Blood on Ice

There is a fine line in the world of folk metal - a line that exists between the realms of intricately-crafted resplendence and overblown, directionless concepts further burdened by tacky keyboard effects. By its very nature, the tendency towards the grandiose and the flamboyant is often unavoidable yet when implemented well, the results can be captivating.

Certain instruments are accepted rather than expected within the genre but, if not utilised in the right ways, can heighten the sense of the outrageous, especially when the instruments themselves are replaced by less-than-realistic synthesised sounds. Germany's Finsterforst are a band who walk the line almost perfectly - think the enchanting semblance of early Moonsorrow coupled with Hammerheart-era Bathory's riff-heavy, chant-fuelled Viking metal - the hulking production values accentuating the sense of the majestic amidst striking melodies and commanding horns.

The aforementioned keyboard effects are not only present but govern and control the music, yet the songs are performed with such confidence that these elements are there to be embraced rather than cringed at. From their early, more extreme incarnation through to the sprawling charisma of their more recent folk-inspired persona, Mach Dich Frei takes the evolution heard on previous album Rastlos and opens everything up as if the protagonist on the latter's cover had found exactly what he was yearning for.

The progression from previous albums sounds natural, and yet this is an altogether different kind of beast to Rastlos; the songs are noticeably more focused, the individual elements more finely crafted and the melodies - whether guitar-driven or controlled by Johannes Joseph's exceptional skills behind the accordion - are wrought with proficiency and genuine songwriting talent.

There is a hunger within the seven members of Finsterforst that is palpable here like never before. The ambition is plain to hear; the album title speaking volumes as the figure on the cover art breaks through the ice in a ravenous frenzy and, whether intentional or not, it serves as an apt metaphor for the overall feel of the album.

Entering with arguably one of their most well-written and well-rounded pieces thus far, Schicksals End shows off the band's maturation in a conglomeration of insatiable riffs and cleverly constructed melody. The album rarely wavers as it continues; the songs more than justifying their lengthy existence by not only packing in an array of styles and ideas, but by being fully realised as consummate arrangements in their own right via expertly structured, masterfully executed pieces of music. Zeit fur Hass and title track Mach Dich Frei! are impeccable examples of what Finsterforst have achieved here - the feeling of elation undeniable as the pounding drums dominate the pace, all the while surrounded by melodies not merely intertwining the songs, but rather defining them.

In what is becoming somewhat of a tradition, the album ends with a post-twenty-minute grand composition that encapsulates all that the septet have built themselves up to - an effortlessly engaging lesson in songwriting that moves between lush guitar leads, multi-vocal chanting, gripping folk stylings and dynamic heavy metal aggression.

Finsterforst's bull-in-a-china-shop take on folk metal is less than delicate, yet the sheer quality of the music combined with the intense strength and conviction behind it not only saves Mach dich frei from a bargain-bin fate, but also finds itself unreservedly triumphant in delivering over an hour of enthralling atmosphere and orchestral pomp. Finsterforst have never sounded more alive, and their desire to deliver their art has never been greater.