Yeah I know. One month into this 2017 journal experiment and I missed my first deadline at the end of February, I knew it would happen at some point, just hoped it wouldn’t be till later on. So, a broad recap of those past two months: February was rather quiet music wise, I only reviewed two albums and felt pretty blah about a host of others. I guess sometimes the journal will reflect that there simply wasn’t a lot to talk about metal wise during certain parts of the year. Unlike 2016 where the early months were packed full of new music, 2017 took its time getting going, with the majority of my attention being devoted towards releases from March. That most of these have been from new (to me) bands is particularly interesting, and hopefully a trend that continues throughout the year.
Speaking of 2016 however (that year that just won’t go away), it may not have been lost on some of you that I had never written a review for Amaranthe’s Maximalism that came out in October. I remember that we ended up talking about it vaguely on the MSRcast as well as its sister podcast Metal Geeks, but that was the extent of my public discourse on a band that I’ve been pretty vocal about supporting, at least in a devil’s advocate/contrarian way (although its probably not too contrarian if I genuinely enjoy their music). Why was this? Particularly when I was so loquacious on their previous albums The Nexus and Massive Addictive. Well Maximalism was a more radical amalgam of Amaranthe’s disparate influences than anyone, including me, could ever imagine, and I’ll admit that my first few listens threw me into a state of confusion. I remember just how uncomfortable the album initially made me feel because my pop-loving self was responding to several aspects of it, but my analytical metal reviewer side was going “No… nope… guys this is going too far…”. I leaned in favor of shelving it until I could clear my decks of other new releases and properly consider it with the benefit of time. Come February, I found myself listening to it anew.
To kill the suspense, I’ll admit up front that the album has grown on me considerably, and while its not my favorite of theirs (that being 2014’s Massive Addictive), it does have enough hooky ear candy to be fun. But I’m weird like that, and have a high tolerance level for the band’s pop inclinations, even when they overwhelm everything else. And wow, was Maximalism full of those (making good on the meaning behind its title); from the Queen meets Gary Glitter stomp of “That Song”, to the most EDM they’ve ever sounded with the Ibiza remix ready “Maximize”. Those two songs represent the spear tips of what has been a further shifting away in sound from as I once described it, a “blend of Euro-pop/American radio-rock with metalcore-lite dressing”, towards a more overtly stadium rock/dance approach. But the rest of the album is more wide ranging than their previous three in terms of every aspect of their sound —- the metalcore tracks are the heaviest they’ve done, the aforementioned pop structured tracks are more hooky and contagious than anything they’ve done before, and the electronic textures that previously would accent their songs have been laid on as thick as possible. Stupid me, the band even advertised this: They called the album Maximalism. Duh.
This 360 degree expansion of their sound makes for a wild and unpredictable album for sure, and also one that will further disgust and appall their critics. We’ve discussed the latter quite often so I’ll avoid it here, suffice to say that perhaps Amaranthe deserve credit for staying in their own lane and not trying out passing trends in hope of catching something that sticks (such as adopting a faux Gothic approach in an attempt to win over Within Temptation/Nightwish fans). But an album like Maximalism is also one that honestly confuses me, as much as I do enjoy it, because I can’t fathom for what audience something like “That Song” was aimed at. Hey I’m not picking on it, it really grew on me after my initial balking at its sheer audacity, but its arguably the most divisive song of their career, and to release it as the first single was a ballsy (and possibly reckless) move. Not only are its lyrics as awkward as a gawky teenager at his first middle school dance, but its hard to know for what audience it was geared towards. Now… I realize I’m making an assumption, being that Amaranthe aren’t simply expressing themselves artistically through which “That Song” was a natural byproduct of that process. But c’mon, lets get real here, it was their first single, and this is a band that does have a sound with the potential to achieve mainstream radio/chart success, and regardless of the band’s own intentions, that much is inarguable. If you haven’t heard it yet, take a listen:
So lets ask the hidden-elephant-in-the-room question: Does anyone think that “That Song” sounds like something that would fly on American modern rock radio? For all its commercial sheen, I think existing formats work against it, and though only the band and their management can confirm whether or not it was serviced to terrestrial/satellite radio as a single, its lack of impact on any American radio chart speaks volumes. I couldn’t even find any concrete evidence of it making an impact on Liquid Metal, SiriusXM Octane, and any other major satellite radio shows. This is a step backwards from the dent they made in 2014 with “Drop Dead Cynical” off Massive Addictive, which actually hit #1 on Octane. It was a single that seemed to strike that sweet spot within the American radio mindset that has allowed a band like The Pretty Reckless to actually have major radio hits (as opposed to just YouTube video views). The disparity between these two songs might seem negligible upon first glance, but if you take another back to back listen to both singles, you’ll get a sense of why “That Song” has failed to be anything but for prospective fans. Now my perspective is limited to being an American based rock/metal fan, who’s observed its rock radio culture for many years as much as possible from the outside in. Why the single hasn’t taken off in the wildly diverse radio markets of Europe, I have no idea, but the fact that it hasn’t should worry Amaranthe and Spinefarm Records.
