Wintersun’s Time I: A Review Without Puns
I’m not going to get into a history lesson here on the maddeningly long span of time (don’t… just, don’t) and events that marked this album’s journey to this one day, when it has finally met its release date. I will however take a moment to put the release of Time I in perspective, in order to illustrate just why the near Chinese Democracy-like series of delays and pratfalls surrounding the album’s creation are such a big deal. Wintersun’s only other album, their self-titled debut, was released on September 13th of 2004, and for those of you too young to remember, here’s a short list of stuff that’s worth mentioning: In 2004, there was no YouTube; MySpace was the height of social media; Facebook had not yet been opened to the general public; the first I-Phone was still years away; Twitter had not yet been dreamed of; the term “App” had not yet entered our popular vocabulary; the world had not heard of Barack Obama; George W. Bush was still serving his first term, and Dimebag Darrell (R.I.P.) was still alive and rocking.
In summary, 2004 was a long goddamned time ago and those of us who have been waiting the long wait for a follow up to that excellent debut should be forgiven for getting a bit agitated, annoyed, apathetic, and just plain “blah” over the years. Genuine enthusiasm is really hard to keep up for that long a time. It was noticeable that in the days following July4th, when the official release date was announced that fan response was muted overall, and even my own lack of excitement for the album came as a surprise. Maybe it was all just a subconscious lowering of expectations, or maybe it was just being realistic. But as expected you can’t dampen people’s curiosity for long, as the release date got closer and the Nuclear Blast hype generator was switched on, fan excitement and anticipation for this album has launched an upward trajectory in particular through social media. As the accolades from the European press pour in with all manner of praise and hyperbole, I find myself far more interested in the opinions of fellow fans who have had to bite the patience bullet all these years.
Time I features the first half of a promised eighty minutes of new Wintersun music painstakingly crafted by vocalist/guitarist Jari Mäenpää. The most noticeable thing that can be said about whats on offer here is that the original Wintersun blend of melodic death metal with a touch of power metal has been turned on its head. Gone are the guitar driven styles of the debut, where riffs and six string virtuosity were the meat and potatoes of the songs — on Time I ornately layered orchestral keyboard arrangements are at the forefront of everything. As a result this new sound Wintersun is very much epic power metal blended with a heavy shot of melo-death. Yes there are still some heavy, punishing guitar riffs (in a crunchier tone than you’ll be expecting), but there’s more clean vocals here than grim screams — more orchestral bombast than wild, out of control guitar solos. You didn’t think he’d spend all this time just to write an exact copy of the first album right? Of course not, and while this may not exactly be night and day from old school Wintersun, it is something that can fairly be called a progression. Some people might not be able to get past this genre bending hurdle and I can understand why they would feel that way.
Fortunately for the rest of us who enjoy our over the top, ridiculously bombastic power metal, Time I delivers ear candy in loads. There’s only three real songs on this album, two being instrumentals, but the the length of those three ranging from eight to thirteen minutes makes up for the shallow track count. It clocks in at just over forty minutes of music and while that is relatively short for an album I find that I’m not dissatisfied with the length — this is only part one after all. The centerpiece here is “Sons of Winter and Stars”, a suite of four separate song sections of urgent pacing, soaring choruses delivered in Mäenpää’s unique deep timbre, amidst a clash of keyboard orchestras, guiding riffs, and an overload of melodies both Japanese and Scandinavian folk inspired. There’s quiet moments too where string backed atmospheric sections provide a backdrop to eerily sung vocals, the lyrics of which concern… well you could probably take a guess at it: the unrelenting march of time, vastness, longing, and despair. No ones really making a big deal about this being a thematic album, but you get the gist from listening to his very discernible words that there are some unifying themes at work within the lyrics. It all works and matches the sheer epic reach of the music quite well, and honestly what else was he going to sing about anyway?
My first impressions upon hearing this album was that I found myself genuinely having fun listening to it. I’ve been able to put this on repeat and catch multiple listens all the way through a few times in a row without tiring of it or feeling like its a chore to listen to — that’s a harder feat to accomplish than it seems. I suppose I’m biased with my power metal love, but this is the kind of stuff that’s right up my street. There’s only so many times one can use the words epic and bombastic to describe this record, but they are apt terms and are the record’s core strengths. Mäenpää doesn’t write the catchiest choruses, or deliver exceptionally heavy music even, but he does craft emotional, melancholic melodies on such an exceptional scale that he is in the top tier of songwriters within modern day metal. If I were to point out a particular highlight of this album, it’d have to be Mäenpää’s incredible clean vocals, they are deeper and more resonant than anything he has recorded for the debut or his work in Ensiferum. When I’m not listening to the album, its usually the passages with those clean vocal melodies than come racing back into my head.
This is a great record — or a great first half of a record. Time II is supposed to be coming out in early 2013 and once that’s out we’ll be able to put these two pieces together to see if the second half dampens the energy of the first. My doubts are erased however regarding Mäenpää’s abilities to continue to create musically diverse, engaging, and satisfying slabs of metal. The approach has changed for Wintersun but the results haven’t, and for that alone Mäenpää should be applauded. Does it sound like it was worth all those years of incubation? No it doesn’t. There’s nothing on offer here arrangement wise that hasn’t been matched or bettered by recent albums from Blind Guardian or Nightwish, but then again Wintersun didn’t have their budgets either. Oh well, better late than never they say, and Wintersun releasing one of the most fun-to-listen-to albums of 2012 is a victory worth acknowledging.