[29 July 2007]
Turisas’ debut Battle Metal was something of a word-of-mouth hit in that it was released in 2004 but didn’t start to catch on in Europe until last year. With all the turmoil in the band’s staggering seven-member line-up since that time (guitarist Georg Laakso’s career-ending car accident, keyboardist Antti Ventola’s recent departure), it should come as no surprise that, for their sophomore The Varangian Way, named in honor of a tenth century Viking route, the Finnish crew are gearing up to fight against the odds the only way they know how: proudly displaying their (hopefully fake) animal pelts, taking up a sword and applying extra warpaint for good measure. Frontman Mathias Nygård recently even asserting that he’d like the band to do all their touring in a longboat.
Outfits aside, they’ve also made considerable progress as a musical ensemble this time around. Nygård, who seems to have the creative control behind this seven-piece, announced from the outset his intentions were to make The Varangian Way packed with symphonic influences and ethnic melodies from the group’s homeland—and the result sounds like a full-blown soundtrack! The Turisas that plays here is less the band of their debut than they are a fully-fledged orchestra, having outgrown something as unimaginative as the guitar riff for an intro from their very own accordion player, Janne Mäkinen… and one from a bagpipe and, if the rich but tightly-spindled production is anything to judge by, a very medieval fiddle, etc.
Outside of Mäkinen’s accordions, there are too many exotic instruments in the mix to list, brass, woodwind and otherwise. The band even tackle giant-sized ‘overtures’ now with a straight face, in one orchestral, epic (for lack of a more appropriate descriptor) chorus trouncing what most bands will achieve in whole musical careers. Their grandiose melodies are bombastic beyond belief. First single “To Holmgard and Beyond” is a fist-punching, uplifting rallying to the battlefield, its sweeping chorus matched by the nagging fury of Tuomas Lehtonin’s double-kick percussion.
With each triumphant dosage of spirited instrumentals comes mega-cheesy ‘swords-and-sandals’ lyrics that would not only make Ronnie James Dio proud, but probably make him blush, too… “Long is the way we have come… Searching for the fields of gold”, “The greatest of our time / Tsargrad!”, and perhaps most memorably, “Holmgard”s “For fame and for glory!” Let’s face it, though: from a band like this, you wouldn’t want them any other way.
If “To Holmgard and Beyond” is destined to become The Varangian Way’s pinnacle, the rest of its contents attest that the band can straddle the great divide between folk songs and metal with near freedom. “Five Hundred and One” rips from a dulcet piano to a pounding artillery section that kicks the shit out of Dragonforce, throwing in a spoken monologue in which our warrior musicians meet a Greek king, drawing itself to a finish worthy of a Disney movie in its last two epic-drenched minutes. The bitingly heavy “Cursed Be Iron” is a musical Jekyll and Hyde; combining an indigenous Finnish tune and the very best of the band’s symphonic aspirations with a harsh, Emperor-esque chorus.
Lastly, the “Miklagard Overture” flows like half reprise and half salute to every classic metal tour de force. The eight-minute piece starts ever-so-slowly, then starts to build in tempo, pulling out all the stops as it unwinds, including the requisite brassy fanfare that makes its entry halfway, followed by densely layered vocals, and Lehtonin’s double-kick, which do their duty for the last chorus. The Varangian Way wraps up on the heap of its grandeur.
But while it throbs with patriotism and enough orchestral elements to make you feel like you’re sailing down the Varangian way itself, it falls just short of perfection. All the record’s guitars, left aside for bigger and more majestic instrumental options, are particularly one-dimensional, rumbling out a monotonous, sololess chug for most of the proceedings. And while Nygård is a talented singer, balancing the extreme ends of his vocal act, some of his lines don’t gel with the band’s music very well, especially his thin growls; not as effective or intimidating as he surely meant for them to be.
Never mind the cheese, though. Extravagance is the name of the game here, and The Varangian Way’s pummeling mini-symphonies, the like that haven’t been heard since Nightwish’s Once, offer fine evidence that Turisas have achieved their goal to both super-size and trademark their ‘battle metal’ themes. It’s an audacious work that could never have been pulled off 15 years ago, but sounds spectacular in the present, thanks to big-budget studios, enhancement technology, and the determination of all seven involved in this composition to take it to the next bombastic level. After all, there’s no need for subtlety on the battlefield. Aieeee!