And then only recently, news came from the Amaranthe camp that clean vocalist Jake E Berg (Joacim Lundberg) was going to sit out the upcoming tours —- not unusual for guys in metal bands with children at home. But in February the break soon turned into his permanent exit, an odd turn of occurrences for someone who was a huge part of the band’s songwriting. I was honestly stunned, because I’ve always viewed Berg and co-founding guitarist Olof Morck as the nucleus of the band, both musically and conceptually. Elize Ryd had become a part of that team in recent years, and judging from statements from Berg himself in a Bravewords exclusive, her increased role in the songwriting team might have edged him out:
The first two albums (self-titled debut and The Nexus) were exactly what I wanted the band to sound like; a mix between those Soilwork-like guitars and melodic Bon Jovi-type vocals combined with a female voice. Different elements combined, but the main thing in the music was the metal base. On the Massive Addictive album it started to change into something else that I didn’t really control, and you can hear the songs that I was more involved in working on are very metal. When we started working on the Maximalism album I found that it wasn’t the Amaranthe I had helped create at the start. It wasn’t my vision at all and I realized that I had to be true to myself.
– Jake E Berg (Bravewords February 8th, 2017)
After I read this interview, I went back through Maximalism only to realize that sure enough, Berg just didn’t seem to be on a lot of the album the way he was in the past. Ryd and surprisingly screamer Henrik Englund were the dominant voices throughout, and it did seem that Berg’s vocal role had been minimized overall. I guess I hadn’t noticed it before because he was on the album’s most prominent tracks, and he has a starring role on “Break Down and Cry”, one of the stronger tracks in the latter half of the album. But to his point, he laments the band’s drifting away from their central metal sound, and while many will scoff (or politely say, that’s debatable) I get what he’s trying to articulate. This doesn’t sound like the Amaranthe of the first two albums, where everything was fused together in some kind of Magic Bullet audio blender —- as I pointed out before, the disparity on Maximalism is very noticeable. Some of these songs are essentially pop/dance songs with guitar window dressing, free from metallic riffs serving as structural song elements. Regarding his take on Massive Addictive being the start of Amaranthe’s musical identity crisis, I’m a bit surprised, because their touching on classic 80s pop/rock on that album (“True”, “Over and Done”, “Trinity”) was a refreshing change up, and he really stole the show on the ballads in particular, his voice hitting emotive inflections you never expected him too. But its his perspective that matters most, and he felt otherwise.
I’ll say this plainly here, but Berg’s departure is a huge blow for this band. Sure, he wasn’t the most powerful vocalist and could sound thin in live situations, but his performances on the albums were always spot on. He has gone on to form a new band called Cyhra with ex-In Flames stalwarts Peter Iwers and freakin’ Jesper Stromblad (the fanboy in me is squeeing), a strange combination for sure but one I’m completely excited for. He has also surprisingly relaunched Dreamland, his old Swedish power metal band that made some minor waves back in 2005 via a pretty decent debut in Future’s Calling (purists will remember this as Ryd’s first time singing with Berg on “Fade Away”). Time will tell how Berg’s departure affects Morck and Ryd’s songwriting approach (if at all), but clearly his decision was unforeseen by even the band members themselves. Ryd seemed genuinely surprised, and the experience has led to her recent interviews being far more revealing and introspective than I’d ever expected to come from her. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but this could simply be a situation where Morck and Ryd found themselves naturally leaning in their more pop centric direction without realizing how it was alienating their songwriting partner —- a natural drifting apart as opposed to something personal or intentional. Either way, its a shame.
