Of Swords and Sorcerers
We discover there’s more to Finnish band Ensiferum than goblins, dragons and Vikings
It’s a sweltering, muggy 32 degrees in the shade at the open-air theatre inside the IIT-Bombay campus. Overhead, roiling storm clouds threaten rain as the scattering of sound engineers and light technicians squint worriedly at the sky and their exposed equipment. But there’s a buzz in the air that has nothing to do with the weather. On stage a band is quietly setting up, apparently impervious to the sludgy weather and rain worries. There’s the tiniest pause as the vocalist surveys the scene, then lets rip a snarl that resounds across the amphitheatre. Every head in the auditorium whips around as Ensiferum launch into song. Chugging, distorted guitars and galloping rhythms ride the back of a distinctive Norse melody that builds to a crescendo – a perfect background score to the weather. The song ends but nobody’s looking away, not even the workers who’re busy putting up screens and banners. And this is only the soundcheck. There’s something so primeval and powerful about Ensiferum’s music that nobody even dreams of laughing later in the day when the band takes stage in what can only be described as skirts in Finland’s flag colours and warpaint, before a crowd of over 5,000. Not even the 50 people at the back who are trying to fit the latest Hrithik moves to Ensiferum’s music seem to think something is amiss. No, they’re just not that kind of band.
It could have been an entirely different band sitting in the makeshift green room at the back of the stage after soundcheck. Weary and not a little tired Â”“ vocalist Petri Lindroos had arrived at 4 in the morning ”“ but ever polite, the band looks a mite lost as they contemplate the piles of mattresses in one corner of the room and the little McDonalds brown paper baggies they’ve been handed with what is presumably their lunch. “This is not where we sleep,” bassist Sami Hinkka chuckles indicating the mattresses. Weariness and hunger notwithstanding, the band graciously put away their sorry lunches for a quick interview.
From the outset, it’s clear who the spokespeople for the band are. Sami and Petri are the most garrulous of the five and take to questions with practised ease. Marcus Toivonen, guitarist and founder of Ensiferum is the quiet strength behind the band, while drummer Janne Parviainen and keyboardist Emmi Silvennoinen are content with letting their music do all the talking, preferably onstage. But Marcus is the one they all turn to when they need a clarification or a quick input on a question or a word of encouragement and the respect the band members have for him is evident even when they rib him good-naturedly for his introversion.
Marcus played in band called Dark Reflections, mostly a gathering of friends who got their jollies out of covering bands like Pantera and Megadeth. The band had little inspiration and even lesser musical ambition and Marcus quickly grew dissatisfied and along with it came a realisation. “The first idea came when I heard Amorphis 15 years ago and I was like I want to have a band that only plays really melodic [metal],” says Marcus with conviction. Did he decide that he particularly wanted to play “heroic” folk metal? “I don’t know, the main idea was the melody.”
The band took its name from Marcus’ encounter with a Latin dictionary. Flipping through it, the first page he stopped on had the gender neutral adjective “Ensiferum” meaning sword-bearing, which immediately brought to mind warring armies and sword-wielding Vikings. Perfect.
Ensiferum released numerous demos and two albums – Ensiferum (2001) and Iron (2003) – but the band was in a constant state of churn as the lineup changed with every album. At one point of time the band was playing with a 14-year old bassist. By the time they released their third album Victory Songs (2007) Marcus was the only remaining member of the original lineup. “But the sound of the band has changed for the better, much better. The sound changes every time someone new joins the band. Everyone brings their own flavour, that’s what being a band is about,” says Sami while Marcus nods sagely. From ”˜Little Dreamer,’ ”˜Battle Song,’ on Ensiferum to anthems like ”˜Lai Lai Hei’ (Iron) and their most popular song to date, ”˜One More Magic Potion’ (Victory Songs), the change in their sound has only driven their popularity higher.
