Ensiferum – Dragonheads

Year :
Wintersun / Cradle of Filth / 3 Inches of Blood

We haven’t talked a whole heck of a lot about the heavier side of music around the Soundtrack. For me, this boils down to melodic content. Metal strives for a certain harshness, and frequently this goal of being “brutal” kills the average structure of a song. The tracks frequently stump for speed over discernible riffage, and heft over anything infectious or catchy. As refreshing as it is to have a whole genre of people who are less concerned with the hit single than putting out their own music, it nevertheless eschews much of what I find most important in falling in love with a song. For better or worse, it’s not the concern of the metal scene. The concern of the metal scene is metalness.

This insular aspect of the genre holds it back from a more widespread appeal (something I wager no metal fan is too concerned about). It also, however, insists that every metal song, from the most popular up and comer of the Ozzfest era to the most classic Iron Maiden peer to the doomiest stoner or black metal, grows up apart from the world at large, in its own solipsistic world of Metal, and this is often to its benefit. The thing about metal is that there is almost an inverse quality-to-seriousness ratio: the more comical or over the top it is, the more it revels in its own internal logic, the better it’s likely to be. This is true of the Dickenson scream, a majestic “ahhhh-AHHHHHHHHH” ringing pristine through the chugging riffs like an eagle through the sky, and it is true of the most guttural of dark grunts. It’s what makes some metal album sleeves simply art of the absurd, and some metal logos unreadable. It’s why Manowar sells condoms and Immortal wears facepaint. There’s an excess that is required of the genre, and to be successful you need to commit to it. It’s not enough to name your band Corpse: you need to be a Cannibal Corpse.

For the outsider, this can still frequently be a hard sell, as many times the required suspension of disbelief is simply too much. Perhaps the shock value makes the song anything but shocking, or the whole affair grows to be a bit too much like bad Cosplay. Sometimes, though, everything falls into place in a way that even the layman, like myself, gets the point. The great thing about the various strains of Folk Metal, for example, is that the overblown is built in. There’s a coarseness brought in by the folk origins, and a hugeness brought in by the mythologies being used. It’s music made for the bar, the hunt, or the war. The barking vocals fit the mood and the context, the grunted battlecry of the warrior, the slurred chant of the drunkard, coming through. For someone who is pretty strongly connected to vocals and melody, it’s this sort of context which becomes vital in crossing the gap between the conventional singer and the world of heavy metal.

Of course, the viking metal of Ensiferum, our concern today, adds another layer to this with the chorus behind the lead. I imagine Beowulf sailing the sea, his voice singing the verses, and his crew coming in for the choruses. There’s something very antiquated about it, and something profoundly rugged. The imperfect, deep voices, if you had to imagine the men behind them, conjure up, well, men who might be vikings. The tempo beats along like the oars on a ship, and the surrounding sound is stormy, like waves crashing against the hull and winds of an open sea. (And all this before I even knew there was an official video to confirm my mental pictures).

This is my point: the whole song sells an image, but not like Beyonce selling Pepsi or Fall Out Boy selling a Hot Topic style. It all paints a picture, and it all contributes to an epic experience. It’s theatrical. Every tiny facet is honed and crafted into what we hear here before us. A song like “Dragonheads” is like the opening number in a particularly bombastic musical. It is pure entertainment, but we’re always 100% in on the artifice. It’s almost anthropological; perhaps this is the link that helps a generation understand the “chorus” of Ancient Greek tragedy. Give it a listen and tell me if it doesn’t hit every last note of what you’d imagine a viking voyage to sound like.

In theater, there are some amazing actors who really understand their work, and some amazing scriptwriters and directors who know just how to turn artifice into art. When an actor approaches believable, and for even a moment here and there you forget how calculated every scene and inflection is, it’s a special moment. That’s why, when metal gets the same aspects pitch perfect, the bar is set for every other genre’s theatrics. Ensiferum are not alone in playing characters in their music. Where they outshine many others is simply this: they pull their act off flawlessly, not for the thrill of a packed house, but for the pure love of the game.

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Alex Lupica (@Alex_Soundtrack) has been in love with music since he was a toddler, despite its infidelities. (Really, music? Nu-metal? How could you!). Alex is Editor-in-Chief at The Daily Soundtrack.

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