Fans of Leaves’ Eyes have no doubt been anticipating the full album premiere of new frontwoman Elina Siirala, and she certainly doesn’t disappoint. With a vocal style that could be compared more closely to Tarja Turunen than former Leaves’ Eyes lead Liv Kristine, she immediately establishes her own identity within the band that both opens a new era, while respecting the continuity of what went before. What went before has been variable however, and unfortunately ‘Sign of the Dragonhead’ has more in common with a weaker album like ‘Njord’ than the classic ‘Vinland Saga’ or first-rate ‘Meredead’. Like ‘Njord’, ‘Sign of the Dragonhead’ seems to miss many opportunities for greatness, overall feeling like it’s been held back by something, though it’s never quite clear what.
The album opens with the title track, immediately setting an epic and grandiose precedent that is perhaps more reminiscent of Sirenia than Leaves’ Eyes. The Folk Metal element is strong in the cadence of the track, and throughout the album is more apparent than in some prior releases. While it’s certainly a dense track, the composition seems to feel more on the messy side than the full.
Across the Sea feels more traditionally Leaves’ Eyes, while also injecting more of the Folk vibe. One can imagine Kristine singing, but at the same time the track clearly has Siirala’s voice in mind, and she sounds the perfect fit for the band in this almost Nightwish-esque track. One of the more entertaining tracks on the album, it’s bouncy and even easy to dance to.
Like a Mountain is slower and heavier than the two previous tracks, particularly with its downbeat, piano-driven intro. In its slower mood, it fits in well with the tradition of heavier Leaves’ Eyes songs. However, it’s definitely one of the songs that doesn’t quite seem to seize the potential strength of the moment in its chorus, missing the mark in a way very similar to many of the tracks on ‘Njord’. Unfortunately, while she’s very powerful, Siirala’s voice doesn’t have the pathos of Kristine’s in the quiet moments.
Jomsborg is a thumping Northern track, not necessarily in the Scandinavian tradition, but certainly in the Anglo – it has a feel that’s Irish or Scottish. It’s a fun track, but still has that sense of reticence that plagues most of the album.
The Northern feel continues in Volva, but steps down a notch into a sound that’s almost like a heavy Mark Knopfler. While a little stronger than some of the previous tracks, it still doesn’t leap out of the speakers. Strings are however well utilised in this track, including solos from guitarists Thorsten Bauer and Pete Streit.
Riders on the Wind is upbeat to the point of being a little cheesy, and is perhaps evocative of Oktoberfest if anything. By contrast, Fairer than the Sun is slow, quiet and beautiful, and a very strong showcase of Siirala’s voice.
Shadows in the Night kicks back into the fast and heavy style of Leaves’ Eyes for a track that is simply catchy, bouncy, Gothic Metal fun. The heavy bridge and Alexander Krull’s growls lend this track a lot more chunk, making it one of the stronger ones on the album.
Rulers of Wind and Waves is a somewhat typical Leaves’ Eyes interlude track, slowly building a tense mood that resolves into something almost tribal. The track is very drumbeat focused with exotic strings and horns, and distant choral vocals. It leads into Fires in the North which bursts out as crunchy, direct Metal. Fires in the North is unsurprisingly the lead single, as it is very accessible while being grand, powerful and uplifting. While for Symphonic Metal fans it will hardly be a revelation, if every track on ‘Sign of the Dragonhead’ reached this level, it would still be a significantly stronger album.
Waves of Euphoria is the album’s obligatory eight-minute epic, and from its slow, almost Pagan start, it kicks into heavy guitars and fast, powerful drumming on the part of Joris Nijenhuis. Waves of Euphoria is expansive and grandiose, and gets quite heavy with the sections Krull leads. There is a stronger balance between Krull and Siirala in this track, and it’s much to the song’s benefit. The guitar solos are enchanting and fun, and the song drops into a drum-led build-up into the final blitz of Metal, first led by Siirala, then the full Alexander Krull assault before the track resolves into the lilting, yet still heavy focus on Siirala and Krull’s climax.
There are two bonus tracks on the deluxe edition of the album, and why they weren’t included on the standard release is frankly a mystery. Both are strong tracks that could have been swapped with almost any on the regular album to its advantage.
Beowulf is fast, dramatic and celebratory, a pumping and energetic track that includes the best instrumentation on the album; in fact, it may well be the best song on the release outright.
Winter Nights on the other hand leans towards the traditional, or Folk Metal-based mood, while still retaining plenty of well-paced heaviness. This isn’t the first time Leaves’ Eyes have relegated strong tracks to obscurity – for example, Heal only made it to the deluxe edition of ‘Vinland Saga’, while Skraelings languished as a B-side on the ‘Legend Land’ EP. Old habits die hard, it seems; and unfortunately they dragged down what could have been a better album. However, it’s an enjoyable listen, and doubtless many will look forward to Siirala’s future contributions to the band.
LEAVES EYES’ SIGN OF THE DRAGONHEAD IS AVAILABLE FROM NUCLEAR BLAST HERE!