Escapism has always been a big part of the metal experience. Whether it’s Ronnie James Dio singing of circles, rings, dragons, and kings, Iron Maiden putting the listener right on the battlefield on “The Trooper”, Judas Priest prophesying a robot-led invasion on “Metal Gods”, or Anthrax writing songs about their favorite comic book characters, the historical/fantasy element has always been one of the genre’s most fun aspects. It’s no different today, as many bands continue to push the envelope, such as Nile’s thoroughly researched songs about Egyptology, Battlelore’s unique brand of Tolkien metal, and most notably, the style that has come to be known as Viking metal. Scandinavian metal bands have always been reverential to their Nordic heritage, to the point where some acts, including Amon Amarth and Grand Magus, carry on like they believe their rampaging, seafaring warriors. It’s all so overbearingly chest-thumping and geeky at the same time, but it’s all sung with such conviction that it’s at times startling.
To their credit, Leaves’ Eyes offer a different take on Viking metal. After making a name for herself with the groundbreaking Norwegian goth metal band Theatre of Tragedy, singer Liv Kristine Espanæs married Alexander Krull, founder of German death metal mainstays Atrocity (changing her name to Liv Kristine Espanæs Krull), and in an interesting move, she and her hubby decided to form their own band, with Liv Kristine singing, and Atrocity basically acting as backing band, abandoning their brutal death sound in favor of a more melodic, goth/power metal style, with a strong Nordic folklore influence. Judging by their second album, they might be on to a good thing.
A concept album based on Leif Erikson’s legendary journey from Norway to Greenland in 1000 A.D., Vinland Saga is not the first time a band has touched on the tale, but what’s most fascinating about the disc is how Liv Kristine brings a very strong female perspective to the story. Less a tale of brave conquerors and more about the fear and longing felt by both the warriors and their women at home, she displays superb skill bringing such strong emotions across with grace, a rarity in this genre. For instance, a ship-bound man muses about the woman he left (“This purity of rain/ Reminds me of the moment I left her”), while back at home, a woman fights the mounting fear in her mind (“I’ve heard the winds speak of a fight/ And it hit my heart like a thorn”), her worry bordering on paranoia (“Rain patters against my window/ Or is he knocking at the door?”).
As for the actual songs, Vinland Saga is a mixed bag, one that metal fans might find challenging. At their best, Leaves’ Eyes equal the operatic majesty of two other female-fronted metal acts, Nightwish and After Forever. The anthemic “Farewell Proud Men” is truly epic in scope, expertly combining lush synthesizer arrangements with sweeping goth metal arrangements. “Elegy” attempts to pull off the same blend of pop and metal as Nightwish mastered on their 2004 single “Nemo”, and does a very good job of it, Liv Kristine’s delivering a tender vocal performance over the driving force of the rest of the band, while “Twilight Sun” sways with a 6/8 beat, Liv Kristine temporarily eschewing her usual light croon for a more forceful tone, similar to that of Nightwish’s Tarja Turunen and After Forever’s Floor Jansen. Both “Solemn Sea” and “New Found Land” feature duets between Liv Kristine and Alex Krull, the pair pulling off the “beauty and the beast” vocal style effectively.
The second half does tend to meander, as the songs become increasingly mellow, such as on the instrumental “Amhran (Song of the Winds)” and “Ankomst”, both of which abandoning the heavy music entirely in favor of a style more befitting Kate Bush, and on the Celtic-tinged “Mourning Tree”, arguably the weakest track on the album, as it slogs along in a lukewarm, Enya-style, new age torpor. Other than that, Vinland Saga is a classy slice of melodic metal, one that avoids cheesy trappings and symphonic bombast, revealing a heart that beats underneath all the power chords.