Graveland’s viking metal period started out with a blast. The first three albums each consist of epic riffs, textured keyboards and glorious melodies that vividly depict stories of battle and/or folklore. While the core elements are the same, each album employs them in an original manner, developing its own identity. Immortal Pride is big and bombastic with massive orchestral synths dominating the soundscape. Creed of Iron is similarly epic, but opts for a more riff oriented, aggressive sound. Memory and Destiny deemphasizes the militant themes and creates a beautiful, lush soundscape that revolves around oceanic folklore. With 2004’s The Fire of Awakening Rob finally ran out of ways to reemploy the style. The riffs are cookie cutter and the songs are overlong and bloated.
Rob must have recognized that the style had become stale, because Dawn of Iron Blades contains some fairly significant changes. Dawn of Iron Blades is the most aggressive album of Graveland’s viking metal period. While there is still a fair share of melodic passages, there is way more attacking passages than usual. There are far fewer keys than on most of Graveland’s earlier albums and in general the soundscape involves far fewer elements and layers. The keys are truly a background instrument and Rob is willing to let them disappear for long stretches of time. There are even some piercing banshee wails that supplement Rob’s signature dry rasp. (These wails are definitely the best contribution Dawn of Iron Blades has to offer, though they will be better employed on the next album, Fire Chariot of Destruction.)
Unfortunately, all these changes do not manage to resuscitate the struggling Graveland project. The problem begins with the production, which is just awful. The sound is extremely flat. Graveland have suffered from weak production in the past but never to this degree. The shaky, weak tone of the guitars is especially bad. Considering that the goal of this album is to create a more violent atmosphere, the weakness of the guitars is a major issue. Here we are with these pounding drums and spiteful vocals, but the guitars are as thin as rice paper! The epic passages sound equally poor. The guitars lack the force to sweep the listener away.
Beyond the production issues, Dawn of Iron Blades suffers from a general dearth of standout songs. While there are a number of decent riffs scattered throughout the album, none of the songs are truly engaging from start to finish. Most of the time, the songs feel aimless. They flounder for two or three minutes before stumbling upon a nice riff or synth line only to fade back into the nebulous fog of mediocrity.
While Rob Darken can be complimented for not making the same mistake twice, making two different mistakes once isn’t a whole lot better. Dawn of Iron Blades avoids the predictable sound and generic songwriting of The Fire of Awakening, but instead suffers from poor mixing and sloppy songwriting. Ultimately these flaws are even more damaging than those of the previous album and as a result Dawn of Iron Blades earns the title of worst Graveland full length to date.