12/12/2008 - Review by: Etiam
When Equilibrium released their 2005 debut, 'Turis Fratyr', they were met with applause and surprise in equal measure. The applause was for the album's confident songwriting while the surprise was twofold--that 'Turis...' was only a debut and that Equilibrium were from Germany, not Scandinavia. Though hardly the first Germans to take up pagan-themed metal (see: Falkenbach), Equilibrium's peppy leads and boisterous riffing were techniques usually the domain of Finnish groups. In the three years since, bands such as Ensiferum, Wintersun, and Turisas--all Finnish--have all exploded in popularity as European and American audiences alike devour their unabashedly grandiose hymns of pagan prosperity. Newly signed to one of Europe's largest metal labels (Nuclear Blast) and with their name already made in the underground, Equilibrium were in a perfect situation to capitalize. In the months since 'Sagas' release, the nearly unanimous opinion is that they've delivered quite the crowd-pleaser.
Opener 'Prolog auf Erden' ('Prologue on Earth', possibly an allusion to Schönberg) sets the album's tone in an instant, but still lingers for more than three minutes, skipping through every cliche of metals epic, Viking, and the aforementioned Finnish. The three tracks that follow are the album's most immediately memorable, and each adhere to the same basic formula: palm-muted triplets, gliding double bass, a catchy hook repeated early and often, and enough key(board)s for a kingdom. Intermittently, Equilibrium will interrupt the tremolo Finnish worship with a handful of swung rock rhythms throughout, such as the brief pentatonic interlude in 'Snüffel', while the slower 'Die Weide und der Fluß' also attempts to mix up its riff and rhythm formulas. Both efforts at variety are only realized in passing, however, and 'Sagas' overall vibe is ultra-polished and a thousand years removed from the era to which its title refers. Nonetheless, it is at first irresistible.
Equilibrium's use of vernacular is also commendable in a genre where English remains dominant, despite lyrical themes of European or tribal dominance. Equilibrium's are relatively non-denominational, tending more to 'volkslieder', naturalism, and the unexpectedly trivial 'Snüffel'. All are delivered in a harsh spitfire from vocalist Helge Stang, whose delivery (pauses for breath be damned) also owes much to the Finnish scene and is the perfect fit for this style. With few chants and no clean choruses to be heard, Stang mixes up his approach with low growls of a similar timbre. Thankfully, the whispers heard on the debut are avoided altogether.
So, if it's professional and entertaining, what's not to like about the new Equilibrium? It is the bane of authentic folk metal bands the world over, and for each positive feature of 'Sagas', there is a nagging consequence that makes it impossible to fully enjoy. For the sake of listenability, the mix has been so streamlined (i.e. compressed) that Stang's vocals lose their edge and take a docile place in the middle of the mix. This same flaw applies to the majority of the instrumentation: bass drums are muffled, guitars are static, and the bass is negligible. The only consistently prominent instrument is the keyboard of René Berthiaume. Whether mimicking an accordion, pseudo-tribal panpipe, or the good old orchestra hit, René's frolicking hooks dominate 'Sagas' and render it too one-dimensional.
'Sagas' is also excessively long, spanning nearly 80 minutes. The eighth track, 'Heiderauche' is a two minute instrumental that could have capped off a taut, 37-minute clinic, but instead it segues into the album's indulgent and superfluous second movement. Admittedly, these latter tracks do more to depart from the derivative first half, but the songwriting simply isn't as strong. Though Equilibrium push through 'Ruf in Den Wind' or the 16-minute instrumental 'Mana' with the same infectious energy as 'Wurzelbert', the riffs are played out and the hooks far less memorable.
As a result, the impression 'Sagas' leaves is saccharine and superficial. Passages like the break in 'Blut Im Auge' before the blast (3:34) are almost reminiscent of 80s groups like Aha or Europe; René's involvement with SpiRitual, another quasi-folk metal project from Germany, comes as no surprise. In a vacuum, this pop version of pagan metal would be a fun ride without reservation (perhaps even more), with its stronger moments being quite commendable indeed, but unfortunately today's scene is not that insulated. Though one could argue that Equilibrium is not so far a cry from the bands they emulate, the small distinctions between them cannot be overlooked. As folk and pagan metal bands of legitimate bearing continue to be overlooked and under-appreciated, popcorn groups like Equilibrium make bank on adolescent fantasy inconsistent with the ideology they claim to espouse.
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