Another year, another joyous blast of humppa from the perpetually lovable Korpiklaani.
Korpiklaani is as good at capturing the attention of new listeners as any band. The Finnish sextet lures us with the novel idea of combining energetic thrash metal with the polka-derived humppa of their homeland, boisterous guitar riffs colliding with lively accordion and jouhikko melodies, their raucous odes to beer and beer-fueled revelry coaxing a reaction that starts as a furtive, flabbergasted smile and ends up being a full-on grin four minutes later. Then, once they've commanded our attention, the guys settle in and prove to one and all that this stuff is no novelty whatsoever. Delving into such themes as paganism, ancient Nordic culture, and folk balladry, we discover, much to our shock, that this seemingly awkward blend of disparate musical styles works astonishingly well. It's music with genuine soul and passion, the kind of stuff that makes your chest swell, even if you have no idea what the hell the Finnish lyrics mean.
Having emerged as the undisputed champs of folk metal thanks to a mightily impressive run of five albums, including four in the last three years, the wildly prolific Korpiklaani (that's "forest clan" in Finnish, in case you're curious) has now set their sights a little higher, having made the move from reputable pagan metal purveyor Napalm Records to Nuclear Blast, one of the metal world's heavy hitters. Folk/pagan metal, especially that of the humppa variety, remains a somewhat small niche (the only other major like-minded band being Finntroll), but considering how Korpiklaani can so adeptly evoke the drunken soul of the Pogues, the battle epics of Manowar, and the rousing anthems of Accept -- often all at the same time -- without sounding the least bit self-parodical, the German label clearly knows that if there's one band of accordion-wielding headbangers with the ability to achieve crossover success, it's these dudes. Admirably, the band holds up their end of the bargain on their new album Korven Kuningas.
Perhaps aware that they're on the same label as such major acts as Meshuggah, Blind Guardian, Dimmu Borgir, and Nile, Korpiklaani takes a considerably more serious approach compared to previous efforts. Most noticeable is the lack of the ubiquitous drinking anthem. While past albums boasted such fabulously intoxicating songs as "Wooden Pints", "Beer Beer", "Happy Little Boozer", and "Let's Drink", the approach on Korven Kuningas might seem more sober than usual, but it's by no means any less energetic. In fact, the band wastes no time getting the festivities going, as "Tapparauta" (meaning "Killing Iron", according to Wikipedia) bursts out of the gate with its furious thrash picking, fiddle melodies, and the crazed, chanted, pub-style singing that has become the band's hallmark. "Metsämies" follows suit with its joyous vocal melody, accordion, and 2/4 humppa beat, while the whimsical flute, mandolin, and blazing speed of "Kantaiso" and "Runamoine" hearken back to the glory days of folk metal pioneers Skyclad.
As is always the case, it's when Korpiklaani shifts gears and focuses on the more understated fare that the band's versatility wins us over. The drone of a jouhikko drives "Northern Fall", as lead vocalist/guitarist Jonne Järvelä launches into his "yoiking", the chanted Sami singing style that bears a striking resemblance to Native North American chanting. "Ali Jäisten Vetten" slows things down a touch, allowing fiddle and accordion to carry the song, but the acoustic "Gods on Fire" takes things several steps further, Jarvela's gravelly growl managing to add even more poignancy to an already lovely track. Multi-instrumentalist Jaakko Lemmetty and accordionist Juho Kauppinen both shine on the instrumental title track, and similarly, the rousing jig of "Shall We Take a Turn" lightens the mood considerably.
With Korven Kuningas being such a high-profile release on such a big record label, Korpiklaani does let their ambition get the best of them on a few occasions. The rustic "Keep on Galloping" lurches along, its melody not as strong as the other tracks, and Jarvela's heavily accented English (including a charming mispronunciation of "galloping") turns out to be a distraction, proof they're a better band when they sing in their native tongue. Placed right in the middle of the album, bonus track "Nuolet Nomalan" is an awkward fit, its guitar-centric arrangement clashing with the other tracks. Lastly, while the first five minutes of the closing title track are fantastic, it closes with 16 stultifying minutes of a repeated two-beat drum pattern that overstays its welcome quickly.
Last year's Tervaskanto saw Korpiklaani coming as close to perfecting their formula as they ever have, and although Korven Kuningas tries a little too hard to impress at times, it's nevertheless impossible to hate the album. This is joyous music, plain and simple, and the band has become so refined at their craft so quickly, so prolifically, that a year without new humppa from the crazed Finns just wouldn't feel right, not to mention seem awfully boring.