Ensiferum is one of the growing number of bands from Finland, Finntroll and Korpiklaani among them, that is exploring the history and mythology of their country through their music and lyrics. The themes of their songs revolve around the Finnish epic Kalevala with heroes, battles, dragons and magic spells finding frequent mentions and they use a lot of traditional instruments and folk tunes in their music. But the band members’ musical tastes range beyond just folk music. Bassist Sami’s mp3 player is currently playing everything from “Iron Maiden, King Diamond, Katatonia, Amon Amarth, Amorphis to Eric Clapton, Eurythmics,” he grins as he plays some Eurythmics loud for us and grooves along (“Sounds like King Diamond,” ripostes Petri to much laughter from the band). Marcus’ influences include “obviously a lot of folk music. And AC/DC, Iron Maiden (he gestures at the Maiden t-shirt he’s wearing). I don’t listen to a lot of, like, pop music. Maybe some Guns N’ Roses, nothing more.” What did he think of Chinese Democracy? “It’s not really good.Â It’s okay, but it’s not Guns N’ Roses. I heard the album and well, I liked like 2 songs, I don’t know their names,” he says dismissively.
Playing as niche a genre as they do, “We get amazing reactions from people, they go crazy. It’s also the novelty of the sound. Music has no boundaries, the sky’s the limit and that’s not enough,” says a philosophical Petri. The band has the most number of fans in Germany because “they drink so much beer. And we have melodies that go straight to their heads.” “And they love signing along to our choruses,” says Sami. Talk veers towards alcohol and Finnish bands’ mutual love for it. “We love touring with Moonsorrow. They’re hilarious because they’re not sober most of the time. Finntroll and Korpiklaani also. They are drunk most of the time, which is great,” chuckles Sami. Have Ensiferum done any crazy things under the influence of alcohol? Petri laughs, “We actually are peaceful. We don’t do crazy.” “It’s hard to remember, maybe because nothing actually happened,” muses Marcus. Sami cuts in, “And when it happened we were totally drunk. No, we’re kidding.”
That hasn’t stopped fans from doing crazy things for the band apparently. In 2007, the Russian Ensiferum fan club gave the band a gift of literally astronomical proportions. “They named a star, a real star after us. So now we have a star called Ensiferum.” Have they seen it yet? Says Sami “I have no idea where it is. I think we have the maps and everything but I don’t know how to read any of that.” And Marcus grins, “I have heard that the other band that has a star is Rolling Stones but I’m not too sure actually. So we are in good company.”
Ask them what fans can expect from their next album, which they will begin recording in April and the release of which is scheduled for September, and Marcus, unusually garrulous, says, “Some weird things and a lot of melody, a lot of good melodies actually. Tons of good melodies. I think we’re going to have another ”˜One More Magic Potion.’ ” Cuts in Petri, “Good drinking songs.” “More singalong stuff. Epic stuff. Epic and nerd stuff like people are writing on the internet. They reading the lyrics and they’re like it’s too epic and nerdy, geeky stuff. Dungeons and Dragons,” says Marcus mysteriously and Sami adds, “You know these guys with fake swords who are playing in the forest, these role games, I think they mean those games. Live action, role playing. “I am king Arthurrrrrrr, Now I weeel slayyy you,” growls Petri in an Arnold Schwarzenegger voice by way of explanation.
By this time the band’s soggy lunch has eaten its way out of the paper bags and it’s only a few hours to the show. It’s still a warm 30-odd degrees and the band is contemplating playing shirtless. “It would be nice to play without shirts, it’s quite hot,” says Marcus wistfully. “The promoters said the authorities might have a problem if we took our shirts off.” “We’re always playing with our shirts on,” complains Petri (Ensiferum rarely plays with their shirts on unless the concert is in the depth of winter). The banter continues as the band readies to go back to their hotel and glances at the stage.
Sami: “It might rain. There’s no roof. The amps will blow up immediately.”
Petri: “Yeah we’ll destroy the stage. Some drama.”