King of Kings is the sixth studio album from German-Norweigan symphonic and folk metal band, Leaves’ Eyes. Formed in 2003, the group is fronted by former Theatre of Tragedy singer, Liv Kristine. Her gorgeous, soft melodic vocals are accompanied by the death-growls of her husband, Alexander Krull, whose band Atrocity form the remainder of the line-up:
Liv Kristine Espenæs Krull: clean vocals
Alexander Krull: keyboards, growls
Thorsten Bauer: guitar, bass
Pete Streit: guitar
Joris Nijenhuis: drums
The lyrical content of Leaves’ Eyes albums almost always revolve around Norse mythology and Viking history, and King of Kings is no different. This is a concept album about the life of Harald “Fairhair” Hårfagre, the first King of Norway, whose naval victory at the Battle of Harsfjord in 872 united Norway into one country. The end result is quite simply stunning.
- King Of Kings
- Halvden The Black
- The Waking Eye
- Feast Of The Year
- Vengeance Venom
- Sacred Vow
- Edge Of Steel (feat. Simone Simons of Epica)
- Blazing Waters (feat. Lindy-Fay Hella of Wardruna)
- Swords In Rock
The album opens with the introductory track ‘Sweven’, which is an old Norse word for “dream” or “vision”. With its gorgeous folk opening, fiddle, harpsichord-sound, steady drumbeat and Norweigan lyrics, the title seems completely perfect as we are transported back in time to Harald’s childhood. It runs seamlessly into the album’s title track, ‘King of Kings’, which quite frankly is the best symphonic metal song I have heard in a long, long time. Whilst ‘Sweven’ served as an introduction to this track, ‘King of Kings’ serves as an introduction to the album itself, introducing the concept and themes of what is to come. Continuing in the vein of its predecessor with dream-like chimes and percussion, it then storms through with stirring choirs in the form of the London Voices choir. The symphonic elements from the White Russian Symphony Orchestra positively soar alongside Liv’s pure, faultless vocals and Alex’s understated growls. The effect is absolutely outstanding.
Things turn up a notch for ‘Halvden The Black’, a song about Harald’s father (there is some debate as to where the ‘Black’ in his name comes from, whether it be his hair colour, the colour of his skin or the ice-covered river he drowned in). The opening bars and battle-chants remind me a little of the soundtrack to Skyrim (an RPG video-game by Bethesda, 2011). The choir and Alex’s growls are much more prominent here, conjuring dramatic images of death and destruction. The effect is very exciting, and bound to be a lot of fun to hear and play live… I have a ticket to their upcoming gig at the O2 Academy, Islington on 10 November, and I can’t wait!
The next track, ‘The Waking Eye’, starts out as though it is going to be a lovely ballad with Liv’s beautifully soft vocals but soon develops into something a little more mid-tempo. ‘The Waking Eye’ has a slightly Eurovision feel to it and although it’s not a personal album highlight, I think it is one of the more accessible songs Leaves’ Eyes have put out. It was the lead single from the album and it’s a good choice because the breakdown is surprisingly heavy, which acts as a good taster for the overall sound of King of Kings.
The fifth track ‘Feast of the Year’ is a short, pipe-ridden interlude that leads into the rousing, galloping riff of ‘Vengeance Venom’. This is a celebratory-sounding Viking feasting song that invites the listener to fill up their drinking horn and go dance around the mead hall. The lyrics however tell of a disagreement between Harald and his father over some stolen food and a Sami suspect, whom Harald saves and in turn earns the trust and aid of the Sami people. Despite cries of ‘vengeance, venom, pillage, plunder!’ this song has such an infectiously joyous feel to it, and is another personal album highlight.
‘Sacred Vow’ brings us back to a more symphonic, epic sound with a truly great sing-along chorus. The lyrical content deals with Harald’s proposal of marriage to Princess Gyda Eiriksdatter of Hordaland. She refused and demanded that he first become the sole ruler of Norway. In dedication to his cause, Harald gave a sacred vow to cut neither his beard nor hair until he had fulfilled Gyda’s wishes, hence how he came to be known as Harald “Fairhair”. In ‘Edge of Steel’ Harald makes good on his vow and goes to battle against all those who oppose him. Here I think is where the album falls down a little for me. I was really excited to see from the track-listing that Simone Simons was to provide a guest vocal on this song, however considering how soft and light Liv’s voice usually is compared to Simone’s powerful operatic soprano, it’s actually really very difficult to pick her out (hint: from what I can hear, she alternates with Liv during the verses and sings alongside her during the chorus). In fact, if I didn’t know Simone was there, I would never have known! This was a big disappointment for me, and overshadowed my perception of the track as a whole, but it been growing on me since.
Things slow right down during the truly beautiful ‘Haraldskvæði’, a song based on a poem of the same name which consists of a conversation between an unnamed Valkyrie (handmaids of Odin who conduct slain Norse warriors from the battlefields to Valhalla) and a valravn (a supernatural raven of the slain). It is a homage to the fallen warriors of battle, and the soft pipes in the background alongside the chants of the London Voices choir give it a distinctly Lord of the Rings feel (which makes sense as the London Voices choir also worked on the Lord of the Rings soundtrack).
The climax of the album and Harald’s life comes in the form of ‘Blazing Waters’, which features spiritual chanting from Lindy-Fay Hella of Nordic-folk band Wardruna before morphing into a heavy medieval-sounding track with some truly fantastic electric violin, crashing guitars and aggressive, haunting vocals. Every symphonic metal album has an ‘epic’ song on it that lasts a bit longer than the others, and this is King of Kings’ one, telling the story of the great Battle of Harsfjord. At this stage for me personally, it’s not the most memorable or standout of tracks, but that may simply be a matter of simply getting used to it and unpicking all the layers. It does have an absolutely gorgeous ending though with some more ambient vocals from Lindy-Fay. In fact whilst writing this review it has grown on me massively already.
The albums closer, ‘Swords In Rock’, is named for the monument of the same name (or Sverd I Fell in Norweigan) erected in 1983 as a monument to the Battle of Harsfjord, bringing us back to the modern-day and the present. With sword-slash sound effects, cheesy wolf howls and a galloping fiddle perhaps a little overly reminiscent of ‘Vengeance Venom’, this light-hearted fun track is on the face of it an odd way to end such an intense listening experience as King of Kings, but makes sense I suppose in the context of looking back through history.
I’ll be honest, I seem to have missed out listening to a load of Leaves’ Eyes albums between their third album and this one. In fact I’ve only ever heard two of their albums before – Lovelorn and Njord – and so I’ve always associated them with making soft, beautiful music to fall asleep to. This album is so much more epic and dramatic than I could ever have hoped for and I absolutely love it. I definitely need to check out some of their more recent releases.
Truly stunning, and one of my favourite albums of the year so far.
Leaves’ Eyes official website:
Fancy a listen? Check out these officially-released videos of some of the tracks reviewed above:
Official websites of guest musicians: