Review Summary: Jari Mäenpää unleashes eight years of work in a display that is the most grandiose of his career
To say that Time I
is a long time coming is an understatement. During the eight years it took for this album to be released, the metal community has been stirring, grumbling, murmuring, bitching, complaining, hoping, dreaming, wishing, waiting. The attitude of Wintersun fans has shifted so dramatically since 2004 that it is hard to point out whether expectations for Time
were high or low – indeed it has been both, with perceptions shifting as news slowly trickled out of the Mäenpää camp. The former Ensiferum frontman went through creative stagnation, writer's block, and even computer trouble as he tried to layer all of the different tracks that needed to be joined to produce the vast symphonies of Time
. Due to these constant roadblocks, it was hard to be truly certain that what was to come out of all of it would be good – let alone coherent. Then again, there was always a slight, flickering flame of anticipation present, in part because of the sheer talent Mäenpää possesses but also because Jari really hasn't let fans of his music down in the past. Both of the Ensiferum albums he was a part of were outstanding and could easily be considered the band’s best work, while his work on Wintersun’s self-titled debut was a concept so well-realized that one would guess that it wasn't the band’s first album. More than just an exercise in resiliency, Time I
is the single most important release of Mäenpää’s career, and while it may not be the end-all-be-all of epic albums, it is nice to see that Jari is still with the program.
What started on Wintersun
as melodic death metal with noticeable power metal underpinnings has been reversed; power metal is now front and center with inklings of melodic death metal underneath. The massive increase in both orchestration and clean vocals provides the foundation that the over-the-top emphasis on atmosphere piles on top of, giving us a record that is absolutely non-stop in its efforts to set the bar higher in terms of grandiosity. The melancholy but swelling chorus of “Land of Snow and Sorrow” is just as wonderfully ridiculous as the bombastic key-backed riffing of “Sons of Winter and Stars” – and the key word here is “wonderfully”. For whatever reason, whether it is that Jari Mäenpää and company have the strange inability to write something benign and calm or the fact that Mäenpää is conscious of his attempts to go bigger and bolder and thus is aware that he can’t make it all seem serious, the music is extremely engaging and fun. While there has always been a rather comical side to Wintersun that might have been a place to poke fun at the band, on Time I
that side is essential to the enjoyment of the record as a whole. The huge and complex symphonies ringing in the background and pouring over into the foreground are as important to the record as the riffing.
Sadly, though, the riffs don’t seem to acknowledge the fact that they have to be 100% engaged as well. More often than not, the keys and symphonies carry the record forward, while the amount of atmospheric conjuration inspired by the guitars is left at a minimum. Jari Mäenpää, the reigning sweep-king of Finland, only throws down a single memorable guitar solo on the album during “Time” – a far cry from the guitar wank that permeated Wintersun
and made it so enjoyable and memorable. Then again, Time I
is a different kind of record, one that maybe wasn’t meant to be packed with melodic riffing and instead was written so that the keyboards play the part of lead guitar while all else proves to be mostly rhythm. However, this accentuates the power metal side of the record and leaves the roots in melodic death metal withering away. The same is true with the vocals, as choruses of building cleans rout the harsher side of the vocal arrangements, giving the album more of a billowing nature rather than a razor-sharp edge. Time I
doesn’t feel heavy, it feels airy, and that may be where Mäenpää missed the mark the most. Gone are tracks like “Beyond the Dark Sun”, which go full-throttle all the way through; instead we have three epics that are good but too one-dimensional in composition and mood. Sure, “Land of Snow and Sorrow” inspires the kind of atmosphere its title hints at, but the other two long-players “Sons of Winter and Stars” and “Time” are too similar in tone to provide any kind of atmospheric diversity – a misstep that plagues the record as a whole.
That plague may not be a death sentence, though, because the record still puts on a display of musicianship and compositional fervor that is quite commendable. This is a complex album, with massive orchestral arrangements that have to be reined in to keep them from sweeping away all of the other instruments. While the mixing and mastering of the album still allows them to rise prominently above all other instruments – the bass is swallowed, for the most part – there is still time to hear the intricacies of those riffs that still remain engaging. The melodies of “Land of Snow and Sorrow” prove to be the most noticeable ones on the album and give an otherwise plain track quite a bit of life and distinction from its counterparts. The drumming of Kai Hahto is as strong as it was on the debut; thundering and bellowing beneath the airy synths that otherwise comprise the majority of the record’s center of attention. The emphasis on clean vocals isn’t exactly a bad thing either, especially given the embrace of power metal aesthetics. Indeed, much of the epic nature of the album comes from the band’s choral arrangements that peak above even the highest reaches of the orchestras, giving Time I
a very potent dose of emotion.
With only three real songs – “When Time Fades Away” and “Darkness and Frost” are instrumentals that serve as intros to the tracks they precede – there has to be a lot of diversity alongside compositional and instrumental quality in order for a record that is structured like Time I
is to succeed. While this album is instrumentally rock-solid and the compositions flow well and don’t feel blocky at all, there is generally the same mood throughout the entire album. That said, Time I
does what it set out to do: engage listeners with an album of unrelentingly epic arrangements and ear-candy that few other albums – power metal or not – can provide. Jari Mäenpää is a wizard, a master of his craft that may be just a bit too focused to realize that he needs to branch out a bit to create his masterpiece. This is certainly not the last we will hear of Wintersun – the fact that this album is titled Time I
is an assurance of that, but for the time being 8 years of waiting was a lot to ask for an album that ends up being a slight step down from the debut. For what it is, this album is great, but for what it could have been it is rather hollow. By just listening to Time I
you can tell that Mäenpää has a lot churning in his mind, he just needs to arrange these ideas in an orderly way that is conscious of the fact that an album that goes flat-out with the same mood and pace for almost its entire running time isn’t going to cut it. I will listen to Time I
again and again – it is an enjoyable piece of music – but there is more that can be done here to make the concept more fully realized and the album more complete. With another record coming in the future, though, there is the distinct potential that things will be different. Until next time…