Stalwarts of the Viking metal scene Månegarm are back with their seventh full-length and a little surprise in store for long-term fans. As the title Legions of the North suggests, these sons of Sweden have laid aside their habit of singing in their native language and penned this latest ode to Viking culture (by Odin’s beard!) in English. I can only imagine two main reactions from the fans. One, that we no longer have to learn a second language to sing along with this particular Viking metal band; and two, an uneasy feeling in the stomach as we examine the shrink wrapped package hoping this has all been done for the right reasons. They have dabbled before (a couple of songs on Dödsfärd) and arguably it shouldn’t matter, but in the realms of Viking metal it’s seen by many fans and bands as something of a badge of honour. A bit like using harsh vocals – using your native tongue sends out all sorts of signals. It’s very black metal for a start and singing in Swedish is, well, a very Viking thing to do! Moreover it forces the audience to think a little more about what they are getting themselves into. But, in a bid to spread the word, perhaps, and no doubt with their eyes open to the impact it might have on various levels, they have shrugged off such concerns and, with the help of Napalm Records, fully unleashed their brand of pagan heraldry on an English speaking world.
I suppose all this would be worth making a real issue of if the opening six minutes of this release alone were not enough to set the hairs on the back of your neck on end. The result of the past four years of touring, rumination, new label and no doubt watching bands with less craft and originality getting all more attention than they deserve on the live circuit, Månegarm have repackaged with a somewhat bigger punch. Less subtle, definitely – rather like a mace compared to a deftly-used sabre. Perhaps in taking a more direct approach to the sound some of the creases and quirks have been ironed out – and perhaps a little too much in places. Legions of the North is not as quintessentially Viking metal as some of their past releases (the excellent Varstenen), not as raw as others (Dödsfärd, for example) and certainly not as black as the early stuff (Havets Vargar). The whole approach to Legions of the North has been to round those rough edges, introduce some firm foundations into the song structures and pump the entire sound with as many sinews and red blood cells as possible. The gigantic choruses have been mixed with chunky, buzz-saw metal riffs; some hairy folk melodies and a bit of chest beating power metal shot in the arm for good measure. In fact, this is, even without the language factor, the band’s most accessible album to date. Legions of the North clings on tightly in places to the old character (Forged in Fire is surely for all the old folk metal fans) and the black metal vein still runs deep (on sixth track Tor Hjälpe fopr example). But tracks like Sons of War and Hordes of Hel, to name but two, are the sound of a band preparing to play to a wider audience – a few more festivals here and there, perhaps. Not just the usual pagan metal ones but maybe those where it might be good to have a few ready-made crowd pleasers to throw in when the opportunity requires them.
The whole sound reminds me a little of the jump Napalm label mate Kampfar did with their last album Mare. The production is similar but both managed largely to adhere to the essence of their original sound while moving most definitely towards a package that is inescapably wider in its appeal than just a died-in-the-woad pagan metal crowd. Legions of the North may well divide opinion but that just provides the metal world with another entertaining side show. The majority of fans will accept it for what it is: a release that once again marks them among the harshest, blackest and most gifted of the northern, fur-clad legions. In English or in Swedish, Månegarm have always been in the top flight of pagan metal bands and this latest release does everything to further set them apart from Europe’s horde of pagan metal pretenders.
(8/10 Reverend Darkstanley)