Album: Land of the Setting Sun
Release Date: 21 June 2015
Buy CD ($7) or digital ($5) from: Bandcamp
Folk metal is starting to get a foothold in our area. European folk bands have been coming through on their tours for years but we’re starting to see some local folk metal bands pop up. DCHM writer Tal has put together this thorough review of the debut release by one of these bands, Isenmor. You can stream a few tracks at the bottom of this post and listen while you read. You can also check out Tal’s blog In My Winter Castle for more of his writing.
Isenmor, of Savage, Maryland, is the second folk metal band to spring up in the greater DC area in recent years (after Baltimore’s Sekengard). On June 21, Isenmor released a surprisingly mature debut EP (considering that the band was formed a little over a year prior) titled Land of the Setting Sun.
The album title refers to the band’s “Vinlandic” identity. What grounds could a band in the “New World” have for performing European folk music? Well, the Vikings once sailed west into the setting sun and explored the place we now call North America; they called it Vinland. Isenmor takes their inspiration from this to perform Old World music mixed with modern metal, using Viking and Germanic themes. The band’s name, Isenmor, means “iron wasteland” in Old English, and according to vocalist and violinist Nick Schneider, refers to the aftermath of battle, with broken and discarded weapons strewn all about. And I guess that’s fitting since the first two songs on the EP are about the results of battle – death, and the funeral pyre. The lyrics draw on a mix of Germanic and Norse inspirations — while they sing about Wodan and Donar instead of their Norse counterparts Odin and Thor, they also quote from the Viking poem Hávamál (“cattle die, kinsmen die…”). Their sound, meanwhile, is dominated by the two violins (and a viola, according to the credits), which weave folky melodies with English and Celtic inspirations.
The violin-playing is probably the most proficient and appealing part of the EP. The rest of it is enthusiastic and interesting enough, but can’t help sounding a bit amateurish — there’s an unpolished feel to the clean vocals, and a kind of fuzzy sound to the guitars. Of course, this is the self-produced first release of a new band, so an unrefined sound can be forgiven. And some of the roughness may also be purposeful, such as the sawing and scraping of the violin in many parts – a sound which I actually find not unpleasant. Korpiklaani has a similarly scratchy sound to the violin on their first album, Spirit of the Forest, and it gives that album a coarse, earthy feel, which seems fitting for the genre. It makes it really feel like folk, the music of the people.
It took me a few listens to get into Isenmor’s album, possibly partly due to the unpolished sound, but now I love this release. Beneath the violins, there’s a good deal of black metal sound and influence — waves of atmospheric, tremolo-y guitar, screamed vocals delivered at high speed by Nick Schneider. That isn’t all, though; there are also chugging death metal riffs in “Land of the Setting Sun,” thick, heavy-hearted doomy guitar in “So Willingly Deceived,” and furious riffage à la Swedish melodeath in “The Old Mead Hall.” The vocals on the album are also highly varied — besides the screamed vocals, there are also clean vocals by several different band members, grandiose choruses sung by almost the whole band together, and raspy harsh vocals done by Tim Regan (who is also the guitarist). The album begins aggressively, with an energetic violin melody, blastbeats, and an extended scream starting the furious first song, “Death is a Fine Companion,” but most of the album goes at a much slower pace.
My favorite song is one of the slow ones, actually: “So Willingly Deceived,” which is about the conversion of the heathens to Christianity. I have to admit, I probably connected to this song so strongly because it reminded me of the Saxon Stories books by Bernard Cornwell, whose protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, is a Saxon lord in 9th century England who resists being converted to Christianity. That connection made the sorrowful keyboard and violin melody especially poignant, the verses praising the pagan gods more grandiose, and the anguish of the verses about those who were “willingly deceived” more real. The melody and vocals are underpinned by doomy guitar, long distorted tones during the verses and disconsolate chugging during the violin bridges, which heightens the sense of nostalgia. I really like the clean vocals in this song, which are performed by Nick — while he sounds untrained, he has a commanding voice which further reminds me of Uhtred of Bebbanburg. The lyrics of the song take surprisingly pointed (for folk metal) jabs at Christianity with lines like “You gladly pledge yourselves/ to a tyrant’s bastard son” and “a poorly conceived lie/ of a coward’s paradise.” Along with the first two songs, this song gives the album a decidedly serious feel, so much so that the drinking song that follows it, “The Old Mead Hall,” sounds a bit silly (it is a fun song, though).
