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2004's "Battle Metal" was a raw, powerful introduction to the world of Turisas and their own brand of Viking Metal. Mixing different instruments such as violins and accordians ended in an inspired album full of promise and great songs.
The Varangian Way polished this and raised the bar. Now more than ever, Mathias Nygard arranged the various instruments and effects with prestige and quality. "To Holmgard and Beyond" is the most commercial track on the album, with the exception of the cover of Boney M's Rasputin. A catchy hook and clean vocals make it an early favourite for someone new to the style.
Some songs on the album are more aggressive such as "Cursed Be Iron", "Five Hundred and One" and also "The Dnieper Rapids" have solid riffs and vocals that can induce some solid headbanging for those who feel inclined.
"Millagard Overture" is the song out of Turisas catalogue that shows off Nygards composition skills to their fullest. This album needs to be heard in it's entirety to feel the emotions it evokes and given time to appreciate the individual facets which underlines it's quality.
"To Holmgard and Beyond" - 5:17
"A Portage to the Unknown" - 4:50
"Cursed Be Iron" - 5:03
"Fields of Gold" - 4:34
"In the Court of Jarisleif" - 3:17
"Five Hundred and One" - 6:18
"The Dnieper Rapids" - 5:20
"Miklagard Overture" - 8:18
"Rasputin" - 3:53
"The Varangian Way" is the 2nd studio album by Finnish Viking metal band, Turisas. It was released in 2007 on Century Media Records and produced by Mathias Nygård & Janne Saska. The line-up for the album was Mathias Nygård (vocals/keyboards), Jussi Wickström (guitar), Hannes Horma (bass), Tude Lehtonen (drums), Olli Vänskä (violin) and Janne Mäkinen (accordion).
This is a laborious concept album, charting the trail of Scandanavians through ancient Russia and down to southern Europe and the Byzantine Empire. Though it is a fictional story, it is believed that events like these really happened. Turisas vocalist Mathias Nygård explained:
"It's a journey of a group of Northmen, who travel down the East-European river route through the lands of modern day East Europe. This was an important trade route in the 9th-11th centuries and the Northmen going in this direction were called Varangians who took this route to Kiev and finally Constantinople. The album follows this journey and the songs are events that take place on the road. As much as it is a journey of these men, it is also a journey in a search for self and identity -- something which the protagonist is going through throughout the story. The varying surroundings can clearly be heard on the album as it features a lot of influences from the different cultures and people our travellers would have encountered on their journey."
The album took nearly three months to record, and has many Scandinavian influences present. Is it any good? Let's find out!
To Holmgard and Beyond
The album (and journey) gets underway with sounds not unlike an epic Viking battle, if you can imagine being in one. The Varangians are setting out on their long trek towards Miklagard, which is the Norse name for the ancient city of Constantinople - modern-day Istanbul. They know the trip will be long and arduous, but they also know they must make this journey if they are to continue to live. The gang chorus is especially pleasing, as it gives the listener a sense of being there with the Varangians on their journey. Turisas has dragged its audience into the tale with a perfect opener of a song, and it sets the standard for the rest of the album to follow.
"We know the way to Aldeigju
Upstream the river Alode
You take us to the portage
And further south"
A Portage to the Unknown
The song begins with a soft accordion which brings in the rest of the instruments as the Varangians sing in gang vocals about how they've passed by Aldeigjuborg (now Staraya Ladoga in modern-day Russia) witnessed the wondrous sight of Lake Ilmen, and made landfall with the help of Perun, the God of thunder and lightning. The music takes a softer edge in the verses as Warlord takes on the lyrics to give them more meaning, but the chorus has even more of the Viking chants that help to set the scenario of what the Varangians are facing. It is an orchestral piece that also maintains its balance of heaviness so that it's telling the listener that it is a serious song at the same time.
