Review Summary: Diminishing returns
Sometime between 2009 and 2011, something major in the Insomnium camp changed. They have a history of unabashed melodrama that, by the time Above the Weeping World
was written in 2006, had morphed into more of a je ne sais quoi that set Insomnium apart from their counterparts. The intertwining melodies that comingled electric and acoustic guitar, the heavy use of tempo shifts to keep songs fluid and dynamic, and of course an unwavering commitment to exceedingly sullen atmosphere all came together to create an identity for the band. Suddenly, with the release of One for Sorrow
and coinciding with the departure of Ville Vänni and addition of Omnium Gatherum guitarist Markus Vanhala, that identity began to erode, being replaced with something familiar but not quite the same. The riffing became more direct, the acoustic guitars distanced themselves from the electrics and even began to disappear, clean vocals became commonplace, and the over-the-top melodrama faded. Seven years and three albums distant from what I see as the last “classic” Insomnium album Across the Dark
, we have here perhaps another evolution in sound that is a natural product of this identity shift. Winter’s Gate
reveals itself to be an album of restraint and maturity, despite what its guise of a Crimson
-esque epic promises, and clearly displays a changed band that was once criticized by many for refusing to grow up.
There is no shame in growing up, though, and that was clear enough with Shadows of the Dying Sun
. It allows for songwriting focus and shuns away lofty and unattainable goals, instead purifying a vision and allowing it to actually be realized. Instrumentally, this is certainly the case with Winter’s Gate
- the audio accompaniment to Niilo Sevänen’s short story of the same name - as the numerous solos and stylistic shifts pay homage to Vanhala’s experience with Omnium Gatherum more so than any other Insomnium record he has been a part of. Similarly, the songwriting style of Ville Friman proves pivotal as much here as it has on the band’s last two records, providing swift, pure melodies that accent rather than encompass and smother the album’s movements. Their styles combine to be less bloated and massive than the band’s past compositions – for better or worse. The guitars are in permanent motion here, allowing themselves to properly drive the story forward rather than encouraging everything to remain in place and rot. Indeed, Winter’s Gate
shifts its gaze across several genres as the record proceeds, from straightforward melodic death metal to progressive, to doom, and finally to black metal by the tumultuous close. This is the kind of proper motion needed for a lofty, one-track record to succeed, and it is without question that Insomnium deliver on this crucial aspect of their work.
It is a bit disheartening to realize, though, that the loss of this pervasive melancholy has sucked quite a bit of the flavor from their sound. Things are at times bland, and I daresay that I caught myself begging for Insomnium to forsake their careful restraint and say to hell with the thought that their younger, melodramatic iteration was a negative influence. There is a lack of – here again we bring up intangibles – that je ne sais quoi they captured on tracks like “Disengagement”, “In the Groves of Death”, “Daughter of the Moon”, “Lay of the Autumn”, or “In the Halls of Awaiting”. These songs are all so incredible because they take a particular mood and drive it close to the breaking point, yet in multiple instances throughout Winter’s Gate
it feels like there is more to give, and perhaps for conceptual reasons the band refuses to even approach the heights they could have – it is indeed a limitation to the instruments to be bound by a clearly defined lyrical concept before the first notes are even written. Just as one particular style begins to build toward crescendo, the songwriting lets it slip in favor of ushering in the album’s next movement by way of acoustic bridge or piano interlude.
With that said, though, the breadth of the record is admirable. The furious black metal blasting toward the album’s close is harrowing and entirely out-of-character, creating an alarming surge in intensity that the previous 35 minutes would not really have prepared you for. It is a treat to witness the experimentation taking place here, because it has spawned some truly unexpected moments that do not feel like the Insomnium we have known – and I mean that in a good way. The proggy guitar that opens the album’s second act segues fantastically into the heavy tremolo-picked riff that follows, the keyboards from Aleksi Munter dance above the thundering drumming in a blissful dichotomy, and Ville Friman’s singing finally
appears to be at home when properly placed within the album’s many moods – this time introduced by a placid acoustic guitar in a bridge that is easily one of the most pleasant parts of the entire record. On the other hand, the unexpected rears its head in the album’s brilliant acoustic and piano outro, a portion of songwriting that is so good that it feels almost criminal to hinder it with such brevity. In the past, Insomnium were daring enough to take such moments and drive them forth to their limits, a quality that has seemingly since diminished. Sure, this keeps things from spiraling out of control at the expense of the album’s story, but it also means that Winter’s Gate
has a perpetual aura of restraint.
That is the real unfortunate part of Winter’s Gate
: nothing is stretching limits. It is an album written under the guise of experimentation, yet at the end of the day I wouldn’t call anything in Winter’s Gate
especially audacious. One could say that retreating to their early sound and hiding among old habits is far from daring, and I would agree with such a criticism, but one has to wonder what Insomnium were hoping for with this record. Sure, it is a vessel to explore the moods of Sevänen’s novella, and it certainly allows the band the room to touch areas they’ve been extending feelers toward for a while now: black metal, progressive, doom. However, I don’t feel Winter’s Gate
is thorough enough in its exploration of these facets to say any real work has been done in determining if these pieces fit within the Insomnium puzzle. Niilo Sevänen’s growls are the same as they have ever been, the riffing is not especially memorable, and despite the incorporation of so many different genres it isn’t as theatrical a piece as an album that was compared by the band themselves to Crimson
should be. Not even Insomnium’s best production to date at the hands of none other than Crimson’s
mastermind Dan Swanö could propel this above the realm of just another good Insomnium release.
is just that: a good Insomnium release. It spans a decidedly impressive range of styles, but never dedicates enough time to any of them to let them reach their full potential within Insomnium’s relatively stringent modus operandi for this album - one where the instruments were written around the lyrical concept instead of the other way around. This general lack of substance behind Insomnium’s foray into other genres was a problem that occurred to a lesser extent on Shadows of the Dying Sun
but was made less obvious due the album’s more traditional format. Here, though, it is a fault that becomes glaring due to the open-ended structure of Winter’s Gate
, so perhaps it is time to say it now: Insomnium need to allow their moods to develop and figure out how to complement each other. They don’t have to abandon melodic death metal, but it must be understood that segregating each individual style and only allotting a few minutes each is not good enough. Beforehand, they chose one sound and developed it to the point of perfection, but here it almost seems like they have their hands full. It is clear that they want to try something new and venture to places they have yet to explore, but there is a level of responsibility that comes with accepting such an undertaking. Thankfully, Insomnium are talented enough to keep things in line and craft a record that adequately conveys the complex and often clashing moods of a piece of writing, but in doing so they fail to fully capitalize on the potential that such an unusual album structure allows them. At the end of the day, Winter’s Gate
is entirely enjoyable throughout – nothing is even close to being poorly written or executed – it is just that there are almost no moments in the entire 40 minutes that I would call exceptional, where the band went above and beyond to craft something truly memorable. More than anything, that is the legacy that Winter’s Gate
will leave behind.