Hark! The ancient call to arms is sounded. The heathen horde is assembled. To arms! To death! To glory! Gentlemen, to bed, for we rise at eight forty-five! So lather up your horse, slap on a saddle and bridle that big guy up. Tomorrow we ride. For death. For glory. “The horn of Helm Hammerhand shall sound in the deep, one last time.” RIDE OUT WITH ME!
…Anyway. The concept of viking / folk metal has pretty much been done to death. Over their 20 years as a band, Ensiferum have certainly been a part of the folk metal movement, but bands like Amon Amarth, Týr, Borknagar and Finntroll have already cemented their roles as its leaders—those who will ride into the end times battle perched upon their steed squarely within the vanguard. Make no mistake: Ensiferum is a strong band—and their sixth album, One Man Army, is certainly a strong effort—but it ends up falling short of the mark set by the true legends of viking and folk metal.
With 11 songs in 53 minutes, One Man Army is certainly ambitious. The tracks are replete with lyres, flutes, harps and symphonic support, as well as choir-like backing vocals. The vocals, shared by most of the band, reveal a penchant for hardcore influences in vocalist Petri Lindroos’ barks but other members Sami Hinkka, Emmi Silvennoinen and Markus Toivonen are clearly capable of singing and creating atmosphere with both their tones and their speaking voices. Take “Warrior Without a War,” where every single tactic is employed for the five-minute track. As a single track, it’s excessively fun and definitely enjoyable, but it’s almost tiresome to hear so many gimmicks employed at once. If the heathen horde had possibly listened to Sun Tzu’s advice about not putting all your tanks on the battlefield at once, the album arc might have been a bit more dramatic.
The general pace of One Man Army is galloping. Drummer Janne Parviainen rides the double-bass throughout, mimicking a horse valiantly riding towards its fate. But Ensiferum does occasionally vary the pace; some tracks, such as “Two of Spades,” pick things up, ripping along at a blistering, almost punk-like speed, while others, like the opener “Axe of Judgment,” even employ a breakdown.
But there are also a few tracks that are straight out of left field. Almost as if an imagined Viking warrior has sailed too far and stumbled upon a square dance, “Neito Pohjolan” gives us a honky tonk, polka-influenced tune complete with steel guitars, snare rides and accordion. Similarly, “War Metal,” on the album’s bonus disc, employs the same marching, country style of honk and tonk after opening as you would expect. And while these tracks are fun, they’re also epically out of place and completely kill the momentum of the album. They are, however, contained to the second disc and thus easier to avoid.
Overall, One Man Army is a pretty fun listen. It’s catchy, nerdy, fun and inspiring…but it can also be tiresome, with the same gimmicks employed time and time again. The production (handled by Anssi Kippo) is excessively overdone, with much of the Renaissance-sounding instrumentation being taken over by a keyboard—a severe letdown for fans of Winterfylleth and other pagan black metal employing these sounds completely organically. In the end, the album’s most likely exactly what you would expect from the title and album cover. But for my money, I’ll reach for Borknagar’s 2012 release Urd instead.