I’ll Pretend Its Autumn: Insomnium’s Shadows of the Dying Sun
Finland’s melodic death metal brush artists Insomnium are perhaps my most beloved metal “discovery” within the past few years. I stumbled across them some time after the release of their 2011 album One For Sorrow, an elegiac, melancholy touched masterpiece. I think its easy for writers to throw that term around often, it happens quite a bit within metal reviewer circles —- but I really mean it in relation to that album. I was transfixed by every note within, and when I worked my way backwards through their discography, eagerly devouring the similarly styled Across the Dark (2009) and the noticeably more aggressive Above the Weeping World (2006), my appreciation for the band grew stronger and deeper. By October of 2012 I had my first opportunity to see the band live, who had an opening slot for Alestorm (the very idea) and Epica. I’ll never forget that show, I wrote earnestly about my experience that night in an admittedly unnoticed article published later in December of that year that discussed the musical links I traced between Insomnium and Sentenced. Reading it over now, I wonder why I didn’t discuss how deeply I felt connected to the band’s music that night, even on the drive to and from the venue, racing along the highways while staring out at a rapidly darkening, grey-clouded autumn sky. I’m not a religious person for the most part, but something spiritual was going on that day, it was as if Insomnium’s music was painting in the world around me as I perceived it.
After Insomnium had played, I thought I might stick around for Epica since I’d coughed up over twenty bucks for the ticket, but Alestorm made me throw in the towel, and I headed outside into the cold night chill. I was walking towards my car and had to move around one of the nightliner tour buses parked outside, and as I rounded the corner I walked past a couple guys that looked familiar. I stopped after a few steps while craning back to look at them, only realizing after my eyes had adjusted to the dark that I’d walked past Insomnium. There they were, all four of them, just casually hanging outside like they hadn’t just put on one of the all time great live performances that I’d ever witnessed. I sauntered over to them and we all said hellos and shook hands, and we began to converse about the typical things —- how they liked the audience, how was the tour going, etc. They were quite friendly, seemingly rather surprised that some fan had apparently only come to see them play, and they talked at great length. At some point during this conversation, I remember just actively realizing what a vivid impression their music had upon me in various ways that day and its a memory haze blur as to how exactly I told them of this, but I did. I think I behaved like a normal human being (fairly sure), but I briefly let them know, and they replied with genuine appreciation. They shook my hand again after hearing of it, and I told them good night. When I got in my car and pulled out onto the road I felt invincible, and that somehow for a few hours that night, the world made sense to me.
I tell you all that not only to rectify the lack of detail in that older Insomnium/Sentenced article, but to express to you just how deep my personal roots have grown with this band. I’m writing an album review on the surface, but I’m almost pained to write one for fear of deconstructing the album past the point of —- well, the way I want to enjoy it. In keeping with the way I handled my previous review, for Sabaton’s Heroes, I’ll just come right out and declare this: This is a great Insomnium record, filled with the kind of emotionally charged songwriting and artistry that we now expect from the band. But then haven’t I already expressed that I felt their past three albums were great? Yes I have, and if that nullifies any sense of relative objectivity for you then I’m sorry. And really, what else can I say? This is a band on a roll, with an unshakeable sense of identity and a musical nucleus of guitarist/vocalist Ville Friman and vocalist/bassist Niilo Sevanen that is perhaps the strongest in melodic death metal since the Stromblad-Gelotte pairing during the classic In Flames era.
Speaking of identity in particular, Insomnium weren’t preternaturally gifted —- their first three albums were made of good, solid melodic death metal with some certain flashes of brilliance; you can see retrospectively that some unpopped kernel was there, trying to figure its way out. It happened with their fourth album, Above the Weeping World, their first truly great record where they began to trickle in this flood of musical melancholy —- a robust sense of definable emotion that was inherently very Finnish. Their next two albums, Across the Dark and One For Sorrow fully revealed the extent of this transformation —- all traces of Gothenberg removed from their take on melodic death metal as the band’s songwriting had transitioned away from being built around riffs. Instead they created songs by first painting with melodies, even allowing vocal melodies to carry the weight of choruses through clean vocals; there was a sense of space, of delicacy, and of musical texture. Tempos were slowed, there was an noticeable eagerness in their wanting to craft songs with unorthodox rhythms and percussive patterns —- they were in short redefining what melodic death metal could sound like.
