My first impression of King of Kings, the upcoming album from Norway’s Leaves’ Eyes, was that it was not as impressive as 2013’s Symphonies of the Night. Whereas that album packed a punch right from the start, with fast, heavy guitars and a plenitude of harsh vocals accompanying Liv Kristine’s soaring soprano, King of Kings starts out more tamely. However, it gets going in the second half.
King of Kings is a concept album about Harald Fairhair, the first king of Norway, who is credited in the Norse sagas with unifying various Viking kingdoms into one. The album’s intro is fittingly dramatic for this topic, with cinematic symphonics, warlike chanting, some touches of folk melody, and ominous words spoken in Norwegian.
The intro is followed by the very grandiose but rather slow-paced “King of Kings,” which has an epic Nightwish-esque beginning, with swells of symphonic harmonies and operatic vocals, but then becomes softer during the verses. The vocals here are Liv Kristine’s typical light and airy soprano, lovely but not very intense. The album finally gets going with the third song, “Halvdan the Black” (about the father of Harald Fairhair). This song is heavier and faster than the previous one, with more harsh vocals and guitar riffs that keep things energetic even during the verses. But then the next song, “The Waking Eye,” is another slower song, although it does have some epic choral moments and catchy vocal hooks.
It’s after this that the album really picks up in intensity. “Feast of the Year” serves as a folksy intro to the energetic and catchy “Vengeance Venom.” This song has more of a folk/Viking metal sound than the band’s usual gothic-symphonic style, with a bellicose, danceable chorus. The next song, “Sacred Vow,“ is thundering and epic, and Liv Kristine delivers high, plaintive vocals (sharper and more intense than her usual dreamy voice) that give the song an emotional intensity, bringing things back into the realm of gothic music. The high energy continues with “Edge of Steel,” which begins on a dramatic, warlike intro with bagpipe flourishes. Then heavy, rocking guitar riffs start up, to be joined by a lively folk melody and theatrical choir. As usual, things quiet down a bit for Liv Kristine to sing, but not for long – guitars and harsh vocals are injected into the verses, followed by a fist-pumping chorus. After all that fighting music, the softer vocals and folk melodies of the ninth track, “Haraldskvadi,” are a welcome break.
Things aren’t over yet, though. The tenth song, “Blazing Waters,” is my favorite song on the album. It starts out softly with distant, ethereal vocals and bits of folk melodies, then builds a little with pounding drums and a chanting choir – then just over one minute in, it takes off with racing guitar and crushing harsh vocals. During the chorus, Liv Kristine’s soprano soars above the maelstrom. Not knowing much about Norwegian history, I can only guess it describes the burning of ships in a battle on the water. The urgency of the guitars, the punishing, harsh vocals, and the operatic drama nicely capture the frenzy, brutality and tragedy of battle.
A softer vocal outro segues the listener between that intense experience and the much lighter final song. The album closes with “Swords in Rock,” a very catchy folk metal reel with a shout-along chorus of “Hey, hey, hey, hey, swords in rock.” It’s such a light-hearted song after all that drama that I’m guessing it’s tongue-in-cheek.
Leaves’ Eyes takes a novel direction with this album – while incorporating folky touches into their music isn’t new for them, the energetic folk/Viking songs found here are a departure from their usual sound. King of Kings is a very different album from the dark, angsty, heavily gothic Symphonies of the Night. Though it’s also a little less powerful, it’s by turns fun and moving once it gets going, and vividly brings to life a significant episode of Norwegian history.