Released By: Metal Blade Records
Release Date: September 15th, 2017
Genre: Folk Metal
Petri Lindroos – Vocals, Guitars
Markus Toivonen – Guitars, Backing Vocals
Sami Hinkka – Bass, Vocals
Janne Parviainen – Drums
Netta Skog – Accordion, Backing Vocals
1. Ajattomasta Unesta
2. For Those About to Fight for Metal
3. Way of the Warrior
4. Two Paths
5. King of Storms
6. Feast with Valkyries
7. Don’t You Say
8. I Will Never Kneel
9. God is Dead
10. Hail to the Victor
11. Unettomaan Aikaan
12. God is Dead (Alternative Version)
13. Don’t You Say (Alternative Version)
With some bands, it’s hard for me not to be at least a bit nervous every time they put out a new album, whether it’s being worried they’ll do a misguided experiment that goes horribly wrong or just produce something that sounds so samey it comes across as a pointless retread. Then there are other bands, like Finnish folk metal band Ensiferum, where every time I hear they’re coming out with a new album, I feel nothing but extreme excitement, because every time they release a new album they manage to prove themselves as being the absolute best in their genre, sticking to tried and true elements while managing to add in a little something special each time, so that each album stands out from the pack. While their previous release, One Man Army, came across as a little familiar sounding compared to their past releases, it was still an excellent album with enough standout moments to make me confident they could keep their impressive run going, and now with their seventh full-length release, Two Paths, the band sounds more energized than ever and they’ve produced yet another album that contains all the expected elements, while managing to feel fresh and exciting at the same time.
Ensiferum’s lineup has remained very stable over the past several years, so it was a rare case when keyboardist Emmi Silvennoinen left the band shortly after the release of One Man Army. Her replacement on tour was Netta Skog, who has gone on to officially join the band for Two Paths. Interestingly, Netta plays a digital accordion, which can be used to effectively recreate the kinds of keyboard sounds Emmi was using on the past three albums, while at the same time she can also use it as a normal accordion, which adds extra folk flavor to the music, something the band has done very effectively on this album. In fact, while albums like From Afar and One Man Army were pushing the band pretty far into a symphonic metal direction at times, on this album they have dialed those elements back a bit, and instead the majority of the album is dominated by folk melodies, with the accordion, in particular, being used very effectively to lead the way on many tracks, and there’s also the occasional use of violins and other folk instruments. Obviously, folk elements have always been a large part of Ensiferum’s music, but on this album, I notice them even more so than on their previous few releases, and they add extra flavor and energy to some already impressive music. While the folk elements dominate more than ever, though, there are still some very epic symphonic arrangements on a couple tracks, as well as the expected melodic death metal elements, which while again not as dominant as on some albums, are still very much present and are used as well as ever. The majority of the album is very fast paced and energetic, with most of the songs being written in such a way as to be extremely catchy and addictive, so fans hoping for some of the more complex and lengthy tracks found on the past few albums may be disappointed, as nothing here even approaches 5 and a half minutes. Instead, the songs are all simple, but extremely catchy and fun, which I personally don’t mind as a change of pace, since it allows the album to flow beautifully from one highlight to another, and it’s certainly an easy album to listen to several times in a row.
The band has always been known to use various different vocal deliveries on their albums, and Two Paths is certainly no exception to this rule. As always, harsh vocals are an important part of the music, and Petri Lindroos sounds as epic and powerful with his growls as ever. Also, as usual, the clean male vocals from bassist Sami Hinkka and guitarist Markus Toivonen are quite varied, sometimes even sounding a bit different from past albums, as they occasionally sound a bit more wild than usual, which fits in well on some of the more folk flavored tracks. Gang vocals and choirs are also used on many tracks, as always, and are as epic as ever, adding extra flavor to the music, and helping to make some already awesome choruses even better. Lastly, the band has used various different female vocalists throughout their past few albums, and this continues on this album. I’m not sure if the female vocals here are done by a guest or by Netta Skog, but either way they’re very impressive, sounding just a bit wild but also very pleasant and they add even more of a folk flavor to the music, whenever they appear, which mostly happens in short bursts as supporting vocals, but they do show up as lead vocals a couple times and are quite nice.
Songwriting is an area where Ensiferum has always excelled, so it’s no surprise that Two Paths is a consistently amazing album from start to finish, with none of the songs being anywhere near less than perfect. The album begins with an intro, which makes nice use of folk melodies and symphonic arrangements, while also having nice female vocals early on before we get the main melody that we’ll be hearing a couple more times on the album. In fact, while this intro track is very heroic and epic sounding, there’s also an outro track which feels like the reverse, as it uses the same main melody but it’s slowed down and sounds a lot sadder, which serves as a nice contrast. But those aren’t the only two times that melody appears, as it’s actually taken straight from the lead single and proper opener “For Those About to Fight for Metal”. In case anyone is like me and instantly thinks of AC/DC when seeing that name, it actually does feel like an intentional reference, as the chorus has a line that certainly reminds me of a famous track from that band and even the extended guitar intro is a little bit similar. Once the song gets going, though, it’s pure Ensiferum through and through, moving at a very high tempo throughout, with some explosive riffs, epic choirs, symphonic arrangements, folk melodies and an extremely epic chorus, dominated by choir vocals. It basically feels like a full representation of their sound and it definitely gives listeners an idea of what to expect, from the super energetic, more straightforward songwriting found throughout the album. It also has an awesome instrumental section in the middle where the guitars lead the way for a while, and then suddenly Netta takes over with her accordion and it gets really epic from there. Definitely an exciting opening track, but surprisingly not even one of my favorites on the album, as awesome as it is.