Those albums also seemed to be the apotheosis of that particular avenue for the band in that I regard them as musical siblings, they share musical and structural commonalities and seem to fit together —- so much so that I suspected it was unlikely that they’d attempt a third repeat performance. In confirming my hypothesis, Shadows of the Dying Sun is as much a departure as it is a continuation of its immediate predecessors. It is simultaneously a further exploration of the softened melodic brush strokes of Across the Dark and One For Sorrow as it is a throwback to the sheer brutal intensity of Across the Weeping World —- and its a near faultless marriage. I’m not sure whether or not it was a conscious decision, but the band have definitely increased the tempos and aggression on an almost album wide basis. There’s a songwriting move back towards sharp, tight melodic riffs while still keeping the new-era layers of expressive clean guitar melodies. The semi-introductory track “The Primeval Dark” is a big hint towards this trajectory, with its soft atmospherics serving as a tension heightening backdrop to the marching, grinding, half growled/half instrumental passages that act as a build up to the kickoff of the album proper.
That kickoff being the multifaceted “While We Sleep”, which starts off with some melodic vocals courtesy of Friman before transitioning into Sevanen’s monstrously deep death vocals, all while Friman and fellow guitarist Markus Vanhala create beautifully swirling guitar patterns juxtaposed over sharp, cutting riffs. I love that the mid-song guitar solo here isn’t kicked off in a wild Scorpions-esque electric overdrive, but builds slowly, with gently fluttering acoustic guitar chords that usher in a vivid electric guitar solo sans distortion. Its just one of the ways in which Friman is a thoughtful composer, he could’ve really gone for the big Slash-styled moment there, but tempered it back in accordance with the credo of only giving the song what it needs at any given moment, and in keeping with the tone set by his pensive lyrics. As we segue into the final outro where Sevanen growls the despairing lyric “We need to slow down, so I can catch you / We need to slow down, so you can catch me”, the lost wild rock n’ roll guitar solo finally shows up and its a stunningly expressive emotional release —- one of my favorite moments on the album. Looking at these two songs as a pair its worth noting that they’re keeping in the tradition of the past three Insomnium albums having similarly styled one-two punch opening combos.
The next two tracks, “Revelation” and “Black Heart Rebellion” are as starkly contrasting as day and night; the former is a dreamy blend of acoustic guitars and slower, patient tempos with crescendoing clean electric melodic runs, Sevanen’s vocal performance at times softening to a near spoken word whisper. Its a startlingly spiritual lyric at work here too, a Sevanen penned hymn that seems to touch on the Cosmos-themed concepts of being aware of one’s own place in the universe, that “This is the gift of man / The key to see it all / The hidden wonders / Hope in despair”. Alternately in both music and lyrics, “Black Heart Rebellion” is perhaps the most punishing and brutal track on the album, with its black metal like flurry of near tremolo riffs, blastbeat percussive tempos, and Sevanen’s vicious growling about the parallels between “Morning star, angel of the dawn” and “Desolate is the path of self-believers”. Yet Friman still writes in moments of space for quiet melodic reflections, such as Vanhala’s hushed solo at 4:53 —- the kind of thing that is such a distinctive Insomnium signature, their musical calling card if you will. The lengthiest track on the album is the similarly black metal-touched “The River”, where I love the way the guitars anticipate the vocals by a fraction of a second at the 1:27 mark and the resulting effect crackles with excitement. Those stately verse sections unleash into a tremolo riff fueled chorus section with some surprising melodic change-ups.
