A few weeks ago, I went to see Insomnium live here in Houston, on their opening slot on the Epica/Alestorm North American trek. It was my first time seeing them, and was the culmination of many months of anticipatory buildup for me, as I’d only really awakened my interest in the band this year through their excellent recent release “One For Sorrow” (that much to my shame, I missed upon its initial release in 2011). As the days drew nearer to the show, I was listening to the band’s entire discography on heavy rotation, at home, in the car, on the Ipod. There are few things better in metal than being able to see a band live during the period where you’ve just gotten into them, everything’s still a bit fresh, and that new found listener passion is still there. It makes the experience of seeing them live that much more powerful.
Insomnium were inspired live that night, playing in front of what I suspected was a larger audience than they really expected (the show started late and most of the Epica fans were already in attendance, a packed house actually). They only played six songs but the audience to the side and front of me were reacting as if they were the headliner — headbanging, throwing up the horns, hair flailing, sweat drops flying off in every direction, and shit eating grins pasted on our faces as I’m sure we made menaces of ourselves to the politely patient Epica and Alestorm fans that did their best to get out of the way. It was a great night, and I jammed them on the way back home as well — I couldn’t get enough. Still can’t.
Symmetry is an interesting thing. Alongside Insomnium, lately I’ve been finding myself listening again to albums by one of my favorite and now long defunct Finnish bands, Sentenced. I realized that the album that introduced me to those manic Finns was 2002′s The Cold White Light, a near perfect collection of songs that I can still listen to all the way through to this day and feel the same magic that I felt back in ’02. As such, there exists a neatly wrapped decade’s worth of time separating my introduction to both Sentenced and Insomnium, two Finnish bands that share more in common that just my personal anniversaries. What I loved about Sentenced was their ability to create beautifully melancholic melodic metal that despite its occasional tongue-in-cheekiness, could be extremely emotional at a very deep level. It wasn’t even about the lyrics, which were simple, effective and poignant, but more about the sweep and scope provided through the songwriting, and the uncanny ability of how something as normal as a guitar melody or solo could evoke feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Their songwriting could be poppy and hook laden to be sure, but still weighty, heavy and definitely not something that could be mistaken for light, alt-radio-rock. It was far too dark for that, there was a pervasive sense of gloom that permeated songs like “Killing Me Killing You”, “Drain Me”, “Cross My Heart and Hope to Die”, and “No One There”. Despite that feeling, those songs were filled with lyrical and musical beauty — take the latter for example, an elegiac pronouncement of remorse for an estranged relationship, and the reality of isolation, abject loneliness, and the feeling of despair at facing the prospect of life and death alone. Its buoyed along with melodic guitars, and an almost positive sounding chorus, yet it is perhaps the heaviest song the band ever wrote, its emotional weight immense.
Sentenced were a remarkable band, underrated to this day and worse of all, they seemed to call it quits just as they were achieving great things artistically. Their 2005 release. The Funeral Album, was their swan song and it was every bit as awesome as its predecessor. Miika Tenkula, their lead guitarist and primary songwriter, was the heart and soul of the band — and it was his voice that underscored nearly every song they wrote. When he passed away in 2009, only thirty-four years young, I hardly found it shocking to read that he had a serious drinking problem that apparently got worse after the band ended. The raw emotion and pain within their music had to really come from somewhere true — sadly that is. I wondered if there would ever be a band that could provide me with that particular fix that Sentenced so effortlessly delivered. There is — I believe their countrymen in Insomnium are the spiritual successors to the musical legacy that Sentenced chose to leave behind.
