FinsterforstHad anyone feared that Freiburg’s Finsterforst might have opted for a radical departure from the winning formula of their last album Rastlos, rest easy. Not only is that atmospheric pagan metal sound still fully intact, this might as well be subtitled Rastlos ‘Part Two’, With horns and kettle drums at the ready, Finsterforst have returned to whisk you away once again to those mist-filled valleys, evergreen forests and all overlain with the brooding, martial sound of permanent battle readiness. While the Finsterforst sound clearly has its roots within black metal, it has evolved into an entirely different beast than many of its pagan metal cohorts. Almost to the final conclusion of the pagan metal sound, or at least on one of its many paths, and one that borders on pure ambience despite the soaring solos, mid-paced trad-metal riffs and orchestral arrangements. The resulting anthems and male choir-led choruses are designed not so much to get you joining in as to wash over you and produce a sound across a vast canvas that is likely to be a mouth-watering prospect for any fan of decent pagan metal.

Each track clocks in at around the 10 minutes mark to give the band room to explore those hill top passes and down through battlefields strewn with the recent dead. And while Rastlos managed to help set a new standard for the Finsterforst sound, Mach Dich Frei doesn’t really try to overturn the apple cart hammered together so well so much as continue to mine what is providing them such a rich vein and finding new mother lodes as it does so. The best example I can think of a similar is Moonsorrow, drenched in head-banging riffs but also often complex folk melody. This is obviously more accessible than the darker pagan avenues of more recent Moonsorrow output but with that same ambient, almost pastoral resonance that offers up the whiff of rain-drenched fir trees.

Finsterforst encourages your mind to wander through the forests rather than taking it on a forced march into blackened battle. If you’ve never come across Finsterforst before then just imagine all of the above committed to digital audio by a band who understands how to create a picture in your mind without resorting to cinematic sound effects or narrative. It might be a little too folky and progressive for some with so many of the hallmarks of the aforementioned Moonsorrow and others like Thyrfing and Manegarm. But others might find this answers a question for them that other bands came close to but consistently failed to put their finger on. As to how this compares with Rastlos, well, the production seems a little less harsh, maybe even a bit less black, and in its place is a fuller sound, if that’s possible, with all the rousing tunes you’d expect and perhaps even delivered more confidently than before – a more sweeping statement of the band’s growing confidence. Within that there are plenty of hidden hooks to unearth on closer inspection as well as the more obvious ones such as those now characteristic blasting horns and drifting choruses echoing across the valleys. Do we sense them trying to move away from the pagan metal roots? Hmmm, maybe. And could this staple sound stand another outing on the next release? We’ll just have to see what they come up with. The addition of a 24 minute self-titled Finsterforst track to round things off either suggests the end of a cycle, but who knows at this point.

But for now, you may have guessed, I’m a Finsterforst convert. While I probably wouldn’t rank Finsterforst in the vanguard of pagan or folk metal, it’s one of those bands helping inject some much needed depth into the ranks. Subtle but at the same time as over-the-top as a sledgehammer, Mach Dich Frei helps inject credibility into a scene that plastic sword wavers everywhere would have seen flushed away. Well, by the sound of this, pagan metal is alive and well and living somewhere in a forest East of Baden-Württemberg.

(7.5/10 Reverend Darkstanley)