After the five original songs on Land of the Setting Sun are two covers drawn from among the best international folk metal bands out there. The first one, a cover of Eluveitie’s “Havoc,” is enjoyable if not novel – it basically sounds like a rough-hewn version of the original. The warmer and simpler sound of the violins in Isenmor’s version, as opposed to the violin, tin whistle, and hurdy-gurdy that Eluveitie use for the furious folk barrages of the song, gives the cover a homelier sound than the tight, clear sound of the original.
The second cover is Ensiferum’s “In My Sword I Trust.” I was initially disappointed in this choice of cover song. It’s not that Isenmor did a bad job; but I don’t like this song or the album it’s from, 2012’s Unsung Heroes, in general. It’s just not up to the high standard and unique style of previous Ensiferum. (This year’s One Man Army redeemed Ensiferum, in my opinion, but I digress…) While “In My Sword I Trust” isn’t a good song for Ensiferum, it is pretty decent as a generic folk metal song, and Isenmor actually sounds really good playing it. Like the rest of the album, it took me a few listens to get into, but now I actually enjoy their rendition of it, certainly more than the original. Isenmor’s violin sounds much more strident playing the melody than the keyboard in the original – especially when both Nick and Miles are playing. The vocals are a bit gruffer, and after the solo (which is carried by the violin rather than the guitar in Isenmor’s cover), when the guitar and growled vocals hammer down on us, the band actually sounds pretty brutal. While not as polished in technique or recording quality, Isenmor’s cover is a lot more interesting than when Ensiferum plays this song.
And that’s not all. You get more than your money’s worth and then some with this EP, as the two covers are followed by acoustic versions of “Pyre” and “So Willingly Deceived.” I won’t deceive you; when I first picked up this album, I groaned inwardly upon seeing two acoustic versions, figuring they wouldn’t hold my interest. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They’re not boring, seeing as the violin melodies, which are a key element of the music, are still there, and with acoustic guitar, bass, and drums added to that, the acoustic songs are even a bit heavy in their own right. The acoustic songs give us more of a chance to appreciate the violins and hear the lyrics a bit better, and so they actually enhanced my appreciation of the metal versions. My opinion here is helped, of course, by the fact that I enjoy just plain folk music as well as folk metal, but I’m pretty sure that most folk metal fans are in the same Viking longship with me there.
Last but not least, the album is further enhanced by the artwork. The cover, showing a small silhouette of a helmeted man with a spear standing on a crag before the sea, in front of a turbulent dark orange sky that dominates the picture, is an oil painting by 19th century Norwegian painter Knud Andreassen Baade, “Scene from the era of Norwegian Sagas.” The CD is printed with “The Ride of the Valkyrs,” an illustration by John Charles Dollman from an early 20th century book of Norse mythology, showing Valkyries in their winged helmets riding horses that seem to leap over the viewer, the gray color and muscular figures making them look like statues. It was pretty clever of the band to use some great public domain artwork for their album – it looks very professional, and really cool to boot, and also fits the nostalgic, history-oriented tone of their album. They should put that cover image on a T-shirt, because I, for one, would give them money for it.
All in all, Isenmor is off to a very strong start with this EP. I’m excited to see where they go — at a live show in Frederick on July 11, they played some new songs which seem to indicate they’re charging full speed ahead with faster and heavier songs. This bodes very well for the folk metal scene in the DC area, as does the Maryland Folk Fest happening at Metro Gallery on August 22, featuring Isenmor, Sekengard, and other folk metal bands from up and down the east coast. We’re becoming a bastion for folk metal, and with Land of the Setting Sun, Isenmor joins the front ranks of this fledgling scene.
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