Granted, Insomnium’s distinctly unique take on melodic death metal is a distinctly differing style from the crunchy, hooky metal of Ville Laihiala-era Sentenced, but the two bands share an essential atmosphere and spirit — perhaps something found within the Finnish personality itself. This time of year, as autumn colors itself everywhere, I typically long to listen to music that is perhaps a touch more sombre, earthy, gritty, and yes, melancholy. I find within tracks such as “Weighed Down With Sorrow” from 2009′s Across the Dark, an ethereal, haunting feeling as lead guitars seem to weep out melodic passages that convey far more emotion than any lyric could possibly hope to. Primary songwriter and guitarist Ville Friman seems to have this stuff in his blood — his guitar part that kicks in at the 3:20 mark of “Lay the Ghost to Rest” off One For Sorrow is breathtaking … its sheer simplicity; a wailing lonely guitar solo that ushers in a crushing wave of relentlessly heavy guitar riffage in one supreme, emotive sweep is the kind of watershed moment that you’ll hit repeat on a seven minute long song for without hesitation. His interplay with fellow guitarist Ville Vänni on that album’s title track, a slow, moody, tribal drum beat led doom monster is not only delicately intricate, like the best moments between Izzy and Slash, but displays a level of artistry that rises above the typical Maiden-esque guitar approach found in most melodic death metal (read: Gothenburg).
Setting aside music for a second, these two bands share similarities in other aspects of their art. Their booklet pages for The Cold White Light and The Funeral Album are filled with gorgeous photography of desolate arctic desert, serene Finnish countryside, the final booklet page of the latter featuring a photograph of silhouettes of birds in flight — striking when you consider the album art for Insomnium’s One For Sorrow. The overall art direction of both bands in terms of sleeve design and packaging, as well as other media such as music videos shows a tendency to lean towards understatement, and refined elegance — as well as a predilection to juxtapose songs full of complex human emotion against the backdrop of the simplicity of nature. I’m not sure this is on purpose, but regardless for some primal reason it really ties both bands together for me, and if its noticeable to a newcomer to Insomnium like myself, I’m sure others who have enjoyed both bands for awhile now have picked up on it too.
If you have never listened to Sentenced, or are even later getting to the Insomnium party than I am, you’d do yourself a favor by remedying both of those issues immediately. Both bands’ discographies are all over Spotify for free even, so you really have no excuse. If you think that what sounds like depressing listening isn’t really your cup of tea. then I again suggest listening to both bands. One more thing they both share is the inexplicable presence of what can only be inadequately described as a positive edge to their music — not in a dopey way, but in that sense that through listening to music that explores these types of emotions and sentiments, there’s a release or catharsis provided that you might not get in trying to cheer yourself up by listening to… I don’t know, Accept’s Russian Roulette (as stupidly fun as that album is). Both Sentenced’s and Insomnium’s elegiac, haunting lyrics and crushing, heavy power will break through you to expose those simple, deep, universal human emotions that most of us keep hidden, while simultaneously reassuring you with an indelible melodic sweep.
So they’re finally here, two new albums from perhaps two of the more radical leaning metal bands out there today. Radical here means pushing the boundaries of their genre, redefining their sounds over time, pissing people off, you know the drill. Pissing people off? Oh yeah, in fact I’m hard pressed to think of a band within metal that consistently manages to confuse, baffle, and alternatively delight their fanbases apart from maybe Opeth. Enslaved’s RIITIIR and Therion’s Les Fleurs Du Mal are both the follow-ups to 2010 predecessors, but dates and timing aren’t the only things they have in common. Both are albums that have already met with sharply divided opinions, from fans and critics alike. I don’t normally like to read reviews of albums that I myself am about to write about, preferring to go in with an clear head, but the extra time I felt I needed to process both of these records resulted in my curiosity getting the better of me. Now I’ll weigh in on both of them to tell you if I come down on the side of love or hate or worse!
