I don't do very many album reviews- this is maybe my third so far- but I do try to listen to new albums by bands that I care about as often as I can. One of my favourite bands ever is the Faroese band TYR, whose music is an oddly eclectic and very skillfully done collection of original songs, adaptations of ancient Norse legends, and great covers of old-school metal songs.
TYR is a band that defies easy categorisation. They play what sounds to most people like power metal, yet they don't sing about swords, sorcery, or dragons. They play A LOT of songs about Vikings and Norse legends, yet unlike most Viking metal bands there is no death metal growling- Heri Joensen's vocals are clean, powerful, and very solid- and their production values, especially these days, are first-rate; their albums sound great. They sing songs in their native Faroese, so one would be tempted to think of them as pagan metal- and yet they also sing the majority of their songs in English, with some Icelandic and Swedish songs thrown in to the mix just for variety. They also play with vastly more technical skill than a lot of pagan metal bands- their songs are often mid-paced groove-crushers, with odd time signatures and some of the best dual-guitar work you'll hear this side of classic old-school JUDAS PRIEST.
Their discography is also a bit weird. Their first album, How Far to Asgaard, is in my opinion completely unlistenable. It's slow, boring, and almost completely devoid of interest or emotion. (Heri Joensen wasn't doing vocals on that album, so that might explain it.) The follow-up, Eric the Red, was much better, with a lot more emphasis on melody and songwriting. Then along came Land, and that album is amazing, particularly the epic 16-minute title track. Ragnarok displayed yet more of that eclectic tendency that they've always had, mixing in pagan metal anthems with complex reworkings of ancient Norse sagas and eddas. By the Light of the Northern Star and The Lay of Thyrm might be considered more "traditional" metal albums, but they are exceptionally melodic and well-produced examples of what a band at the peak of its powers can do. These latter two albums mark a transition for TYR, away from its original folk-metal sound and towards a more straightforward double-kick-based power-metal sound. This shift is made all the more dramatic with this new album, because longtime drummer Kari Streymoy is no longer with the band, and instead George Kollias (one of the best death metal drummers out there) is filling in on the skins. The difference in both style and technicality of the drumming is remarkable.
Now we come to their sixth album, Valkyrja. Like Ragnarok, this is a concept album. Unlike its predecessor, which is a concept album about, well, Ragnarok- a subject that has been done to death and back by Lord only knows how many metal bands- this album is a bit more cerebral. It is a concept album about a man who falls in love with a Valkyrie, one of the Norse angels of death who determine which fallen warriors on the battlefield are worthy to sit with Odin in Valhalla. He leaves his wife and home to pursue his love, as the album tells his story- albeit in very oblique fashion- through 11 well-crafted and highly melodic tracks.
The album kicks off with a reasonably fast-paced crusher of a track, "Blood of Heroes", which relates very well the Norse philosophy of a beautiful death in battle. The second track is a little weird- "Mare of my Night" is a dark, ripping track full of great riffs and odd lyrics about sex with a very scary woman. It's a bit of an acquired taste, is all I'm saying. Things get back on track with "Hel Hath No Fury", which kicks the speed up a notch and really delivers great riffs, great lyrics, and some great guitar work from Joensen and Skibenaes.
The only really off track on this album has to be "The Lay of Our Love". Now, I don't care who sings them- I don't much like ballads. There are exceptions- "Light the Universe" by HELLOWEEN, perhaps, and several great NIGHTWISH and AFTER FOREVER tracks come to mind. But in general, I don't have the time or patience to listen to this sort of sappy nonsense. And this ballad is no exception. It doesn't matter how good Liv Kristine and Heri Joensen are as singers, they just can't make this sound anything other than boring.
The next track, "Nation", doesn't really fit into the concept behind the album, but it's a solid, pounding mid-paced anthem even so, dedicated as it is to the people of Iceland and to someone who I can only assume is a departed comrade and friend. "Another Fallen Brother" is the kind of track that TYR really excels at making- a mid-to-fast-paced melodic anthem with hard-driving riffs, great vocals, and powerful lyrics. "Grindavisan" (The Ballad of the Grind) is a track sung entirely in Faroese, and is a short but interesting aside within the narrative of the story that TYR are telling.
"Into the Sky" is where TYR returns to their melodic power metal roots with a song about a dying warrior awaiting judgement by the Valkyries. Definitely one of the best tracks on the album. Then we go back into folk-metal mode with "Fanar Burtur Brandaljod" (The Sound of Swords Fades), another folk-style track which nonetheless has a crushing riff and some great guitar work.
It is the last two tracks of this album that really make it worth buying and listening to, though. "Lady of the Slain" might as well be a thrash metal track, given its speed, heaviness, and power. It's one of the best tracks this band has ever produced. But it is the final, title track that makes this a great album. "Valkyra" is a seven-minute epic of a song, which I've been listening to virtually every single day since I bought the album, and it is simply perfect. It's dark, brooding, melancholy, and yet thrashes like mad over some phenomenal drumming and guitar riffing.
If you bought the deluxe edition, there are also two cover songs which are well worth the extra price. TYR's cover of the Greatest Band of All Time's classic "Where Eagles Dare" is not as good as the original- it's amazing to think that Nick McBrain came up with that drum pattern 30 years ago and someone like 20 years younger than him, who drums much much faster, cannot do better- but it's still a great cover version of a legendary song. And TYR's cover of the brooding, monolithic PANTERA classic "Cemetery Gates" is, in my opinion, even better than the original.
If you like a band that offers a lot of variety and an unusually melodic take on power/folk/Viking metal, then I strongly recommend checking out TYR. These guys are without question one of my absolute favourite bands and I can't wait to see them play live again next year.
Didact's Verdict: 4/5, a couple of weak songs let down an otherwise phenomenal new offering from a great band.