They probably don’t realize it, but I think Amaranthe are at a crossroads here. While their accomplishments are certainly nothing to so glibly dismiss, registering only a half a million in total sales over their entire four album discography is probably not as much as their management and label had hoped for. They should’ve been burning up the charts in Germany, but even there they have yet to crack the top 80. In Sweden they have only just hit the top five nationally (keep in mind that In Flames have regular number one albums here). This is baffling, but maybe there’s a lesson lurking amidst the confusion here —- that in creating a sound that could attempt to straddle genre boundaries and reach out towards extremely varied audiences, they under extended in both directions over time. Maybe there was a limit to the number of people who were liable to get hooked in through pop hooks and stay for the heavier end of the band’s sound. And maybe they were just too bizarre for radio programmers to see how to fit them in, and perhaps their overly glossy Patric Ullaeus videos simply turned more than a handful of people off (proving this —- their best video, for “True”, was devoid of Ullaeus’ annoying penchant for glitz and glam). The video for “That Song” features Ryd in dance-pop choreography mode, complete with backing dancers moving in unison, inter cut with Ryd dancing whilst holding headphones to her ear. Its a bold series of visuals, nicely filmed ones at that. But its the kind of imagery that is alien to most young rock and metal fans, imagery that leaves them feeling left out, defeating the point of heavy music in the first place.
Here’s a quick pair of reviews from two bands making their Metal Pigeon blog debut, an unremarkable feat I know, but it does reflect something I’ve noticed about these first eight weeks of 2017. That being that most of the new music I’ve been listening to has either been from bands I’ve never reviewed, or simply bands I’ve never heard of before. It seems like “new” is quickly becoming this year’s theme, as I’ll have a handful of reviews for relatively unknown bands coming in March when a slew of new albums are released, but for now check out a bit of what February had to offer:
Battle Beast – Bringer of Pain:
For as much as we (I) go on and on about how Finland is the new center of the melo-death universe and how bands such as Insomnium, Omnium Gatherum, and Amorphis are making melancholy incredibly appealing to us outsiders, its not all there is to Finnish metal. And I’m not talking about the country’s theatrical power metal vein ala Nightwish and Sonata Arctica and their forebears in Stratovarius either. There’s a third strain —- not a major one, but certainly one that’s been around long enough to warrant being identified as its own slow-growing subset, and its the sound we hear on the newest Battle Beast album, Bringer of Pain. I’m talking about this fusion of hard rock and trad metal with glam-rock roots first heard in Hanoi Rocks, The 69 Eyes (well… until recently that is when they decided they were going to be H.I.M.), Lovex, Lordi, and many others. There’s some spillover to Sweden as well, making this a partially Scandinavian phenomenon, but Finland is where it just seems to lean heavier. Normally I’m game for this vein of hard rock/metal, but I ran into a stumbling block with Battle Beast when I was first introduced to them via Dr. Metal’s Metal Meltdown show years back —- the doc was a big fan, and he promoted them often but nothing really sank in with me from what I heard on his show.
When they released 2015’s Unholy Savior, it went un-reviewed here at the blog, largely I think because I never really could figure out what the band was trying to accomplish. That’s a silly way to phrase it (they want to rock of course dammit!), but you know what I mean: One song they’re trying for epic, standing on the mountaintop power metal (“Lionheart”, “Speed and Danger”) and the next they’re writing pop-inflected cuts that felt at home on old Sandra and Berlin albums (“Touch In The Night”). I didn’t want to criticize them for being diverse, because rarely is that a negative thing, but both approaches were also quite different from the more Judas Priest-influenced straight ahead style that characterized their first two albums. In retrospect I might also have been still in full-on adoration mode for Triosphere, another Scandinavian melodic metal band with a female vocalist that had just released 2014’s Album of the Year winning The Heart of the Matter, an album that was vibrant and diverse, yet whose songs were stylistically bound together with the band’s musical and songwriting approach. In comparison, Battle Beast’s approach came across as forced and trite.
