Album Title: Winter’s Gate
Label: Century Media Records
Date Of Release: 23 September 2016
I am a big fan of melodic death metal, a genre normally considered to be the preserve of the Swedes who helped to create the very movement. However, over the past few years, Finland have muscled onto the scene and produced some melodeath big hitters of their own. The likes of Omnium Gatherum, Mors Principium Est and Before The Dawn spring to mind to name just a few alongside the subject of this review, Insomnium.
In the case of Insomnium, I have always felt that their own brand of melodic death metal was a little different to others in that it is not afraid to incorporate different influences into the mix, including a slight black metal feel, strong melodic metal overtones and more epic, doom influences, occasionally drawing fleeting comparisons to the likes of their compatriots Swallow The Sun.
I, for one, was not surprised then when I heard that the new Insomnium album, ‘Winter’s Gate’ would be a 40-minute one-track concept piece, based around a short story composed by the vocalist & bassist Niilo Sevänen and inspired, in part, by Edge Of Sanity’s ‘Crimson’ record. I wasn’t sure in all honesty how it might end up sounding, but I was certainly intrigued and knew that if anyone could attempt such a feat and pull it off, Insomnium were, in theory, one of the bands capable of succeeding. Their flair for the dramatic and their ability to imbue their previous albums with rich atmospheres, bold aural soundscapes and a sense of the epic meant that they had a solid base from which to build.
As it turns out though, ‘Winter’s Gate’ is better than I ever really dared to imagine. It contains everything that I like in my extreme metal, namely strong melodic sensibilities, drama, intensity, frequent changes in tempo, texture and mood and an overall feeling that the band believe 100% in this work, that it is as honest as it is undeniably pretentious. And I don’t mean this last comment negatively either, because damn it, I love pretentious music if it has the substance to back it up.
If it isn’t executed in the right manner, longer pieces of music can easily become boring and akin to wading through treacle. With ‘Winter’s Gate’, the 2400 seconds just fly by. I have listened to the song several times now, each time approaching it with excitement rather than trepidation and not once have I found my mind wandering or descending into clock-watching for any other purpose than referencing the sections and movements that make up this composition.
In suitably fitting fashion, ‘Winters Gate’ opens to the cold and strangely melancholy sound of a buffeting wind out in the unforgiving wilds immediately communicating a sense of isolation and desolation. Before long, a quiet, haunting melody drifts in on the lonely stiff breeze. A sense of what is to come is crafted beautifully and then, after around 90 seconds, the composition explodes with serious intent. A blast beat from drummer Markus Hirvonen, imposing rhythm section rounded out by bassist Niilo Sevänen and frenetic black metal-esque picked riffing courtesy of Ville Friman and Markus Vanhala sit at the centre of the proceedings before things calm to a more measured tempo. All the while however, the melodic sensibilities are never far away, adding a layer of immediacy and accessibility to the music, albeit with undeniably harsh and sombre overtones. As opens go, this is genuinely epic-sounding, portraying a sense of drama and huge scope on which to build and develop.
A more groove-oriented melodic death metal vibe is evident in spades at around the five-minute mark, before ploughing back into frenetic territory, complete with enormous keys from Swallow The Sun’s very own Aleksi Munter that layer the music with a multitude of textures as well as lashings of atmosphere. It even sounds like there is a choir buried deep in the background, as the grandiosity builds to new heights.
As we near seven minutes, a heavily-affected spoken word vocal can be heard above a momentary lull in the aggression where acoustic guitars are audible for the first time. The acoustic guitars make a return a couple of minutes later after another blast of groove-laden and melodic riffing.
The vocals take a different turn as we near the 10-minute mark, being clean-sung and emotive. However, the song quickly reverts back to that central riff, those choral sounds and the explosive blastbeats that continue to weave in and out of the composition with devastating effect.
After the preceding tumult, the song falls away into minimalist, almost ambient territory at the 12 minute mark. It creates a welcome juxtaposition and a nice respite before slowly rebuilding, led by some bold bass and drum work slightly Tool-esque in delivery. The keys are once again central, as the drama is slowly and deliberately increased, via delicate spoken word vocals as well as a soulful and melodic lead guitar embellishment.
The ensuing riff is ponderous but full of sinister intent, joined by gruff vocals full of malevolence. The Dissection-like lead guitar melody is brilliant, as the darkness is lifted marginally by more of those epic and rich synths that bathe this section in a grand cinematic glow.
Another acoustic section at the 19-minute mark, really reminds me of Swallow The Sun. The clean vocals offer a folk feel which then segues into a beautiful lead guitar-led melody, with a strangely upbeat feel, underpinned by yet more of those almost choral-sounding effects.
More superb clean vocals make an appearance and there’s another flamboyant and expressive lead guitar solo to usher in another heavy and melodic riff atop more of the hugely symphonic sounds and textures.
