Label: AFM Records
Author: Kira L. Schlechter
I’m a sucker for history, particularly European history starting at around the 10th or 11th century. Historical fiction is my thing. Historical albums, however, are a bit less familiar. But for LEAVES’ EYES, they are comfortable territory.
They’ve trodden around that exact time frame in history with albums like ‘Vinland Saga’ (about Leif Erickson, in 2005) and ‘King Of Kings’ (about Norway’s first king, in 2015). Now we have ‘The Last Viking’, which tells of Harald Sigursson, Norway’s king from 1046 to 1066. He served as a mercenary and commander in Kievan Rus’ and of the Varangian Guard in the Byzantine Empire. He attempted to claim the Danish crown and failed, and died in his attempt to take the English crown at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. Historians called his death the end of the Viking Age, hence the album’s title.
And as they are accustomed to doing by now, singer Elina Siirala, singer/songwriter Alexander Krull, guitarist/bassist Thorsten Bauer, bassist Micki Richter and drummer Joris Nijenhuis have condensed a huge swath of events into easily digested pieces. Nothing here is dragged out or too long — these are precise, carefully drawn little vignettes in Harald’s story that contain both minute detail and sweeping statements. It’s not in chronological order, and that might be a little confusing, but the band says in the bio that the action here occurs as Harald lays dying and his life flashes before him. So it instead touches on portions of his life in random, scattered order, in keeping with that idea.
After the instrumental intro ‘Death Of A King’, which definitely has a funereal feel, the action begins with ‘Chain Of The Golden Horn‘, the story of Harald’s escape from Constantinople across the Bosphorus (the Golden Horn is the main inlet of that strait). Iron chains had been strung across the strait to prevent entry or escape, and the song includes that detail (“Run up to the line / Made of iron strong”). “One ship burst in two / Only one ship made it through” — that ship was Harald’s, of course.
It’s set to a frantic pace that definitely hints at escape, with a decidedly Celtic lilt in the hectic chorus. Throughout the album, Elina acts as a somewhat dispassionate narrator of the action and in some ways, her pure, operatic soprano reflects that — there’s not much variety in her voice, but that might be intentional considering her role as observer. Alex acts as Harald, his defiant roars reflecting the personality of the stern, often violent king.
The details included in each track are just enough to tell the story without bogging it down — here we hear how Harald got rich in the emperor’s service (“Glowing gold decks, king’s hand / Got plenty in this land”) and we learn about the overthrow of Emperor Michael V (“Great emperor in the strife / He was made stone-blind”; it’s said Harald blinded Michael V himself). They also make sure to use the Norse names for locations (like Miklagard for Constantinople, for instance) for historical accuracy, which is a great touch.
The band itself has enough crunch and presence to power through the heavy classical arrangements. These are well-paced songs that start with a melody or a riff that’s carried throughout and expanded upon or pared down as needed, making for continuity and consistency.
‘War Of Kings’ depicts the fraternal war Harald became involved with that cost him his life. That between Harold Godwinson, king of England, and Harold’s upstart brother Tostig. Elina delivers gruesome lines like “Skulls will shatter by swords” in her dainty, delicate soprano (in a way, you can imagine a Valkyrie would sing like this), while Alex’s masculine, staccato bellows reinforce Harald’s defiance (“We seek no lee… No skulking head / No bending knee”). More carefully curated details reference Harald’s ship, Ormen (or Serpent, as in “Serpent spreads fierce misery”), and “Hild’s bloody field” (Hild is a Valkyrie, the personification of battle).
Just so you didn’t think all Harald did was wage war, there’s ‘Black Butterfly’, a soaring chapter depicting Harald heading to claim his love, Ellisiv, daughter of Yaroslav The Wise. Again you get that feel of being at sea, not just with the words, but also the tempo, like he is anxious to see her. Guest vocalist Clémentine Delauney of Visions Of Atlantis alternates with Elina as perhaps the personification of Ellisiv.
‘Serpents And Dragons’ is about Harald’s naval combat for the Danish crown against Sweyn (the Jutland king), and it too has that rapid pace that echoes the battle, the choir acting as Greek chorus as it repeats the refrain “Brave Stern / With the sword in his hand / Jutland king / Can’t skill withstand”. At the turning point of the battle, though, the music changes too, becoming darker and almost sorrowful, as if to say there is no glory in the aftermath of war (the whispered lines “Upon the wave his vessel drives / All his brave crew had lost their lives”, saying even the enemy are people too), but it returns to the main theme as Harald savors his victory.