Next is “Way of the Warrior”, another explosive, fast paced track with an awesome chorus. This track uses more traditional keyboard sounds, but the actual melodies definitely have a folk feel to them, and it actually reminds me a little bit of “One Magic Potion” from Victory Songs, which was always a favorite of mine. In fact, while this album definitely has elements of all the band’s albums with Petri Lindroos, if I were to compare it most to one album in particular, I’d go with Victory Songs, due to the heavy focus on folk elements and also due to some of the gang vocal arrangements sounding quite similar to songs from that album. The title track follows and is the most folk infused of the first few tracks, with the accordion playing a very prominent role throughout and sounding quite impressive, and I also hear some violins during the verses, which adds extra flavor. Meanwhile, we get some very wild clean vocals throughout the track, especially during the chorus, and while it took a couple listens for me to get used to how they sound, I now think they fit the track very well, and it’s definitely a catchy and very fun track, which actually feels very fresh, as while it is fast paced, it isn’t overly heavy and has a more traditional folk feel to it at times. After that is a track which comes from the opposite spectrum, that being the super explosive “King of Storms”, a very heavy, super bombastic track which very much feels like it would have fit perfectly on From Afar or One Man Army. It’s the kind of epic, symphonic flavored melodic death metal that dominated those two albums, and on this track, it’s pulled off as effectively as ever, with some explosive verses, insanely epic symphonic arrangements and a huge chorus as always. It’s also one of the tracks where Petri most gets to dominate with his harsh vocals, though the very deep clean vocals during the chorus are also impressive.
And of course, the track right after that has to once again serve as a contrast to the track preceding it, as “Feast of Valkyries” is a more laid back, very folk infused track. Right from the start, the accordion dominates on this track, and it sounds very nice. While it’s still a fairly upbeat track musically, it isn’t as fast or as heavy as most other tracks on the album, instead of being more relaxed and very melodic. During the verses, we get some rather unique sounding female vocals, which lead the way through the track, before giving way to some epic gang vocals during the insanely epic and catchy chorus, which again brings back fond memories of Victory Songs. What we get next is a slight surprise, as “Don’t You Say” has more of a folk rock feel to it, being very upbeat but rather light and not at all heavy compared to most songs on the album. In fact, everything from the more simplistic drum patterns to the super catchy chorus, makes it feel like a more accessible, almost radio friendly track by Ensiferum standards. The track has no harsh vocals and is sung almost entirely by one singer, who does an excellent job and his voice fits the folk flavor of the track perfectly (the one exception is a brief use of female vocals as support right near the end.) I can see some fans being disappointed by this track, but I personally love it, as it serves as a nice change of pace from some of the heavier songs and the folk melodies are beautiful, especially the use of a violin throughout, while the chorus is an absolutely killer and super addictive. In fact, it’s actually one of my favorite songs on the album, even if it is by far the least metal.
Heading towards the end, “I Shall Never Kneel” is another standout, which again has strong folk elements throughout, though it’s a heavier track, with varied tempos throughout. Its main riff is fast paced, and there are some explosive moments throughout, but the verses and chorus are more mid paced, and there’s also a very beautiful slower section in the middle where the keyboards take over and we get some nice female vocals. On the whole, it’s a very fun track and uses the full range of vocals fans can expect from the band, all in one track, which is cool. After that we get another very folk flavored track in “God is Dead”, which actually has my favorite use of the accordion on the entire album, as the lead melody is absolutely beautiful and adds a ton of folk flavor to the music, while the track overall is fast paced and is simply a wild, good time, with an insanely epic chorus, wild but awesome sounding clean vocals, and it’s simply one of the most wildly fun and addictive tracks I’ve heard all year, even if I’m not overly fond of the lyrics. This track is one case where the music and songwriting are simply so awesome, it wins out over the lyrics. Lastly, “Hail to the Victor” is the slowest track on the album, leading off with a nice guitar melody, before settling down and turning into a slow but epic melodic death metal track with strong symphonic elements, It has an amazing chorus, where clean vocals show up, but while the first half is very good, the track gets much better around halfway through, as the guitar tone suddenly changes, becoming more epic, and we get some huge symphonic arrangements, in a section that very much reminds me of the album Unsung Heroes and especially the track “Burning Leaves”, except dialed up to an 11. From there, we get some incredibly epic choir vocals, and the track ends in epic fashion. While that is the last proper song on the album, followed by the outro I mentioned earlier, the band also elected to provide alternate versions of the tracks “Don’t You Say” and “God is Dead”, with these versions featuring harsh vocals throughout. While some folks may prefer one version over the other, I personally think both songs work equally well with either clean or harsh vocal, as both are simply so incredibly fun and well written, they’ll work for me in either form, so having these alternate versions is certainly a nice treat, and I always listen to both versions of each track every time I play the album.
At this point, I never expect anything less than greatness from Ensiferum, and I’m never disappointed. Two Paths is once again no exception, as it’s yet another masterful album that has all the elements fans of the band have come to expect, while also having stronger folk elements than the band has had in a long time, as well as being one of their most energetic albums ever. It’s certainly yet another highlight in their impressive career and is easily my favorite folk metal album since at the very least Unsung Heroes, possibly even eclipsing that and going back to From Afar, which stands as my favorite from the band. Either way, though, I highly recommend it to all fans of folk, symphonic and melodic death metal, as it’s certainly a must hear, and one of my top three albums of 2017 so far.
Reviewer: Travis Green