Review Summary: Darkness is ignorance, knowledge is light
For a long time, there has been a vocal group of Insomnium listeners calling for change; calling for advancement of a sound that was becoming quite venerable given the band’s growing catalogue. Not only did they find a niche within the cut-and-dry confines of melodic death metal, they found an identity and a soul. What is there, then, to do when this niche has become comfortably worn? One For Sorrow
was an attempt to answer that question, and while I don’t believe it to be a satisfactory reply, it showed that there is more than one trick to this pony, and given the relative lack of breadth to that album it was apparent that there was more to give. It would be nice to say that Shadows of the Dying Sun
is a revelation; that a balance was formed between One For Sorrow’s
swift brutality and the mournful doom that laced their early repertoire, but that would only reveal half the answer. What we have here is almost pure synergy, a solid weld of old and new that handpicks the finest pieces and lays them out for our consumption.
It is more than a sum of individual parts in the most pure sense of the expression, because amidst the slicing riffs pervading tracks like “Revelation” we also have a deliberate regression in a way, where Niilo Sevänen reveals spoken-word and whispered vocals for the first time in years backed by dancing acoustic guitar strings. Not only does the old and new coexist peacefully, they interact and complement each other, raising such harrowing moments as the opening minutes of “The River”, where impossibly soaring riffs collapse into a pure, heartfelt ode to the past through the caressing touch of acoustic melodies softening Sevänen’s re-invigorated whispers. In many ways, Shadows of the Dying Sun
is everything that Across the Dark
was not combined with everything that One for Sorrow
left out. The song structures reveal more than just a touch of Omnium Gatherum through their progressive tendencies (no doubt due to Markus Vanhala’s addition to the band) with few tracks opting for the traditional heavy-verse, clean-chorus pattern ravaging most modern melodic death metal. When these moments do arise, though, the veil suddenly becomes lifted, and in tracks like “Ephemeral” or “Lose to Night” it becomes a whole lot less invigorating – even borderline bland.
Perhaps, then, Insomnium have finally both revealed and recognized their Achilles heel: not being daring enough. Looking back on things, their best tracks have always been the ones that prove to be divergent from the norm, with “In the Groves of Death”, “Disengagement”, “Lay of the Autumn”, or “In the Halls of Awaiting” and their ilk standing head and shoulders above the more normative tracks they’ve produced. The success of Shadows of the Dying Sun
, then, can likely be summed up by the fact that, more often than not, the band shows that they want to move away from more traditional patterns. Sure, the Ephemeral
EP and its namesake track that also appears here might have indicated something contrary, but on the complete record it is clear things are being tossed up in Insomnium’s songwriting. The riffs are constantly shifting around from more simplistic, heavy patterns to sweeping melodies that shoot across the fret board, complemented by dynamic vocal arrangements that are in near-perpetual movement. From deep bellows to trailing whispers to distant cleans, the vocal repertoire is far and away the most compelling of Insomnium’s career, helping to accent instrumental transitions and soften that shift from heavy to light. The cleans still contain a heavy-handed layering carried over from One for Sorrow
, and as such have a hard time feeling emotionally connected to the album’s ever-changing moods and multiple atmospheres, but they are supported by a cast of harsh vocals and non-traditional styles that carry the load when Ville Friman has trouble.
There are times when it all does seem to be structured in a way that is intended to mimic past successes, yet these tracks never capitalize on them. The opener “The Primeval Dark”, for example, takes on a pseudo-song character akin to every Insomnium intro since Above the Weeping World
, performing a dual role of both instrumental introduction and full-fledged composition, mirroring in smaller scale the mournful melodic death metal that is to follow. While the track proves to be an efficient way to open things, it contributes less to the album as a whole than, say, a more thoughtful instrumental arrangement would a la “Resonance” or “Decoherence”. Not only that, but the final song - the eponymous title track - is startlingly similar in style to the title track and closer of One for Sorrow
, meandering around through comparatively uninteresting riffs in a mid-paced coma that attempts, like “One for Sorrow”, to unsuccessfully pull its dead weight up to par late in the going. So, there are several tracks where the focus shifts, and moments of egress when the songwriting packs up and leaves for several minutes, but Insomnium’s sound lends itself surprisingly well to expansion. There is just so much to do when melodic death metal lets itself stretch out a bit, to unfurl from the genre’s tight confines and rummage around for a while in the bin of miscellaneous metal influences. There is a splash of progressive death metal, inklings of Katatonia-like depressive rock, and it is all co-mingling with this inbred beast that is melodic death metal with no issues whatsoever.
Shadows of the Dying Sun
makes you think, then. It makes you wonder how far this can be taken while still retaining its original identity. Insomnium are melodic death metal – without it they would almost certainly be lost, yet it is so desperately hard to loosen its grasp. What they have done here is successfully overcome that hurdle, the one that reaches up for air without entirely removing itself from the water. There is zero doubt as to whether or not this is an Insomnium record, as it is absolutely soaked in their distinctive sound, but it is not so suffocating a record as before. In many ways, Shadows of the Dying Sun
is masterfully nuanced, yet not entirely liberated, and perhaps it’s not ready to be. Instead, they recognize their bounds while gleefully stepping over them in the hopes that they won’t be caught, and here they most certainly haven’t. Shadows of the Dying Sun
is the record I wanted Insomnium to make, but I didn’t know that until I actually heard it. They don’t need to go back to a sound entirely stolen from their first two records, and they don’t need to confine themselves to what has now become the popular melodic death metal sound. Instead, they only need to see how far they can take that venerable style they have worked so hard at creating without completely losing it. If anything, Shadows of the Dying Sun
is the soundtrack to a band realizing what they have the potential to become while simultaneously not losing sight of what got them there.