"The water's changed to sand
Lakes and rivers turned to land
Plough up the rocky seas
Ride felled down trees
Foot by foot we edge
Once a ship, now a sled"
Cursed be Iron
The song begins with the sound of a blacksmith going about his daily work in forging swords and other weapons from steel. Once the vocals come in, it is clear it's a song that is meant to have anger towards the smithy and the materials he uses. The narrator is explaining that he is cursed by the iron because it has taken so many of his family and friends. The song is loosely based on the Finnish poetry work of Elias Lonnrot, entitled "The Kalevala". Musically, it is a confusing piece, but that is probably intended to give the effect that the narrator is not happy with his life. There is a soft accordion playing throughout the verses that heightens his plight and brings on the ambience of the song to full effect.
"Truly thou hadst little vigor
Little strength, and little danger
When thou in the fire wert hissing
Rolling forth like seething water
From the furnace of the smithy
When thou gavest oath the strongest"
Fields of Gold
The Varangians have travelled a long way and they are getting battle hungry and eager to share the spoils in riches and treasures, whatever the cost. The bridge of the song is done in epic proportions, and takes influences from folk metal as well as celtic rock, but the music as a whole on this track is performed in such a way that makes it easy to envisage what these people lived for. While it may not be the best song on the album it is still an integral part to continue the story. One of the highlights is the keyboard playing along with the guitar to match the same riff.
"Long is the way we have come
Still, nothing changes under the sun
The day we lay ahold
The wind rocks the fields of gold"
In the Court of Jarisleif
Yaroslav the Wise (978-1054) was the Grand Prince of Kiev, and famed Varangian, who took power from his brother, Svyatopolk the Accursed, after the latter had killed their three other brothers when their father, Vladimir the Great, died. The song tells of how the travellers came to where Jarisleif held court, where upon they were welcomed, wined and dined. If any readers wondered where I got this username from, now you know! Musically, you can hear typical scenes from the court - accordion, jesters, clapping, and Vikings having a jolly good time in the only way they know how. There are very few lyrics in the song, but it is meant to be that way so that the full flavour of the meaning can be appreciated to the full. It is the shortest song on the album with a fast tempo, designed that way so that the listener can imagine what it was like to be in the court of Jarisleif.
"May beer flow as long as we can stand on two
All the pretty girtls, come, keep us warm!
Tonight we drink, no room for depressing thoughts
Fill your horns!"
Five Hundred and One
It at this point of the album where the Varangians are weary of travelling, but know they must carry on and fulfil their destiny. The song tells the tale of one unnamed Viking in particular that has a vision during the night - or it may have been a dream - in which he is faced with many doors and corridors, but only one will guide him to where he needs to be. Out of the despairing silence, a voice calls out to him, "Go now, and don't look back. Give my greetings to the Greek King!" It is with that when he wakes, and knows which course to take. There is great rhythmic use of the double bass pedals dotted throughout the song, but the almost operating effect of the instruments is a big bonus. That doesn't usually work with metal, but it clearly works on this song and concept album.
"So long is the way to the unknown
Long is the way we have come
At the head of the ships a horn was blown
We sailed off with the morning sun
Five hundred and one"
The Dnieper Rapids
The Dnieper river flows through modern-day Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, draining into the Black Sea. It is here where the Varangians battled the currents of the river and a number of them were lost in the swells, but they had to carry on because they had come this far. There is some good guitar work from Jussi Wickström that stands out in particular, and there is some intricate violin work which signified the ups and downs of the tide, as well as a full choir that gives the song a sense of seriousness, and the feeling that all is not well with the travellers.
"Clouds of spray, Pechenegs prey
The Insatiable One is hungry today
Avoid the rocks for all you're worth
Whirlpools gaze from the depths of earth"
The final song on the album is also the longest, but that is necessary to wrap up everything which has happened during the course of the Varangians' journey. The group of travellers have finally reached their goal, and the city of Konstantinopolis is in their sights. They are exhausted after their trek, but each and every one of them is delighted that they have finally fulfilled their destinies. Music-wise, it is an epic song that has all the right ingredients, led brilliantly by Warlord's composition. It is on this song more than the others that you get a sense of what really went in to recording the album. It's not just about Nygård, Wickström, Horma, Lehtonen, Vänskä and Mäkinen, though, because the orchestral and choiral arrangements are incredible.