I think I was onto something there, because this same personality disorder pops up in startling ways on Bringer of Pain —- which is why I’m surprised at how I still enjoyed listening to this album despite them. It helps that the songwriting has improved in the areas that they do best. That’s a vague statement, but I hear it embodied in songs such as “Familiar Hell”, the most overtly pop-influenced song on the album and one that brings to mind a merging of Motley Crue with Roxette (practically distinct from verse to chorus!), as well as “We Will Fight” with its old-school synth lines setting that delightful 80s mood during the verses before the Warlock-esque chorus and outro riffage. Speaking of which Doro is a useful touchstone here, and vocalist Noora Louhimo channels her above all else, that raspy rock n’ roll vocal which seems born of leather, diesel fuel, and long drives across the autobahn. She exerts herself fully on “Lost In Wars”, the album’s most intriguing song with its stormy moodiness and Amorphis vocalist Tomi Joustsen’s duet guest spot alongside. There’s a few throwbacks to the Priest-driven style of Steel, as in “King For A Day” and “Bringer of Pain”, the latter of which seems to channel Painkiller almost exclusively. They’re both pretty decent rockers, but they’re distracting from the more pop-rock feel of the rest of the album (hence my psychological diagnosis for the band).
The strength of the album is indeed found in the more Roxette-ish of the cuts, namely “Straight To The Heart”, “Beyond the Burning Skies”, the aforementioned “Familiar Hell”, and the spectacular balladry of “Far From Heaven”. In short, all the songs where Louhimo is allowed to extend her femininity into her vocal performance and sharply contrast it with the brusqueness of her rock n’ roll instincts as well as the band’s knack with a gritty, catchy riff. Regarding “Far From Heaven”, you guys know I’m a sucker for ballads, particularly 80s-inspired power balladry like this, and while I get that they’re not for everyone, there’s no denying this is as awesome an ode to their glorious heyday as we’ve heard in awhile from anyone. She even gives a little R&B flair towards its final minute with improvised vocal runs, sounding all the world like Laura Branigan or Tina Turner, its an awesome moment. But here comes the personality disorder once again in “Dancing With The Beast”, a head-scratching bit of synth-pop that never really takes off on its own and just sits awkwardly adrift in the tracklisting. I’d be surprised if anyone actually enjoyed that song, and hopefully the band learns to play more to its strengths and not jump around so much stylistically on future albums. I’ll break it down in a fairly simple equation, Battle Beast at their best = Doro/Warlock + (Motley Crue x Roxette).
Aeternam – Ruins of Empires:
If you’ve already listened to the newest MSRcast, you’ll have heard my initial reaction to these guys as it was my co-host Cary who introduced me to them the night we recorded that episode. Aeternam is a four-piece from Quebec that is playing a style of metal that is commonly referred to as Oriental metal or Middle-Eastern metal, obviously more of a commentary on its sound as opposed to being solely about a band’s geographical location. As a subgenre, its small but bubbling, with leading lights Orphaned Land, Myrath, Melechesh, Khalas and Amaseffer out in front with a smattering of bands on the periphery. Typically all these bands have roots of some sort within the Middle East geographical region, but due to the difficulties of actually playing heavy music in those countries (Orphaned Land a major exception), output has been limited and most of these bands have had to relocate to Europe and North America to simply have the infrastructure to make international waves. Aeternam fall into that camp, their roots with this Oriental metal sound sourcing through vocalist/guitarist Achraf Loudiy who was born in Morocco before emigrating to Canada. From the few interviews I’ve read, he brings the cultural influences into the songwriting process that he shares with fellow members Antoine Guertin (drums) and Maxime Boucher (bass) —- how exactly all that works in the kind of detailed minutia that I’d really love to know is still unknown to me… all songs are credited to “Aeternam”, though it seems Loudiy is the key figure here.