As good as ‘Winter’s Gate’ is up until now, at the 24-minute point, all I can say is ‘wow!’ Everything falls away to be replaced by a lone piano that plays a desperately sombre melody, the aural soundtrack to misery, despair and loneliness. Synths gently increase around the piano as there’s the palpable feeling that something is about to happen. And it does. Ushered in by a rumble of thunder, a crushing doom-like riff enters the fray along with some of the harshest vocals anywhere on the record. Swallow The Sun parallels are again drawn whilst I pick my jaw off the floor, set my face in some kind of hideous grin and allow goosebumps to appear everywhere. And yet, for all this, the music remains melodic and grandiose in scope, gently easing into a melody that shifts almost insidiously into something a little more positive, almost hopeful in tone.
We’re nearing the three-quarter mark at this point, but I’ve almost lost track of the twists and turns already offered from this gargantuan piece of music. It doesn’t end there either, and the band certainly don’t rest on their laurels. More aggressive riffs underpinned by bludgeoning and incessant blastbeats feature heavily as the composition nears its conclusion.
Earlier strong melodic refrains are reprised in the latter stages of the song, as well as an increase in the speed and intensity, with the keys coming back prominently. It’s hard to imagine such an epic track offering anything more epic to conclude but it very briefly delivers, as everything in the band’s armoury comes to the fore one glorious, final time. After that, it is up to the acoustic guitars, piano and calming synths to see the album out, leaving the final moments of the story to be told by the sounds of nature and those buffeting winds on the shores of a bleak and unforgiving expanse.
‘Epic’ is a word used far too often in music reviews. However, ‘Winter’s Gate’ deserves this adjective. With it, Insomnium have arguably created their masterpiece, their tour-de-force. People will be talking about this record for years to come and rightly so. ‘Winter’s Gate’ has been created by a band at the top of their game and thus stands at the pinnacle of melodic death metal and what this terrific genre can produce.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.5
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others via my reviews pages or by clicking the links right here:
Seven Impale – Contrapasso
DGM – The Passage
Pressure Points – False Lights
In The Woods – Pure
Devin Townsend – Transcendence
The Pineapple Thief – Your Wilderness
Evergrey – The Storm Within
Dream The Electric Sleep – Beneath The Dark Wide Sky
Periphery – ‘Periphery III: Select Difficulty’
Karmakanic – Dot
Novena – Secondary Genesis
Witherscape – The Northern Sanctuary
Eric Gillette – The Great Unknown
Tilt – Hinterland
Cosmograf – The Unreasonable Silence
Fates Warning – Theories Of Flight
Wolverine – Machina Viva
Be’lakor – Vessels
Lacuna Coil – Delirium
Big Big Train – Folklore
Airbag – Disconnected
Katatonia – The Fall Of Hearts
Frost* – Falling Satellites
Glorior Belli – Sundown (The Flock That Welcomes)
Habu – Infinite
Grand Magus ‘Sword Songs’
Messenger – Threnodies
Svoid – Storming Voices Of Inner Devotion
Fallujah – Dreamless
In Mourning – Afterglow
Haken – Affinity
Long Distance Calling – Trips
October Tide – Winged Waltz
Odd Logic – Penny For Your Thoughts
Iron Mountain – Unum
Knifeworld – Bottled Out Of Eden
Novembre – Ursa
Beholder – Reflections
Neverworld – Dreamsnatcher
Universal Mind Project – The Jaguar Priest
Thunderstone – Apocalypse Again
InnerWish – Innerwish
Mob Rules – Tales From Beyond
Ghost Bath – Moonlover
Spiritual Beggars – Sunrise To Sundown
Oceans Of Slumber – Winter
Rikard Zander – I Can Do Without Love
Redemption – The Art Of Loss
Headspace – All That You Fear Is Gone
Chris Quirarte – Mending Broken Bridges
Sunburst – Fragments Of Creation
Inglorious – Inglorious
Omnium Gatherum – Grey Heavens
Structural Disorder – Distance
Votum – Ktonik
Fleshgod Apocalypse – King
Rikard Sjoblom – The Unbendable Sleep
Textures – Phenotype
Serenity – Codex Atlanticus
Borknagar – Winter Thrice
The Mute Gods – Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me
Brainstorm – Scary Creatures
Arcade Messiah – II
Phantasma – The Deviant Hearts
Rendezvous Point – Solar Storm
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld II
Antimatter – The Judas Table
Bauda – Sporelights
Waken Eyes – Exodus
Earthside – A Dream In Static
Caligula’s Horse – Bloom
Teramaze – Her Halo
Amorphis – Under The Red Cloud
Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle
Agent Fresco – Destrier
Cattle Decapitation – The Anthropocene Extinction
Between The Buried And Me – Coma Ecliptic
Cradle Of Filth – Hammer Of The Witches
Disarmonia Mundi – Cold Inferno
District 97 – In Vaults
Progoctopus – Transcendence
Big Big Train – Wassail
NightMare World – In The Fullness Of Time
Helloween – My God-Given Right
Triaxis – Zero Hour
Isurus – Logocharya
Arcturus – Arcturian
Kamelot – Haven
Native Construct – Quiet World
Sigh – Graveward
Pantommind – Searching For Eternity
Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar
Klone – Here Comes The Sun
The Gentle Storm – The Diary
Melechesh – Enki
Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld