Review Summary: Diamonds in the rough
For as much as I was on the fence about whether Winter’s Gate
was as fully-realized a concept album as others lauded it to be, what I can say is that I wish Heart Like A Grave
borrowed more from its audacious songwriting. It is not that this latest offering is especially bad, it just lets you know moreso than any other Insomnium release that there is a strict dichotomy between the more straightforward melodic death metal singles the fans love and the far more interesting, unorthodox side of the band’s songwriting. Think the difference between “Mortal Share” and “In the Groves of Death” when you listen to “Valediction” and then “Pale Morning Star” – one clinging closely to the more traditional aspects of the genre presented in an entirely inoffensive format, while the other is a winding epic that forsakes a solid structure and instead embraces a more freeform nature that does not restrict the ebbs and flows of the band, its tempo, or its lyrical structure.
This dichotomy is the definition of the way Heart Like A Grave
is written. There is a strict diet of run-of-the-mill Insomnium tunes interspersed with a select few gems that prove to be the pillars supporting the album. In large part, the arrival of Jani Liimatainen and the three-guitar attack this creates goes underutilized, and Liimatainen’s additions to the clean vocal department hardly make up for Friman’s lack of singing prowess. Until you hear the incredible layered tremolo riffs of “Pale Morning Star” you would be none the wiser that there were three guitarists, and despite the ample use of acoustic guitars to add atmospheric variance you would be hard pressed to pick an arrangement that is as impacting as those from, say, “Resonance” or “At the Gates of Sleep”. Rather than defining the direction of a song, they merely accent, and for that the atmosphere of misery and melancholy suffers.
A similar criticism can be levied toward the riffing in general – not much is truly memorable, but rather merely passable. To pick a favorite from the guitars would be to look at either “Pale Morning Star” or “Karelia”, and little else. Even the wonderfully evocative lead in “Karelia” overstays its welcome in a song that does not evolve nearly as much as an eight-minute instrumental closer really should. It is all just a bit too formulaic for its own good, with songs like “And Bells They Toll” being entirely forgettable from a songwriting perspective, despite the overall instrumental performances being perfectly adequate. Niilo Sevänen steals the show with the breathy whispers and tempered growls of the title track – supplanted as the best vocal performance on the album only by the powerful screams of “Pale Morning Star” that meld with the guitars with utter perfection. It is unfortunate the clean vocals are not nearly as in-tune with the instrumentation, as more often than not the vocal melodies feel forced. On Winter’s Gate
, their use made sense within the overall flow of the record, and on “Valediction” or the chorus of “And Bells They Toll” there is no such fitment.
Given the fact that, from a technical perspective, the album is just fine, the fault lies entirely in the composition. I have a hard time understanding why there are not any riffs like “Against the Stream” or “The Killjoy” that stick with you long after the album is done. Even more recently, Winter’s Gate
contained a plethora of excellent riffs that Heart Like A Grave
simply does not. Vanhala’s leads more often reduce to simple, wailing highs and the “heavier” riffs of “Valediction” or “The Offering” miss the mark in terms of memorability – a key aspect to the album’s overall lasting power. Without an arsenal of well-thought-out, catchy riffs, the tracks begin to blend and meld together. The middle of Heart Like A Grave
suffers quite severely from this ailment, and ends up losing the listener’s interest before the final few tracks have an opportunity to keep the engagement alive.
The legacy of Heart Like A Grave
, then, hinges on the listener’s ability to tolerate some rather stale songwriting and truly appreciate the moments of brilliance when they arise. From a critical perspective, that is a rather harsh negative that drags the album’s overall worth down into the lower echelon of Insomnium’s discography. It is not as dreary as One For Sorrow
, but is not as interesting as Shadows of the Dying Sun
– it trends toward the former moreso than the latter. Is it a failure? No, there are a few songs here that can be considered all-time greats for the band; it is just that there is far more in the vein of “Ephemeral” in terms of compositional style than “The River”. This is something that has been the case since the band’s inception – that their better songs are always their more unorthodox ones, and Heart Like A Grave
can simply be summed up by saying that most of the tracks here are merely passable from a songwriting standpoint.