No matter, because the influences are pretty obvious, and more importantly, their vision is surprisingly clear. Aeternam infuse basic melo-death with Behemoth-esque brutality, a Septic Flesh-ian progressiveness to their death metal, while wrapping it up in a cinematic grandeur that you’d normally associate with Therion. What’s surprising is that they actually pull this off, because as I observed aloud in the podcast, this could’ve been a total cluster$#@&. They’re unafraid of allowing melody to drive these songs, as you’ll hear on the album opener “Damascus Gate”, whose Gothenburg verses are book ended by Arabic violin melodies and feed into a convincingly strong clean vocal chorus. Loudiy is just as strong a pure singer as he is a powerful growler, recalling both Matt Heafy and Nergal respectively, and you never get the feeling that the clean vocals are forced (if they seem to have a shade less unique character than say Orphaned Land’s Kobi Farhi, well keep in mind these guys are living in North America after all). His performance on “Sun Shield” is particularly crushing on both fronts, with growling vocals that are percussive in their syncopation, energetic in their execution and setup a satisfyingly clean vocal hook.
The stuff that really makes me keep coming back to this album however are its expansive, cinematic, and often solemn moments where the cultural folk influences outshine the metal surrounding them. On “The Keeper of Shangri-La”, tribal drums and acoustic guitars played in Arabic scales and patterns serve as the soundtrack for Loudiy’s impassioned clean vocals, singing about a long forgotten land “…in a garden of eternal bloom / Forever in silence”. Its a nice break in the tracklisting from the first three uptempo heavy songs, and it serves as a refocusing for the album before launching into the album highlight “Fallen Is the Simulacrum of Bel”, a symphony propelled epic built around a chanting chorus. This is a gorgeous, expansive song that owes more to the musical theatrics of Dimmu Borgir or Therion than any melo-death band, and the traditional percussion and acoustic strumming that mark the mid-song bridge are an unexpected delight. Similarly, the folk instrumentation that fuses together in the lovely “Nightfall on Numidia” is recorded with precision, with thoughtful melodies at work guiding everything together towards Loudiy’s vocal duet with Moroccan vocalist Hind Fazazi. There’s actually a handful of guest vocalists all across this record, a couple people in the choir and a tenor and soprano helping throughout, and you’ll notice these little details here and there in addition to the diverse instrumentation.
This is Aeternam’s third album, their first in five years and it was time well spent, these songs apparently having gone through a long gestation period that served them well. I’m trying not to exaggerate too much here, but this really is one of the straight up most enjoyable Oriental metal albums I’ve ever heard. They actually have carved out their own lane here as well, as their drummer Antoine observed, “We’re not as brutal as Nile, not as raw as Melechesh, not as soft as Orphaned Land, and not as symphonic as Amaseffer”. You can’t help but hear some of those aforementioned bands’ elements in Ruins of Empires, if only because the shadow they exert over the subgenre is so long, but I also hear Aeternam synthesizing all these disparate influences into a cohesive central sound that honestly hasn’t been done in Oriental metal up til now. At the risk of overstating things, I think this is the genre moving forward a bit, becoming wider, more accessible and yes even more metal. When Orphaned Land’s All Is One was released, some longtime fans bemoaned the band getting a little softer, moving away from their metallic sound. Myrath is simply a non-starter for some folks because of the glossy production and prog-power clean vocals, while to others, Melechesh’s extremity is simply too much to handle. Enter Aeternam to fill the void left at the center of that triangle.
This was a dicey proposition from the press release alone. The exact wording that left me feeling uneasy was “it is a concept album made up of one epic 40-minute song”. What the heck? Did the Insomnium guys get confused and show up to Moonsorrow’s rehearsal space, shrug their shoulders and say “Screw it!”? This was such uncharted territory for a band who despite delivering consistently cohesive albums on a sonic and lyrical level (in aesthetic values at the least), is not exactly known for writing full blown, narrative-driven concept albums. Insomnium has always operated in a broad, expansive thematic field, their lyrical subject matter able to deftly shift between plainly written outpourings of introverted despair or the usage of folk allegory and natural imagery to communicate an intensely personal feeling. Their best album, 2011’s One For Sorrow, was a shifting, undulating collection of light and shade, moods and temperaments across a collection of songs about the memory of loss and the ache of loneliness. But this new album Winter’s Gate, their seventh overall, is based on a short story by vocalist/bassist Niilo Sevänen about a band of vikings that set out to discover a fabled island west of Ireland as winter approaches. Word is that Sevänen actually won a few literary awards for the original Finnish version of the short story, so its got some literary academia cred behind it. But even the finest storytelling won’t amount to much in the context of a metal album if the music doesn’t pull you in, let alone a singular forty minute track… and on that note, a bit of clarity is needed.