The smart, punchy groove of ‘Dark Love Empress’ again echoes the action — it’s a single-minded chant or mantra, the repetition of the mission (“After the midnight hour / Keep going, keep going”). Empress Zoe kept Harald imprisoned because she wanted to marry him (he refused), and this is from the perspective of those who freed him. But there’s a point where we hear her voice too, it seems, when Elina sings, “You were coming out of the deep dark/Like a spear into my cold heart”, her voice soaring in sympathy and a sense of loss. Her final run through the chorus is stellar, her voice rich and honeyed, bending notes with ease.
The brief interlude of ‘Two Kings, One Realm’, a warning of trouble to come (“In the North / Blazing kingdoms / Fire storms / Raging towards”) leads into ‘For Victory’, a kind of laundry list of Harald’s military accomplishments — from his first battle at Stiklestad in Norway (he was 15; his brother Olaf was killed, he was badly wounded) to his service in Rus’ and his success there (“Brave Norse king to Russia gone / As brave as him on earth is none / His sharp sword carves many feasts / To ravens in the East”, as poetic a line there as any skald).
The exchange of lines between Elina, Alex and the choir in the chorus, punctuated by the orchestration, is the best part, it’s potent, crisp and catchy as hell. However, Elina’s voice could be brought up more in the mix, because she gets a bit lost amid the choir, the orchestration and Alex’s vocals — it’s a lot to get past and the production should have helped her.
Harald’s exploits in the East are noted in the lilting battle march ‘Varangians‘, sung mostly by Alex and accompanied by male backing singers acting as the army — when they chant their war cry, “Til Kamp Vaeringjar” in unison, you can literally see them marching with spear and sword. Elina does her part as narrator and cheerleader (“We fight / We are warriors of the night / All men together / Once and for all”) with the men in a track that’s much like Hammerfall’s ‘Heeding The Call’ (from ‘Legacy Of Kings’ – 1998) in spirit.
And ‘Serkland’ (a reference to the Saracens, the army of Islam in the Crusades) has a certain Eastern flair and a potent swing, and again there’s great detail as Alex as Harald boasts, “80 strongholds are fallen /Serkland stormed by pagans / Scimitars crush on sword blades.”
‘Flames In The Sky’ recounts another colorful moment in his career — the “Avian air force / Battalion of the birds” refers to Harald tying burning wood to the legs of birds and releasing them during the siege of a town. When they flew back to their nests under the thatched roofs of the buildings, they burned. It’s a story within a story — there’s a lovely bit of musical tension midway as he sees his challenge (“Walls too strong / There’s no way of breaking through”), figures out what to do (“He is sending bird catchers upon Sicilian woods”) and eventually gets his surrender (“Strong castle stands in flames / Now beg for mercy / To the master of the place”).
A few songs serve as premonitions, perhaps, as Harald’s doom approaches. ‘Night Of The Ravens’ led by Elina’s eerie vocal, is a precursor to battle (“Our king who feeds the ravens (kills our enemies) / Our fate lies in his hands”). The theme of the raven comes up again in ‘Break Into The Sky Of Aeon’, a perfect lead-in to the final track. Alex as Harald sees his end (“Now feed the ravens / See Valkyries ride / Fallen Einherjar” (one who has died in battle whom the Valkyries will take to Valhalla), but the music becomes more upbeat and almost triumphant at the end as Elina sings the title line. But again, she could be louder here if she is indeed serving as the Valkyrie’s voice.
The 10-minute title track begins with a war horn to echo the opening line, “Hear the war horn sound”. It’s beautifully paced and plotted from start to finish, from the army’s arrival in England to the beginning of the battle at Stamford Bridge, where Harald has the upper hand. The music changes to acoustic, building suspense, then the solo section becomes more frantic as the tide of battle changes (“Arrows and thrown spears / Assault on the Northmen”) and Harald knows he’s in trouble. More subtle details add further color to the story, like “Armour bare, Hardrada strikes” (he fought as a berserker, without armor). Elina acts again as narrator/Valkyrie/observer, announcing the various changes in action, and finally as the voice of doom (“Call, where brave men fall,” she sings before Harald dies, “Gold-tipped arrow in windpipe” — he was killed by an arrow to the throat). Alex as Harald knows his time is near (“It’s the time of the last Viking”) and describes his own death and the last stand of the Norsemen. He gets the final word at the end and rightly so — he is the perfect personification of the king.
History buff or metalhead, there’s much to enjoy about ‘The Last Viking’ and LEAVES’ EYES‘ adept, concise storytelling.