Review Summary: You know how a song can sometimes paint a picture or tell a story? This song can project a movie.
Melodic death metal is a subgenre that exists for roughly about 25 years now. The genre, like every other, suffered many phases, bands have come, gone, fallen into depravity, some have risen from the dead. Although it's safe to say that the golden age of melodic death metal is behind us, it would be foolhardy to deny that stellar works have been released in recent times as well. We saw a complete rejuvenation of Soilwork, who released two of the best albums of their career in 2013 and 2015. Dark Tranquillity have returned from an arguable slump with 2013's Construct, incorporating various elements from their career while adding a dash of new energy to the mix. Although there were several other notable releases in the last couple of years, nothing really genre-bending was produced.
Enter Be'lakor's Vessels released earlier this year. It's been the first time in years that I've felt that alluring sensation that first brought me to the genre way back in 2003 when I first heard Embody the Invisible by In Flames. The drive, the unrelenting wave-like movement of the music, the majestic acoustic passages, the calm, the aggression, the sense of urgency, the vibrant leads, it was all there. Underlying every song is quite a unique atmosphere, the songs are extremely well written, incorporating progressive elements as well as featuring massive build-ups, which never fail to deliver in the end.
Vessels was a surprise release for me, but one of great significance. It also made me cautious about the next potential big release of the year, Winter's Gate. Insomnium have had some stylistic changes through the course of their career, especially due to the change in their guitar department some years ago, but have arguably never released anything less than solid or anything too far from their core sound. They had released extremely entertaining music, one written and played with great passion and emotion, but even at their best, they were always a finger's length away from creating a true classic. Their 2014 release Shadows of the Dying Sun was great, but was brought down by cringeworthy clean vocals and was a dash too uplifiting for my taste. While skimming through other websites that were reviewing Winter's Gate before its initial release, I felt like the praise it was given was stretched.
Finally, after my initial listen, all of my fears were realized. Nothing really caught my attention, it was just Insomnium being Insomnium. Epic atmospheres, amazing leads, even the cleans are good... Wait. A 40 minute melodic death metal one-song-concept-album? I came in thinking it was a gamble that the band had made and came out flat. But was it a gamble really? After repeated listens, everything started to fall into place. I kept listening; lyrics in sight to get the entire picture. You know how a song can sometimes paint a picture or tell a story? This song can project a movie. With the story already in mind and lyrics written beforehand, all that was left for the band to do was to create the music that would embody the epic journey of a group of vikings on sea during winter. Winter's Gate does just that. From the very beginning you hear the chilling wind blowing across the sea. The solitary lead breaks the silence, heralding the beginning of the journey. In come the unreleting blasts which blend perfectly with the underlying atmosphere, all driven forward by the epic melody of the lead guitars. The multi-layered soundscape paints each aspect of the story throughout the entirety of the album, every note set in place exactly where it should be. Every member of the band is given the opportunity to shine during the length of the song, though surprisingly no single instrument stands out. Markus Vanhala and Ville Friman have truly created their best collective effort on this release. Brutal onslaughts of crushing riffs flow unnoticeably into a flurry of inspiring leads which are followed by calm, acoustic passages which create breathing space, but also carry the song to new musical landscapes creating a playful and seemingly effortless balance of heaviness and serenity. The keyboards, as vocalist, lyricist and bassist Niilo Sevänen himself said, can be a song on their own, always serving to compliment the atmosphere, as well to add occasional quirkiness. One thing that has to be mentioned (again) is the noticeable reduction and improvement of clean vocals by Ville Friman, as well as the inclusion of menacing, whispered vocals by Niilo Sevänen which are the trademarks of this genre. The growls at times serve simply as another instrument, but they don't cower from taking the spotlight in crucial moments, taking the urgency and emotion of the entire journey to another level. Markus Hirvonen never could be called the genre's best drummer, but he's spot on across the album. Never do I find his drumming to be overbearing, even in times of ruthless blasting, and he manages to maintain freshness throughout with frequent interesting changes of pace.
It is worth noting that the mixing and mastering handled by Dan Swanö truly paid off for the band. The mix is close to perfect, each instrument sounds crisp and precise, blending in together into a memorable and unique atmosphere of hope, fear, uncertainty and finally, inevitability. Insomnium also incorporate progressive influences into their songwriting more apparently, the end result being a fresh and vibrant sound that manages to entertain during the entire run-time. Winter's Gate should be listened to patiently, in one hearing, and with lyrics, as it is only then that the magic held within begins to unravel in all its glory. Even though it could be said that Winter's Gate feels like the most epic album Insomnium have crafted as of yet, it is also remarkably restrained at times, and is worthy of being called the band's most complete outing. After a month's worth of extensive listening, this album is steadily becoming one of my favorite releases ever. I may be jumping the gun on this, but I'm reluctantly beginning to accept the fact that Winter's Gate might just be the most mature and well written melodic death metal album of all time.