In 2018, Leaves’ Eyes gave us Sign of the Dragonhead, and now they are back with the conceptual epic The Last Viking. AFM Records delivers the grand finale to their Viking saga on Friday, October 23, 2020.
When Leaves’ Eyes are the subject at hand, you know to raise your drinking horn and get ready to head out onto the high seas for adventure. Formed in 2003, and known for their topical affinity toward Norse mythology and Viking epics, the German-Norwegian Symphonic Metal outfit has seen its fair share of lineup changes throughout the years. But these determined artists have refused to allow anything to stand in their way as they’ve dished up seven massive albums—ranging from 2004’s Lovelorn to the aforementioned Sign of the Dragonhead—all while touring every populated continent on the globe.
With their eighth full-length studio offering, The Last Viking, the quintet offers the conclusion to an informal trilogy whose initial chapters appeared in the form of 2005’s Vinland Saga and 2015’s King of Kings. Now, for their newest 14-track LP, Leaves’ Eyes—Vocalists Elina Siirala and Alexander Krull, Guitarist/Bassist Thorsten Bauer, Guitarist Micki Richter, and Drummer Joris Nijenhuis—return to the monumental atmosphere inspired by their previous works for a historical undertaking.
While they’ve previously explored Leif Eriksson’s discovery of America and the life of Norway’s first king, for their latest, Leaves’ Eyes turn their focus toward the end of the Viking age, marked by the death of the last Viking king, Harald III (a.k.a. Hardrada), in 1066. As he lies dying on English soil, near Stamford Bridge, Hardrada’s life flashes before his eyes: one that is marked by power struggles and war, journeys to exotic lands, and encounters with powerful women. It is this moment, lying atop the bloodied earth, that begins the tale of The Last Viking as listeners experience “Death of a King,” a cinematic overture that sets the mood for the epic that follows.
It is a story that lyricist Krull promises is historically accurate, not an embellished History Channel narrative meant to appeal to our modern sensibilities. And yet, the LP could easily serve as a screenplay for a dramatic historical adventure fraught with emotion, bloody battles, and wicked women. The latter of which can be found on “Dark Love Empress,” a tale of the vengeful Byzantine empress Zoë. Beautifully emotive piano opens the darkly haunting offering, which displays its sonic strengths within its lofty choruses.
But it is war and strife, not evil empresses, that rule throughout. At the front end of the LP, there’s the aptly-titled “War of Kings” and the mystical mood of “Serpents and Dragons.” With blast beats and incendiary guitars holding down the latter, Krull and Siirala battle for supremacy in this symphonic look at Hardrada’s naval combat for the Danish crown. Later on, “For Victory” embraces triumph amid seriously shredding guitar licks, atmospheric synths, Siirala’s operatic vocals, and Krull leading the charge toward victory.
Of course, there is plenty more throughout The Last Viking. “Two Kings One Realm” provides a languid build into the body of the track, offering a cinematic echo of “Death of a King.” Meanwhile, straight-up rocker “Varangians” flashes an enchanting folksy intro, “Serkland” delivers lush layers, and the entire band rocks out for “Flames In the Sky.” A standout, the beautifully-crafted symphonic experience of “Night of the Ravens” allows Finnish soprano Siirala to shine.
To rewind back, the first proper Metal track of the LP, and another shining star, can be found in the Pagan hymnal “Chain of the Golden Horn.” Here, the quintet’s characteristic ‘Beauty and the Beast’ vocals from Siirala and Krull lead a multi-layered experience as they chronicle Hardrada’s dangerous escape from Byzantium. Much later in the collection, they travel into the dark dirge of “Break Into the Sky of Aeon,” another noteworthy moment thanks to its careful combination of the very best elements of Leaves’ Eyes.
There is, too, the album’s sole feature guest, French Vocalist Clémentine Delauney (Visions of Atlantis, Melted Space, Exit Eden, ex-Serenity), who appears on “Black Butterfly.” A dual vocal flight starring Delauney and Siirala, with Krull chiming in for effect, the track offers a taste of the ethereal. However, no singular offering is quite as bold as the album’s titular, 10-minute epic, “The Last Viking.” Beginning as an instrumental that lasts nearly three minutes, the song eventually picks up with Siirala and Krull, who ultimately commands his troops to deliver some of the LP’s finest guitar work, heavy atmospherics, and plenty of drama.
Yes, it’s a lot to digest all in your first sitting, and that’s why The Last Viking will require repeat visits before listeners can fully grasp the epic grandeur of this undertaking. But if you love witnessing history brought to life, Leaves’ Eyes once again prove that they are the masters of the Viking epic translated into Symphonic Metal with a respectful appreciation for Folk instrumentation when applicable. Overwhelming in its historical scope, but truly a work of art, Cryptic Rock gives Leaves’ Eyes’ The Last Viking 4.5 of 5 stars.