Coming from the refreshingly short blasts of concise metal by High Spirits and Sumerlands and having to tackle a 40-minute melo-death song seemed like a particularly arduous shift of gears for yours truly. The reason for this conundrum is Winter’s Gate, Insomnium‘s seventh release, on which they wanted to pay homage to Edge of Sanity‘s legendary Crimson opus by crafting a massive composition filled with similarly diverse moods and complexions.1 Though a longtime fan, I wasn’t overwhelmed by 2014s Shadows of the Dying Sun, so I approached this with serious misgivings. Few bands can pull off such a monumental endeavor and nothing is worse than enduring a long-winded stem-winder devoid of inspiration and good ideas. Fear not though, as no sooner did I dip my steely toe into Winter’s Gate did Insomnium yank the rug from under me with an extremely well constructed tale brimming with emotion, atmosphere and hooks. This is a massive dose of top-notch sadboy melo-death; beautiful, morose and engaging, and as I listened, my misgivings were slowly buried beneath the falling snow as my doubts froze in the icy lake of my bitter cynicism. Yes it’s long and pretentious, but the end result is highly convincing.
Reviewing a 40-minute tune is no easy peach, as I quickly learned while taking notes on my listening experiences. The song isn’t broken up into movements like the very helpful Crimson II,2 so pointing out notable segments is all that’s left to me as ideas and influences swirl about my head. The album tells the tale of a band of Vikings setting out in search of a fabled island as a treacherous winter looms, and the music is perfectly suited to such a grim, frosty tale, equipped as it is with a hard, taciturn exterior yet laced with sad, depressive melodies. What hit me immediately was the song’s excellent pacing and flow. The tempos and moods flow together very well and keep things from growing tiresome. That “Winter’s Gate” doesn’t feel like a 40-minute song is proof of the band’s compositional acumen. I suspect many will sit listening raptly before realizing they’re 15 or 20 minutes in already. That’s great writing, sheeples.
Things open with the gentle sounds of wind upon the waves before erupting into classic Insomium riffing. The early going is fairly typical for the band but features some of their strongest writing in recent memory. At the 6:10 mark things move toward calmer waters, adopting a soothing, Anathema-like drone before heavy riffs return to wreck your dark tranquility. These riffs give way to an upbeat, almost Running Wild style “pirates on the high seas” lead which reoccurs periodically throughout the song. Somber melancholy sets up shop around 8:40 as gentle melodic leads join forlorn clean vocals. Around 13:00 an interesting Iron Maiden influence pops up with the Harris-esque bassline leading a soft, sparse section that could have been a transition on “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The music then drifts back into dreamy, Floydian soundscapes with airy soloing before the slow build back toward heaviness at the 15-minute mark.
The rest of the album maintains this delicate balance between heavy and mellow, never lingering too long in either quadrant. One segment nails the classic doom/death style utilized by Swallow the Sun, and others veer into outright black metal blitzkriegs complete with blast beats and frantic trem-riffage. My favorite moments arrive around 26:00 where the music approximates Tales From the Thousand Lakes era Amorphis and later around 37:00 where they showcase gorgeous acoustic work rivaling that of SIG:AR:TYR. When the album finally fades out with more wind and waves, you’ll feel you’ve experienced something pretty special.
Downsides? As well as it’s all constructed and performed, “Winter’s Gate” is still a 40-minute tune meant to be experienced as a whole, which isn’t always possible or practical. You can fast forward but it doesn’t have breaks so it’s kind of an all or nothing proposition. In an increasingly ADD world there will be plenty of people simply unable or unwilling to devote the time and energy such a mammoth song requires, and it’s a shame there isn’t a way to break this into more digestible nuggets o’ metal. With production handled by Overlord Swanö, you know it sounds great, and I hear it’ll have a slobberknocker vinyl master too. Oh Dan, why can’t you produce all the world’s albums?
From a performance perspective, the music represents some of Insomnium’s best work. The biggest improvement from Shadows of the Dying Sun is the riffing. Ville Friman and Markus Vanhals stepped up their game considerably and the recycled vibe I sometimes got on Shadows is gone. Their riffs drive this unwieldy beast and hold the listener in their sway throughout, regardless what genre they wander into. Even the sparse, near-ambient sections feature beautifully minimalist noodling. The acoustic segments are my favorite and Friman and Vanhals truly shine there, especially during around the 37:00 mark. While Niilo Sevanen’s death rasps never blew me away, they fit the style well enough. Here he seems more inspired than usual, at times going extremely guttural, making things brutal enough even for Kronos‘ camouflage cargo pants.
After the last albums from Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum left me somewhat underwhelmed I was starting to think they should just merge into one super band (Insomnium Gatherum?). After hearing Winter’s Gate I no longer entertain such foolish thoughts. This is an epic piece of music capable of captivating the listener for the entirety of its insane runtime. 40 minutes of great melo-death, all at once, all for you. Will you take the Finnish ice bucket challenge?