Album: The Varangian Way
Release: UK – 28.05.2007, Finland – 06.06.2007, Europe – 18.06.2007, North America – 17.07.2007, Japan: 25.06.2007
Label: Century Media Records
Ahh, sweet Turisas! You stormed the Viking folk metal world with your debut in 2004 and took what you started and ran with it on your next album, 3 years later! Taking the concept of the Varangians, the Scandinavians who traveled the trade route along the Baltic Sea and Dnieper river system, this album proved to be one of the newest, greatest releases on the genre’s market at the time!
[This report has been backdated from 08.2017]
There was a time in my life when I was fantasizing about the ultimate band. Back in 2007, the ultimate band for me would have to have a nice mix of clean and growling vocals. Ideally, the vocalist would have a sort of wolverine purr of a voice – deep and strong, with a fierce but non-annoying growl. It would also have to be a Viking and/or folk metal band, because that was my genre of choice back then. And to add icing to the cake, the band would need a violinist, because I played violin. Fast forward to December 2008, when DragonForce’s Ultra Beatdown Tour came to Calgary (a mere handful of months before I moved to Finland). I thought, I won’t pay to see DragonForce unless their opener is truly special. So I looked up this Turisas band, and the first thing I found was…
Yep, a cover of Boney M’s disco hit, “Rasputin”, done by a band whose vocals perfectly balanced a wolverine purr of clean vocals with growls, done in Viking folk metal style, with a violin (and accordion!)… I was sold in the first second of the song. Turisas went on to by my favorite band for many years, thanks to this album!
So, 10 years has passed since this gem was released. How does it hold up now?
01. To Holmgard and Beyond
Who needs an intro track when you can kick things off with such oomph!? To this day, I consider this track to be one of the best Viking/folk metal songs ever written. It has everything – bombastic dynamics, sublime playing, gorgeous vocals, and a story to boot. I read in an interview once that Mathias Nygård had actually designed this song to act as an intro track, and I believe it was a great success. The track is a beautiful start to the album and to this day remains one of my favorite songs. The spoken storytelling combined with the introduction of characters in the lyrics, as well as the ‘Viking choir’ make this a perfect song.
02. A Portage to the Unknown
Portaging, for those who don’t know, is when your canoe hits a piece of water that isn’t deep enough to support it, so you flip the canoe and carry it over land (the place where this happens is also called a portage). As such, the story continues and you can certainly guess what’s happening. The song opens with a really cool piece of accordion work by Janne “Lisko” Mäkinen before the choir vocals open up the story, which is backed up the entire time by the music, talking of the hardship of traversing the land when the “water’s changed to sand.” Nygård’s growls are fantastic in this song. More points to the accordion three quarters of the way through.
03. Cursed be Iron
If you want your taste of Kalevala, this is the song for you, as it contains a line from the poem, “The Origin of Iron.” This is perhaps the most poetic of songs on the album, naturally, and is likewise one of the harshest, and in my opinion, most beautiful tracks. There’s something about the rawness of the vocals combined with the blacksmithing noises and guitar-driven heavy riffs that contrasts with the simple accordion drone in the verses that makes this song a masterpiece.
04. Fields of Gold
The previous track flows sharply, yet efficiently, into this powerful track. The music is uplifting and strong, emphasized greatly by the vocals, and if you weren’t convinced by this track that these guys know how to use orchestration to get their point across, I think you should be by now. You’re also able to get a real feel for Turisas’ style at this point. They know when to speed things up and slow things down to achieve the ultimate effect, as well as when to use orchestration and when to focus on instruments. This song just works.
05. In the Court of Jarisleif
This is probably going to be a very unpopular opinion, but I’ve never actually been a big fan of this song. I guess my standards for happy, folky instrumentals were set at a certain level by bands like Ensiferum, and dare I say it, Korpiklaani, as well as my history of playing traditional folk music on the violin, and while this song is lively and fun, it lacks a certain catchiness to my ear, sounding a bit messy. I suppose I feel like this song is trying a bit hard to be a few too many things – lively, catchy, heavy, fast, danceable, moshable – and it’s getting a bit too much of everything, including the time changes. Not a bad song, but I expected more. Props to the violins though – Olli Vänskä sounds fantastic in this very quick and tricky piece.
06. Five Hundred and One
What has this album lacked so far? Gorgeous piano. No longer though, as the intro to this song features exactly that, and the song rapidly turns into a dynamic mix of harsh and ponderous, as though there is conflict and turmoil within the mind. Once upon a time there was a site called thevarangianway.com, though it’s since been taken down, which is a shame because that site had detailed each song on The Varangian Way. I wish I could remember what this one was about.
07. The Dnieper Rapids
Dangerous music reflects the danger of wild rapids as this next song commences. Mirroring exactly that, the music then crashes around you in powerful waves – fast music and harsh vocals interspersed with the male/female choir. This song moves and flows like an unpredictable river, raging on and keeping the tension on the edge of the seat. Fun fact: the Varangians had seven large rapids that had to be portaged around, which all have descriptive names in at least Slavonic and Norse that mean things like ‘don’t sleep’ or ‘ever violent.’
08. Miklagard Overture
In order to have an album like this feel full circle, one would expect a song that works as beautifully as an outro as “To Holmgard and Beyond” did as an intro. “Miklagard Overture” does exactly that. This theatrical, bombastic track builds up to an incredible climax, again expertly blending clean and growling vocals, to bring the album to a fantastic close. The roar of “Constantiopolis!” feels so victorious, as the character(s) reach Miklagard, also known as Byzantium, Constantinople, or in modern days, Istanbul. This song is indeed an overture, with its epic choirs and wonderful flow. It concludes the album in a perfect way and paves the way for more theatrical songs later on, like “End of an Empire.”
There are special editions of this album that include the “Rasputin” cover, as well as their popular hit single, “Battle Metal”, but I’ve already said that “Rasputin” is brilliant, and I’ll leave “Battle Metal” be, in case I ever want to review its eponymous album.
In the end, part of the beauty of this album is that it’s not trying to be catchy or mainstream, rather focused entirely on telling the story and backing that up with appropriate music, which is sometimes not strictly beautiful, as the story was not strictly beautiful. I also like how the songs feel like stories on their own, and thus can be listened to individually, but they also join together to create a whole concept album – few concept albums have achieved that. As well, as has been pointed out on a few occasions, this album is devoid of battle songs, which helps the band to both separate themselves from Manowar-type cheese you often find in other Viking/folk bands, while simultaneously focusing on the emotional aspect of the journey and earning themselves a bit of scholarly respect. I don’t consider the album perfect, but I do think it is a wonderful portrayal of a story set in the real world.
Rating: 9/10, 4.5 stars
1. To Holmgard and Beyond
2. A Portage to the Unknown
3. Cursed be Iron
4. Fields of Gold
5. In the Court of Jarisleif
6. Five Hundred and One
7. The Dnieper Rapids
8. Miklagard Overture