grew up listening to them, first being introduced to their grindcore/metal blend via dubbed cassette tapes by various heavy music loving friends back in middle school. They were one of those bridge bands to extreme metal, alongside Morbid Angel and Death and Carcass. More than those bands, Napalm Death delivered the kind of sheer caterwauling noise that a young budding metal fan gravitated towards because it simply sounded like something that was made for you and all the reasons you enjoyed having your parents lament your taste in music. I enjoyed playing them in my battered, sticker covered boom box in my bedroom, imagining that even with my door closed, it still sounded like hell on the other side. Maybe its fair to say that I never developed much of an emotional attachment to their music, but I don’t think it was ever designed that way.
I’ve listened to Apex Predator – Easy Meat a handful of times now (like most of their albums, its easy on the running time), and the one thing that leaps out at me is that I can’t recall this band ever sounding this crisp, clear, and catchy. Take “How The Years Condemn”, where the percussion and harmonized guitars on the outro of the chorus actually sound, dare I suggest, melo-death-ish? Barney Greenway is as muzzled, and spittle-flyingly menacing as always, but he seems to be developing into a more appealing vocalist the older he gets. He has moments throughout this album where he approaches something resembling melody, and for a band that defined grindcore, that’s something new worth mentioning. The musical approach over all just seems, well, more musical for lack of a better term —- it could be the ultra-clear mix, but the band’s sound seems expansive here, reaching for new palettes even. Not just bedroom noise anymore I suppose.
Marduk – Frontschwein: By the time I had mentioned Marduk’s new album on the last MSRcast, I had only been able to listen to a fairly crappy quality stream once through. It sounded to me like typical Marduk, very consistent and largely good. Now having had a decent amount of time with the album in its proper form, I’m far more impressed with it. I didn’t pay much attention to Serpent Sermon (which I’ve been told I need to) so its difficult for me to throw out relative comparisons, but on its own Frontschwein is a rollicking affair —- black metal that is loaded with memorable riffs that are played midway between loose black n’roll and tight, tremolo black metal 101. Morgan Hakansson is one of the more underrated guitarists in the subgenre, his approach workmanlike in the best possible sense —- you never feel that his riffs are aimless or just filling out sound, they’re always the heart of these songs. On “Between the Wolf-Packs”, his repeated riff-motif is so catchy it almost detracts from everything else.
Vocalist Mortuus is as grim and fiery as ever, his particular tone a perfect complement to Hakansson. He even surprises on a song like “503”, approximating something resembling clean singing at certain spots, and on “Thousand-Fold Death” he spits out his grim, blackened vocals in such rabid, maniacally fast speeds that you think he’s on the verge of chewing his own tongue. I had also mentioned on the podcast my slight reservations regarding the album’s Nazi Germany iron cross sporting logo and just the war themed lyrics in general —- not that I was accusing the band of anything nefarious, but that they should be careful with iconography like that (and concepts like this as well). I’ve scanned through the lyrics, and they read like a black metal version of Sabaton, tales of battlefields and war torn mountains. Okay, so perhaps my concern was presumptive, especially considering that I am a Sabaton fan —- but this was a band that released an album called Panzer Division Marduk, which if you remember raised a ton of noise around its released about being sympathetic to NSBM beliefs. The band refuted it of course, but to once again draw from the same proverbial well for another album title/concept means that you get the scrutiny that comes with it.
Nightwish – Elan (EP): The first shot fired from the anticipation cannon that is Nightwish’s upcoming Endless Forms Most Beautiful album is as you’d expect, a clearly accessible pop-rock number with a smooth chorus and charming melody. Sometimes I wish they’d release something daring for their first singles, but considering this is the band that topped pop charts with “Nemo”, I suppose they know what they’re doing. Don’t get me wrong, I quite enjoy “Elan” as a song, but it reminds me of “Amaranthe” in the sense that it will likely wind up as my least favored track on the album. That was not the case with Imaginaerum’s “Storytime”, which I still feel to this day is an adrenaline surging, rollercoaster of a single, it just has a propulsive feel that never lets up. What “Elan” and “Amaranthe” have in common is that steady backbeat, mid-tempo, standard (in Nightwish terms) buildup to the very hooky chorus, and that’s okay, but after such a diverse album like Imaginaerum it feels like a bit of a letdown. All that being said, Floor Jansen sounds great as expected, more Anette Olzon here than Tarja for comparison’s sake, and I really love her vocal extenuation at the 3:56 mark —- more of that on the album I hope.
The other new song on offer here (the other cuts making up the EP are a radio edit and alternative version of “Elan”, the latter of which basically amounts to an unmixed demo) is “Sagan”, referring to the famous scientist himself, as I hear his name in the song a few times. This might be a better representation of what to expect from the album, despite being a b-side, simply because Jansen gets to stretch her talents a bit more here. She’s unleashes some nimble vocal dexterity during the chorus where the phrasing gets particularly dense. The song has a nice melody, a decent hook and some interesting proggy keyboard noodling courtesy of Tuomas Holopainen that you don’t hear that much anymore in modern Nightwish. New guy Troy Donockley is a major player on both of these songs, his uilleann pipes chiming in all over the place. They sound great, but I do wonder if we’ll reach a point on the album where everything might sound the same due to their presence. I love them as an instrument, but they do impart a tone that inherently light and bouncy… will he be kept off songs that don’t need him or will he be shoehorned in? I’ll be paying close attention when the album drops.