There are very few bands whose releases I anticipate. From the moment I saw the first studio videos and then the cover art, I was eager to get my ears on this, and finally, I have, and they have yet to let go. Unsung Heroes is Ensiferum's fifth full length album and probably their most ambitious to date.
So often it is the case that a band that defines a genre ends up becoming imprisoned by the template they themselves pioneered. It can be extremely difficult to break free. Change too much and your fans will turn on you. Fail to evolve and your fans will get sick of you. Especially if there are a lot of mini-bands running around that sound a lot like you or bands that have taken your style and ran with it, leaving you in the dustbin of musical history. On Heroes, the Finnish warriors have shown their ability to draw from their past and use it to propel them forward.
This seems to draw more from the Dragonheads EP in that there is a lot more emphasis on folk and slower, more layered songs. There is a lot more orchestration and diversity of vocals. Petri Lindroos still has his abrasive scream, but it's spaced out more throughout the songs. The clean vocals have drastically improved, and there is the addition of the occasional female lead and backing vocals, such as on Celestial Bond that really make these songs pop. There is also a much more present low end in the mix, with Sami Hinkka's bass being far more audible and prominent. The classical orchestration, especially in the all-symphonic intro Symbols, is very reminiscent of Basil Poledouris and his score for the original Conan the Barbarian movie. It literally evoked those images of Arnold as Conan, slashing his way across Hyborea, wiping out Thulsa Doom and his serpent cult.
Some may feel that Heroes is too drastic a departure from Victory Songs and From Afar. While not as thrashy and straight-forward as those, this makes up for it with sheer beauty and a cinematic feel to the entire album. It's hard to imagine that Ensiferum could out-epic themselves, but they did just that by crafting amazingly deep folk songs. Still, fans of their thrashier songs should not despair, because there are a couple songs where they kick it into a full on melodeath sprint. On Retribution Shall Be Mine the thrash returns, harkening back to Elusive Reaches with the amazingly tight guitar picking and wandering bass lines topped with thundering orchestration in parts. Pohjola also has some decent fast parts, and is the only song on Heroes that has any blast beat passages. The album closes out with the 16-minute opus Passion Proof Power which really shows off how talented these musicians are. The song has a few breaks in it where you have to pinch yourself and ask yourself if you were listening to Dream Theater or Symphony X, because it goes into these proggy, off-time passages where the band just jams out in between insane operatic passages and dazzling vocal arrangements. My sole complaint about this album, however, is about this song- it ends on a fadeout. It's not so much that it doesn't fit the song, only that I think the band put so much into writing this song that they could have come up with a better ending.
However, am I going to let that spoil an otherwise amazing release from one of my favorite bands? Hell no. This is easily Ensiferum's most challenging effort to date. After bringing folk metal into the light during the last decade, they are now steering their longships into uncharted waters much like their ancestors from a thousand years before. This is how a band should progress, comfortably and with confidence in their own ability to keep on creating without leaning too much on their past or changing direction in a blind pan