I’m not sure how all of you are consuming this album, but I got two copies —- somehow I landed a promo invite for this album thanks to a kind PR rep despite not being a regular for Century Media releases, and then my deluxe edition book arrived in the mail. So here’s the thing, on the physical edition of Winter’s Gate you get the album as one track at 40:02 in length, no cuts or segmentation at all —- yeeesh. However, on the promo copy, the album is divided up into chapters (titled “Winter’s Gate Pt. 1” and onwards through seven). This was curious, so I did some looking around and it turns out that perhaps the band or label was forced to make some cuts for the digital release of this album, and I wonder if its due to track length limitations on these various platforms such as iTunes or Spotify (perhaps caching such a long song is a problem?). Notice that audiobooks sold over iTunes are heavily segmented, even massive ones like The Silmarillion or the Game of Thrones stuff (maybe I’m way off on that theory, just speculating). What’s clear is that the band preferred to have this album consumed as one long, singular track ala Crimson by Edge of Sanity, their admitted inspiration for its structure (and perhaps not coincidentally, Dan Swano handles the mixing of this album!).
As for myself, faced with two options in listening experiences, I opted for convenience’s sake and went with the segmented digital copy. Firstly it would help me because often times in reviewing I’ll play the album straight through, and then go through it again in reverse order just to see if my opinion isn’t being strongly influenced by the first couple tracks (a long standing practice that isn’t talked about much publicly was/is to front load an album with what’s considered the best material and thus get the over burdened rock/metal press to peg glowing reviews, however skewed —- see Sepultura’s Roots). Anyway, that being the case, you might find it frustrating that I refer to particular sections of “Winter’s Gate” by the chapter instead of marking the time that you’d find in the 40:02 single player. I apologize in advance for that, but I do actually wish they’d sliced this up on the physical release a bit. I get why they chose not to, but if I only had the physical copy to play or rip to my laptop, it’d be a frustrating thing for me to get to my favorite chapter of the album, or a particularly awesome moment I really wanted to hear right then. That is a criticism I’m leveling at the band right away, because I applaud ambition (even if a forty minute song on paper sounds dreadful) and I love the guts it took to do something daring like this album when it could so easily backfire —- but a little detail like slicing the piece into skip-able sections shouldn’t be viewed as a concession to low attention spans in the iPod age, but simply as a considerate feature for your passionate fans.
I’m happy to say that all my fears about what this album could have sounded like are allayed, and in fact, Winter’s Gate might just be Insomnium’s most gripping, powerful piece of music to date. It’d be pure speculation to suggest that it was a purposeful internal reaction to the somewhat mixed reception of 2014’s Shadows Of A Dying Sun, but it sounds like a band having a sense of urgency about their art. That idea of urgency is most vividly heard in the increase of raw brutality that streaks across the album like that bear’s paws across Leo’s back in The Revenant, barreling at us in the form of harsher, more guttural vocals by Sevänen, and a surprising second wave of Norwegian black metal injection that courses through much of this material. That particular facet begins straight away, where blastbeats and furious tremolo riffing combine in a violent musical bed over which more traditional Insomnium-esque lead guitar melodies spiral upon at a slightly slower tempo. In other words, its a merging of Finnish melo-death mournful melody and Norwegian black metal hypnosis into something truly unique, and you’ve never heard Insomnium sound this heavy or impactful before. Its a satisfying combo, particularly when they add in flourishes of Gothenburg, or let’s be more specific, Jesper Stromblad-ian speed-picking riff flurries as a just-as-frenetic yet lighter shade to the black metal furor. My first playthrough of the album had me grinning like an idiot only a few minutes in “Winter’s Gate Pt. 2”.
