Monday, September 26, 2016

Insomnium - Winter's Gate

The masters of melodic death metal (a debatable point, I admit, but you're here for my opinion, so can it!) are back with their seventh studio album, Winter's Gate. While Insomnium have never been shy about experimenting with new sounds to prevent stagnation, Winter's Gate probably marks one of the biggest and strangest leaps their style has taken between albums. Winter's Gate is intended to be listened to as a single 40-minute song. Though the album is split into seven tracks in digital versions, it's pretty much impossible to tell where the transitions take place. As if that wasn't enough, Winter's Gate is also Insomnium's first foray into concept albums. The album is based on a short story written by bassist Niilo Sevänen about a group of Vikings who set out for Ireland as winter draws near.

As Insomnium are probably my single favorite band (with Ne Obliviscaris nipping at their heels), I've been very eagerly anticipating this album, so let's see if it lives up to my hype. The album cover certainly doesn't slow down the hype train. I mean damn, that is a thing of beauty. Though I actually like it better with the colors inverted. Eh, whatever, on to the music!

For the first time since their debut album, Insomnium have completely dispensed with the intro track, which I guess makes sense since the whole album is supposed to be one song. Winter's Gate starts off with a riff that was a bit reminiscent of "Black Heart Rebellion" from their previous album, Shadows of the Dying Sun. I have to admit I got a bit worried, thinking "oh crap, this is gonna be like Sabaton's latest where they just re-hash things they've done before." Fortunately I was proven wrong very quickly, as the opening turned into probably the most aggressive sound I've ever heard out of Insomnium. Much of the album continues in this vein, with occasional softer interludes that offer a welcome respite and give the band an opportunity to switch things up. The band uses these opportunities well, as the album remains fresh over its entire duration, which is a tricky achievement when writing one 40-minute song.

I'm glad to hear that one of the big changes from Shadows has carried over to Winter's Gate. The album, once again, feels very percussion-driven, essentially setting the tone for the overall more aggressive sound of Winter's Gate. Because Insomnium's drummer hasn't changed since 1997, this change over the past two albums can only be the result of mixing/production. And the mixing here is clearly phenomenal once again. Instrument levels are where they should be across the board, dynamic range is excellent, and nothing sounds flat or tinny. Whoever they have as a producer these days is doing one hell of a job.

One change that I'm a bit pleased that Insomnium rolled back a bit is the use of clean vocals. While they've absolutely been used to good effect in other songs (see, for instance, "While We Sleep"), I think they became a bit over-used as a way to change the pacing of a song. Also, the bits of clean vocals they do use on Winter's Gate just don't sound very good. Whatever editing they did on the clean vocals marks the low point of the sound editing. And fortunately that's pretty much the only one. On the note of vocals, this is definitely the hardest time I've had understanding Niilo's vocals without looking at a lyrics sheet. In this case, it's hard to tell if that was a stylistic change or just the mixing. I'll have to see them live to know for sure. Which will definitely happen.

I don't really know how to pick high points on a single track album if I'm treating it properly (if you get via Spotify, it comes as seven tracks, but I'm ignoring that in favor of artistic intent). I guess I'd have to pick the beginning and end of the album, as those are easily the highest energy/most aggressive sections of Winter's Gate. But I feel like that does the rest of the album a disservice, as there are some great progressions and some really catchy riffs in the middle of it all. 

Honestly, my biggest complaint about this album is that it really is all just one song, which means it's pretty much all-or-nothing in live shows. Yes. That's the biggest complaint I can muster. This album is really gods damned brilliant, probably second best in the hierarchy of Insomnium albums. But let's face it, even ranking it dead last in Insomnium's collection would still put it head and shoulders above so many other bands that the distinction is pretty much pointless. Oh, my other complaint is that it's too short; 40 minutes of Insomnium just isn't enough for me. 

I'm so close to giving this a 5/5, but I just can't quite do it because even I have to admit that this album isn't perfect. So I'm gonna break down our rating system into even smaller increments. Damn it, Insomnium, look what you've made me do!

Final Verdict: 4.75 iron atoms

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