Mad and far from bad…
Review by Paul H Birch
Big and bonkers, certainly pompous but not quite preposterous, on the evidence put before me Leaves’ Eyes are vainglorious beyond belief but rather good fun too. The band wraps Nordic legends and Scandinavian sagas into symphonic metal. It’s like they watched that dream sequence in Led Zeppelin’s big home movie The Song Remains The Same where Robert Plant’s poncing about eating magic mushrooms and making out like a lightweight King Arthur and they took it all a bit too seriously. “We come from the land of ice and snow” indeed. Even the former Golden God can see the joke these days, as witnessed when he whipped out his big sword to show Brian Johnson on Sky TV’s A Life On The Road. Whether Leaves’ Eyes get the joke or not isn’t the point, what matters is that there’s an audience out there that obviously enjoys this band’s musical romps.
The German/Norwegians collaborative has been recording Viking epics since 2004, securing hit album status across mainland Europe and been known to play live with longboats as stage props. In 2016 a new female singer in the shapely form of Finnish vocalist Elina Siirala joined their ranks. Following a successful EP release this is her first full album with the band. She joins Thorsten Bauer (Guitar, Bass), Pete Streit (Guitar), Joris Nijenhuis (Drums) and Alexander Krull, who’s also on less frequent vocals, of the death growl variety, and decipherable ones at that. Add to that in the vocal department the London Voices choir who you’ve heard on soundtracks to films like Star Wars, Lord Of The Rings and Hunger Games. I’m sure I hear keyboards and nobody’s been listed officially but Krull’s took that role before if I’m not mistaking that instrument for the Almanac Symphony Orchestra from Minsk conducted by Victor Smolski. Lest it be misunderstood, Leaves’ Eyes don’t just think big they think epic!
Co-written by Krull and Bauer, the former also producing, title track ‘Sign Of the Dragonhead’ sets the course and style this album will flow as they prepare to set sail and enter battle as they follow their king “to the world’s end”. This track continues the saga of King Harald I of Norway, whose life story their previous hit album King Of Kings was about. It’s symphonic rock with a clever commercial mainstream angle alongside its rock battering guitars and a big hearty chorus. There’s a rather good video to this, that’s like a streamlined version of The Vikings TV series.
Whether or not the album is intended as a concept one it feels there’s some kind of journey with quest evoked throughout. ‘Across The Sea’ follows as a softer track, almost a sea shanty but with cutting metal guitars. Siirala’s voice is in particularly fine form here, filled with hope, promise and determination for the journey ahead. Fundamentally it’s Irish jig meets rock music for which The Horslips created the blueprint many moons ago.
Over a shuffling heavy AOR groove ‘Like A Mountain’ is dance worthy with pop hooks, and as suitable for your leather clad rocker or her granny! A tragic Icelandic love saga Siirala’s voice soars and Krull’s intermittent refrains contrast well. It’s followed by ‘Jomsborg’ a song about the legendary Viking fortress (and now a popular tourist site for battle re-enactments) with a proud valiant riff unveiled as Krull growls away followed by another AOR come disco-lite musical mood where Siirala takes charge and a big jolly mass chorus singing “300 ships are sailing into foreign lands” so heartily you’re ready to believe they’re on their way. ‘Volva’ is an Irish jig that gets ever faster as power chords come in before setlling to a mid-paced rock beat with nicely nagging guitar hooks, alongside some inventive keyboard minor melodies, that it also has a disco sub-beat going on again reinforces its mainstream crossover appeal.
If The Doors’ ‘Riders On The Storm’ was a reimagining of the country & western classic ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’ then Leaves’ Eyes bring the whole thing back across the Atlantic with ‘Riders On The Wind’ embellishing the myth for a new musical generation (albeit one buried in history). There’s a masterful Big Country style penetrating guitar motif running through this that just makes me smile. Musically this stands out from the album, still overblown but really strutting with this Wagner rock as the operatic choir take it all the way home in fine style. By contrast ‘Fairer Than The Sun’ is a far more subtler ballad, as progresses, being the tale of a girl that’s either prize or needing to be rescued. Alongside the acoustic guitar playing is a melody on what sounds like a violin but may be a Scandinavian keyed fiddle. The chugging riff of ‘Shadows in The Night’ is syncopated with hefty “Whoah-whoahs” hurled out by the choir before moving into a bass beating AOR with cutting guitars played over alongside other time changes veering towards prog then brought back by guttural death growls. For anyone whohas read Bruce Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom series of novels, particularly the early ones this one’s for you.
That Scandinavian keyed fiddle is joined by kettle drums and slow moaning building towards an eerie like jig on acoustic guitar that seems to favour those folk modal tunings Jimmy Page took from the likes Bert Jansch for the next number ‘Rulers of Wind And Waves’, a song that’s mainly instrumental until near its end. Whereas a might “Huh!” leads us into ‘Fires In The North’ with heavy chords fleshed out into a strident riff with symphonic sounds, and then a more AOR beat where Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ is somewhere submerged as influence as Siirala sings her heart out, intercut by more hefty shouts of “Ho!” Bearing the same name as the EP she first sung on with the band this may well be a familiar track to Leaves’ Eyes fans.
Sign of the Dragonhead ends with the aptly named ‘Waves Of Euphoria’. There’s a slow build or harmonised vocals then it shifts into double time barging away with choir in full flight, drums beating loud and Krull giving it some growling boogie intercut by Siirala’s sweeter tones. Presumably its keyboards that offer the essence of a New Romantic touch but the guitars also rise to the occasion doing that harmony thing and evoking Wishbone Ash and Black Rose-era Thin Lizzy before a full-on Iron Maiden style battle charge as they go Hela-for-leather; this epic ending as if it were a battle won with drums and choir sounding out loud.
Leaves’ Eyes’ Sign of the Dragonhead may well be the Game Of Thrones equivalent of that old Bucks Fizz single ‘Land Of Make Believe’ but who cares what guilty pleasures we partake of as long as we’re not hurting anyone else. Mad but far from bad, there’s much variety and pleasure to be found throughout this symphonic rock album.
- Sign Of the Dragonhead.
- Across The Sea.
- Riders On The Wind.
- Fairer Than The Sun.
- Shadows in The Night.
- Rulers of Wind And Waves.
- Fires In The North.
- Waves Of Euphoria