The untarnished gem on this album is “Lose to Night”, a song with an achingly beautiful chorus and note-perfect encapsulating verses. This is my most listened to song on an album that I must have spun at least a few dozen times by now, its the track that practically bleeds out the core musical identity of this band. Everything about it is perfect to me, from its tribal-esque intro drum patterns, to the circular guitar melodies within the verses where Sevanen growl-speaks about a litany of regrets, to Friman’s shining clean vocal performance in the chorus with that delicately hook laden vocal melody. I love that during said chorus, subtly buried in the mix is an electric guitar gently echoing Friman’s vocal melody beat for beat, along with Sevanen’s distant growls adding just the right touch of stormy intensity. I love that its a song about the decay of a relationship, but Friman’s prose is sparse and interpretative enough for it to apply to any circumstance —- the narrator could be speaking to his parents, or his sibling, or his past. I love that instead of associating a barren heart with romance, Friman dishes a curve ball by singing “No more fear in me / This heart’s stone inside”, while adding that “Every day must lose to night / Fade and die”. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this here but these strike me as very Finnish in their inherent nature —- slightly gloomy yes, but beautiful sentiments despite their despairing tone. I think back to my article linking Insomnium and Sentenced, and how these lyrics could have found their way onto The Cold White Light.
I have other favorites as well, “The Promethean Song” being chief among them, its chiming acoustics and slow tempo-ed bed of bass heavy guitars preceding a Sevanen/Friman vocal trade off where the latter opens up his pipes to higher ranges than we’ve seen from him before. He sounds good, really good actually, and he knows how to write vocal melodies that suit his tone (a rare skill in guitarist first songwriters). I adore the bridge section that occurs at the 4:00 minute mark with accented drumming, Sevanen’s harshly barked out vocals and perhaps the album’s best guitar solo. Then there’s the title track serving as the album closer, its a bass driven, rumbling beast of a song where heavy guitars suddenly swing up and crunch down to usher in a rather inspired Sevanen / Friman vocal duet on the refrain, “And I feel it in my heart / And I know it in my mind / That’s all there is, ever will be”. Its another song where Friman ruminates upon the stardust-y nature of our existence, a sentiment I entertain myself with on occasion and feel rather connected to. Incidentally, Friman makes his rent by working a day job as a scientific researcher, so if you’ve been wondering at the inclusion of science meets spirituality themes within the lyrics, that goes a long way towards explaining it. And of course there’s “Ephemeral”, which we heard late last year as a standalone single, and its dressed up here in a few more layers of guitars and production work, but still sounds just as vibrant, fresh, and ear wormingly catchy as it did originally. It features my favorite lyric on the album, “Dying doesn’t make this world dead to us / Breathing doesn’t keep the flame alive in us”, and its a rarity among Insomnium’s catalog —- a truly anthemic song.
I’ll curb this now to prevent it from being a track by track dissection, its already more review than I ever wanted it to be. On a personal level I’m still just allowing myself to experience the album as a continuum where the band’s musical sound palette affects me on a raw emotional level. That’s the kind of thing that I’ll never really be able to express within the context of a review, and its where the large majority of my enjoyment of Insomnium comes from. I was asked by a friend who was eager to hear the album how I thought it stacked up when compared to One For Sorrow, and apart from mentioning the obvious uptick in aggression and overall heaviness, it was a question that I really couldn’t answer. I loved One For Sorrow not only because I thought it was a masterpiece, but because it was the album that reintroduced me to this band and made me a devout fan, and because the music on that album came to me at the perfect moment in my life when I was receptive enough to appreciate it. That’s a lot for a follow-up album to live up to, and that’s why I’ve chosen not to compare Shadows of the Dying Sun directly to it —- its a beautiful, inspired album on its own, and that’s enough. I’m sure that others won’t have a problem giving a more objectified opinion, but there’s a fine line I’m walking here in regards to discussing personal connections to a band’s work. Music can often serve as a mask, a way for you to have your feelings expressed without opening your own dumb mouth. There’s that Oscar Wilde quote, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”