"In astonishing colours the East meets the West
The hill-banks arise in their green
In wonder I sit on my empty chest
As we glide down the strait in between"
As far as concept albums go, this is certainly up there as a classic. The production is spot on with a good mix of sound for each instrument that leaves you wanting to listen to it over and over again. The CD never left my car stereo for weeks and even then it still got a regular outing. When I first heard this record, I immediately played it again. The creativity and arrangement of instruments is nothing short of magical, as Nygard's powerful vocals are accompanied by the Vienna Philharmonic in full volume along with the rest of the band. I can't praise this album enough, and even if you don't like heavy metal, I can guarantee that you would appreciate this concept.
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
My rating: 10/10
Turisas coined the term 'Battle Metal' with their previous album of the same name and it quite aptly describes the music they play. Yes, it's metal, albeit with violins and accordions, but the lyrical themes are historical, with references to war, fights and battles. 'Battle Metal' was an excellent debut from Turisas, but 'The Varangian Way' takes what they started a whole step further, a stronger, better produced concept album that from the very first listen, I found a pleasure to listen to.
So as mentioned, this is a concept album, telling a fictional story of a group of 'Varangians' who travel down the East European river route to Constantinople, or in modern terms, from Finland down to Turkey.
Opening track, 'To Holmgard and Beyond' is a real belter of a track, a fist pounding anthem if you will as we start the journey off. Immediately we are bombarded with powerful sounds, numerous layers and full textures with a strong optimistic feel about it, as we tell the story of these men as they begin their journey. We lead into 'A Portage to the Unknown' opening with a chorus of male voices, singing about their journey, the merry tone of the opener has passed and instead we're left with a more despairing tone as things take a more difficult turn.
'Cursed be Iron' has a harsher tone, opening with crunchier, heavier guitars and screamed vocals, before a quick change to a simpler quieter tone of just the vocals telling the story over minimal accompaniment before we're back to the angrier chorus. 'Fields of Gold' picks up the pace again sounding altogether more powerful and lively, with lots of brass over the guitars.
'In the Court of Jarisleif' has a very different tone to the rest of the album, it really does have the feel of being in a medieval courtyard during some sort of celebration, with dancing and partying and a very quick lively pace. 'Five Hundred and One' is another heavy and fast paced track that picks up even further as it progresses and 'The Dnieper Rapids' a darker and angrier song, loud and fierce as said rapids.
Of course the real stand out track of the album is the final track 'Miklagard Overture' a truly epic and emotional track, rounding off the story nicely, contrasting quiet reflective moments, with full and powerful moments of achievement and fulfilment. Listening to this track it's a truly impressive work and sums up the album particularly well, the choirs, the brass, the strings; it just sounds fantastic and is without a doubt my favourite track on this album.
Also worth mentioning is the fact that if you pick up The Directors Cut version, you also get Turisas's cover of 'Rasputin' which is certainly quite amusing to hear, not to mention see - as you also have their video for the cover on the Bonus DVD.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 To Holmgard and Beyond
2 A Portageto the Unknown
3 Cursed Be Iron
4 Fields of Gold
5 In the Court of Jarisleif
6 Five Hundred and One
7 The Dneiper Rapids
8 Miklagard Overture
10 To Holmgard and Beyond (single edit)
Disc #2 Tracklisting
1 Rasputin (video clip)
2 To Holmgard and Beyond (Karaoke version)
3 Battle Metal (live video from Rock Hard Festival 2007)
4 To Holmgard and Beyond (live video from Download 2007)
5 In the Court of Jarisleif (live video from Download 2007)
6 Rasputin (live video from Download 2007)
7 Battle Metal (live video from Download 2007)
8 Battle Metal (live video from With Full Force 2007)