Enslaved – RIITIIR: I’ll be honest about the low expectations I had for this album, as I firmly believed that there was no way that the band could top what they had done on 2010′s Axioma Ethica Odini, an album that hit me with the force of a grizzly bear and left me happily dazed in a modern black metal stupor for weeks afterward. I quietly thought that the album was a refreshing move away from its prog-drenched predecessor Vertebrae back into more visceral, impact-heavy black metal territory. Perhaps it was the unexpectedness of it all that made it even better — the band did get a lot of praise for Vertebrae after all, and it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see them continue in that vein. Now this being the follow-up to Axioma, I wouldn’t have been surprised in the least to see them attempt a part two of that album, in the same aggressive, up-tempo vein… I expected them to really. But Enslaved is nothing if not surprising lately, as RIITIIR sees the band heading once more into prog-influenced soundscapes and slower tempos, in fact its not a stretch to say that the majority of this record is mid-tempoed.
Depending on your temperament and patience for that sort of thing, this album may come across as plodding and at times meandering. But I’ll argue the opposite, and say that this is just as sharp a set of songs as those on Axioma, albeit with obvious differences in the brutality department. Unlike Vertebrae, which really did come across to me as largely unfocused and hell, just plain boring — the songs on this album boast memorable melodies, clever hooks, and the best clean vocals on any Enslaved album to date. Opener “Thoughts Like Hammers” is the most meh thing on offer here, excitingly fast at times yes but the chorus isn’t as striking as whats to follow such as on the excellent “Death in the Eyes of Dawn” and “Veilburner” — where Larsen’s expressive, emotive clean vocals elevate the songs into a sound that I can only describe as depressingly uplifting. “Veilburner” is the best of the two, Grutle’s awesome grim vocals set against the albums heaviest splash of stop-start riffage, juxtaposed to a killer chorus that has the album’s best refrain “I found myself crawling, looking for an out”. I can’t emphasize just how great the clean vocals are on this album — and considering that they had been in the past a bit of a weak spot (certain songs notwithstanding, such as “Isa”), the fact that I find myself humming them in my head long after I’ve ceased listening to the album is saying something.
I love the swinging riff in the title track, and the build up to that awesome pay off mid way through the song where Grutle barks over a bed of clean vocals chanting “Hail the flames inside you”. The absolute masterpiece of the album however is “Materal”, an epic track where thundering AC/DC-ish drums pound out an opening drawl from Larsen that sounds more akin to Alice in Chains than Enslaved. This startlingly different melodic passage recurs alternatively between ugly, soaring black metal tremolo interludes, building up into the album’s most awesomely bizarre moment ever, a Guns N’ Roses-esque wailing guitar solo that seems so surreal you’ll be checking the album booklet to make sure Slash isn’t guesting. The tribal drum laden, Grutle-led assault that immediately follows is the most headbangingly awesome moment on the record, a satisfying series of differing elements that combines to great effect. If I had to pin down the most striking feature of this album, albeit just one thing, it would have to be the greater presence of rock guitar — there’s not a lot sound wise here that will remind you of classic black metal sounds, or even classic Enslaved sounds really.
This album has met with some rather surprising criticism, I’ve seen it called everything from meandering and unfocused, to pretentious and a product of trying to do too much. I guess I understand where those opinions are coming from, because I could have easily seen myself dismissing this album upon my initial listen perhaps if my expectations were for something else. But my expectations when I first hit play were pretty much nothing but a clean slate, I didn’t know what I wanted or hoped to hear, and maybe that was the best thing that could’ve happened. Its fair to say that while I don’t love this album, I am highly enthusiastic about it and enjoy it when I’m in a welcoming mood for its strange mix of sounds blending modern rock elements with prog-influenced black metal.
Therion – Les Fleurs du Mal: This is a strange one. You can’t really call it a proper follow-up to 2010′s Sitra Ahra, because well, it isn’t really a proper Therion album. Their last album really was the start of a new era for Therion. Gone were the long tenured Niemann brothers and in were new permanent members Thomas Vikström and Lori Lewis, the band’s first permanent vocalists. While their additions to the band were welcome, the music on Sitra Ahra was widely inconsistent, a few good songs amidst a sea of unfocused filler — not to mention that band leader Christofer Johnsson was headed back into a more prog-driven direction, as opposed to the almost pop-oriented rock and metal of the great 2007 Gothic Kabbalah album. The lack of the Niemann’s presence on guitar and bass was felt deeply, and the whole affair just seemed messy and unfocused. I was looking forward to see what this new look Therion could do on their second try, but apparently, a new “regular” Therion album will be years away as Johnsson has stated that he’s working on a real rock opera that will apparently take many years to compose. So where does that leave a proper follow up to Sitra Ahra? Well…either far, far in the future or right now with Les Fleurs du Mal, depending on your perspective and willingness to accept this truly bizarre, as described “art-project” of an album.