And it was right around that time where we are treated to our first tastes of a more recognizable, classic Insomnium sound (approximately 8:43 for you folks with the single track), with guitarists Ville Friman and Markus Vanhala abruptly shifting away from a staggeringly brutal passage into a flowing, beautifully written, lilting open chord sequenced solo over chiming acoustic guitar. We also get our first dose of Friman’s excellent clean vocals, suitably downcast in tone but still built on tuneful melodies and helped along by his perfect enunciation that pairs well with only the slightest tinge of an accent. This chapter ends with swirling, long guitar sustains, like leaves stirred up by gusts of autumnal winds, quietly falling into a hush from which rises “Winter’s Gate Pt.3” (at the 12:52 mark). This section really reminded me of Porcupine Tree, not only for the syncopated rhythm section with playfully bouncy bass and dancing guitar lines, but for the paintbrush strokes of keyboard generated atmospherics that move in and out of audible range like waves lapping a shoreline. Vanhala has mentioned in interviews to referring to this chapter’s guitar solo as his “Dire Straits moment”, and its easy to hear why he’s characterizing it as such. It caps off an overall lovely 5:52 minutes of delicate musicality largely built upon progressive rock touchstones and dynamics (I say delicate because even Sevänen’s harsh vocals are a little more subdued when he comes back in towards the end).
Its not only a welcome musical interlude that is engaging and oddly comforting, but it sets up my favorite moment of the album in “Winter’s Gate Pt.4” (begins at the 18:45 mark). Friman has steadily been growing in confidence as a clean vocalist since his work on One For Sorrow, with his largest leaps marking some of Shadows of a Dying Sun’s finest moments (“Lose To Night”), and on this particular chapter he fully realizes his potential. His clean vocals during this section range from Mikael Akerfeldt earthiness in the beginning of the chapter (“Still I bear the flowers…”) to near Pink Floydian epic layering towards the chapter’s emotional crescendo (“I walk with my head down…”). Listen to this chapter with headphones, because there’s some impressive acoustic guitar work going on underneath all the heavy layers of riffs and aggressive vocals that absolutely needs to be heard. I also love the sombre, twilight conjuring use of piano to mark the beginning of “Winter’s Gate Pt.5”, as the instrument is an Insomnium staple at this point and it’d be strange not to hear it. What it introduces is the march towards some of the most dark, intensely heavy music the band has ever done —- cue up 29:36 where a classic Insomnium bittersweet melody unfurls into a blisteringly fierce section, Sevänen’s vocals delving down into previously unheard death-doom territory over tremolo riff sequences.
By the time we reach the concluding “Winter’s Gate Pt.7”, we’re somehow still not ready for the sheer violence that the band plunges you ear first in (specifically at the 34:31 mark), with Sevänen’s vocals exhanging guttural death-metal for the coarse, wind-strained harsh black metal barking more associated with Enslaved’s Grutle Kjellson. If you’re following along with the lyrics and the storyline in general, this is around the time when it all hits the fan for our viking friends, but even if you’re not, the urgency and sense of madness conveyed by this awesome, eye-opening sequence is certainly heart pounding. The guitar work is inspired and tremendous, and the implementation of tremolo riffing isn’t a gimmick, it really does have a way of getting your hackles up as a listener —- funny how so many black metal bands never learned that tremolo picked passages work best when used alongside tempo accelerations and shifts and counterpoints… a melo-death band from Finland seems to understand that intuitively. If you want another example of tremolo passages being used in non-black metal music to powerful effect, check out Sweden’s own Falconer on their Armod album.
Something we should consider on the guitar front is Vanhala’s longer period of time within the lineup, he is in fact a co-songwriter all through the album, contributing to the music alongside Friman and Sevänen. Friman used to handle most of the music by himself, but he seemed stretched thin in spots for Shadows with some notable exceptions. I wonder if Vanhala’s integration in the music writing was the catalyst for injecting some much needed change with the way the guitar riffs and passages were envisioned and written (Vanhala is the primary songwriter for Omnium Gatherum whose music is considerably more uptempo and frenetic than Insomnium’s… well, until now perhaps). I’m absolutely thrilled that Insomnium pulled off the improbable here, and dare I suggest that they’ve made one of the most complete albums of the year. Its nicely concise, something I think the band needed after spending a decade in 55 minute plus territory through most of their albums, and despite the single track on the physical release being a significant flaw, the music here is strong enough to lock in most attention spans. Insomnium are a rather smart, intellectual bunch (check their bios), so credit to them for realizing that they had to shake things up somehow, even if that meant doing so in the riskiest way possible.