A word of forewarning: This album does not contain original material as written by Therion. Instead, it is a collection of covers of French chansons done up in the Therion style. You know what I mean, Edith Piaf type stuff, French women crooning about lost love and regrets, that sort of thing. Sound interesting? It is. Let no one call this album boring and unoriginal. Hate it or love it Therion is breaking new ground here, as this is truly something I can say that I’ve never heard before, much less envisioned hearing. And here’s the kicker, its actually really goddamned good. Yes these are Swedes singing in French, so you’ll have to get past that right away. I’ve seen some criticism from European fans discussing the vocalist’s deficiencies in French pronunciations… as if most of us could notice? Leave it to the internet to provide us with people who could bitch about anything. One thing struck me right away after a few listens to this record: Even though these are all covers of French ballads, the band really diversifies their approach to all of them and the result is an album that ranges from fast, aggressive metal, to delicate balladry, to songs with almost danceable waltz-y melodies, to slow, doomy dirges that recall to mind Candlemass (seriously!). The variety on display here is what really makes the album fun to listen to.
There’s some truly beautiful music going on here, such as on the clear stand-out track “Une fleur dans le cœur”, which Therion adds haunting acoustic guitars and synth driven strings to create a swelling, nostalgic sounding ballad thats interspersed with metallic guitar flourishes. The female singing on this track is gorgeous, and while my years of French in school don’t help me in understanding much about the lyrics, there’s a pathos going on in the inflections of the vocal that is really moving. “Initials B.B.” has the most striking and memorable musical refrain, an orchestral motif that is repeated over and over throughout the track, only spaced out by bits of rock riffing and a lazy French female vocal that seems to be more dialogue based than anything. Its weird but it works. I absolutely love the ultra-melodic guitar driven melodies that lace together “Dis-moi poupée”, they remind me of traditional Therion funnily enough and honestly this track wouldn’t have felt out of place on the classic Vovin or Deggial albums. There’s a lot of highlights here, more than I should probably list, but if I had to pick the weirdest one that actually works, it would have to be “Je n’ai besoin que de tendresse”, a cover of the sixties French pop singer Claire Dixon’s biggest hit — the original being a bouncy, sugary pop number that sounded like it was sung by a fifteen year old girl. Here Therion transform it into a super fast, metalized rocker with wild vocals (from whom I believe is Snowy Shaw but can’t be sure), the songs shimmering melody morphed into a really awesome riff.
This album was apparently too out there for Nuclear Blast, Therion’s longtime record label. I can totally understand why they passed on agreeing to an idea like this. They gave the band their permission to release this on their own through independent financing and according to Johnsson himself he took out a 75000 Euro bank loan to pay for the project. By releasing it independently, the band has assured that all the proceeds from sales will go back in their pocket, and I hope they sell enough to cover the costs. I’ve also read through non-official sources that this album is part of a larger art project that is tied together with the work of French poet Charles Baudelaire, hence it being named after a collection of his poetry — so maybe there’s more to the Les Fleurs du Mal project that we haven’t seen yet. While I applaud the effort and clearly am having fun listening to this thing repeatedly, I gotta wonder out of mild curiosity, with Johnsson’s announcement that this will be Therion’s last tour in a long while, how the hell is this guy going to pay his bills let alone recoup the costs of the bank loan?
For Therion fans, this is the last new music we’re gonna get from these guys in a long while, so I urge an open mind before going in to listen to this album. There’s a lot to enjoy here, just brace yourself.