Review Summary: Burn, witch! Burn!!
It is estimated that around 30 percent of Finland's population perished during 1696 and 1697. The witch craze of the 17th century, which had already taken hold in other parts of Europe, reached Finland and led to widespread accusations of witchcraft and sorcery; allegations often stemmed from petty disputes or personal grudges, with the accused being subjected to horrific torture and execution. The resulting fear and paranoia that gripped the population contributed to the tragic loss of countless lives, leaving a deep scar on the nation's history that serves as a reminder of the dangers of superstition and hysteria. Insomnium's ninth studio album, Anno 1696
, orbits around this dark episode in Finnish history while also honoring the werewolf novel Sudenmorsian
, by fellow countryman Aino Kallas, one of the few tales of these mythical creatures to have appeared in this part of the globe. The grim, tragic tone of Sudenmorsian
served as the main inspiration for Anno 1696's
short story, written by vocalist, bassist, and frontman Niilo Sevänen.
Although witchcraft and heavy metal have always been a match made in hell, with many bands exploring the theme in their music, it takes on particular interest when it is part of the artist's cultural heritage, even if for the bloodiest of reasons. Aside from the historical issue, it's also intriguing to see how the narrative behaves when its musical foundations are primarily melodic. Given the nature of the theme, an approach a la Winter's Gate
would fit the concept perfectly, I'd say, yet the lads had other plans, opting for a different route that somehow encapsulates all of their more recent work, including the band's softer side present in Argent Moon
. The acoustic, 'The Unrest', brings back this more serene tone while showcasing an effective and quite enjoyable use of clean vocals, which isn't always the case in the genre. Despite the rawer production that (sound-wise) brings it closer to Winter's Gate
than Heart Like a Grave
, Anno 1696
is actually less aggressive than the theme suggests, creating a paradox of sorts, with the music and production pointing in opposite directions. I would have preferred the record to have a fatter sound without being overly polished, especially on the more epic songs like the monumental closer, 'The Rapids,' which is the album's most interesting moment; or on tracks such as '1696', 'Starless Paths' and 'Godforsaken', the latter featuring Finnish singer Johanna Kurkela, being the first time Insomnium have added female vocals in their music. All of these tunes, in their own way, mirror the band's Homeric prowess and are on par with the lads high standards. 'Starless Paths', which may go unnoticed among its peers, is probably what best sums up the quintet's music in 2023 due to its less formulaic approach and style contrasts, while displaying above-average replay value. Songs like 'Lilian' and the Amophis-esque 'The Witch Hunter,' on the other hand, showcase the band's more melodic, mainstream side, with the former boasting one of the album's catchiest choruses. Were it not for the predictable and somewhat uninspired Rotting Christ-ish 'White Christ', which was tailor-made for Sakis Tolis, we'd be looking at a release of remarkable consistency.
As to be expected, Anno 1696
isn't driven by the melodic riffing of old that influenced bands like Be'lakor, but rather by sustained power chords and blackened tremolo picking, frequently accompanied by tuneful leads. While this may upset early fans who yearn for some sort of reimagined Above the Weeping World
, it is understandable that an older, wiser musician would prefer to make things simpler, it is human nature, and Insomnium have had this signature sound for some time now. In this sense, Anno 1696
is consistent with the band's more recent past, displaying both its virtues and minor flaws. Niilo Sevänen's unmistakable harsh vocals, which always add an extra layer of aggression to the band's sound, and the engaging guitar leads that deliver some of the tastiest solos within the genre, remain true to themselves. Drummer Markus Hirvonen, on the other hand, despite being a skilled musician, relies too heavily on cymbal crashes, making the music sound somewhat repetitive and one-dimensional, especially in comparison to the complex and varied melodic output. A stronger bond between Markus and the cymbal ride would propel Insomnium's music to new heights. Although these are minor details that have no bearing on the rhythm section's soundness or synergy with the other musicians, it is interesting to realize that despite being at the top of the food chain, the band's music can still be improved.
may not be the blistering blast beat assault promised by Niilo Sevänen following the band's previous foray into calmer waters, nor the band's most epic achievement to date, but it does succeed in demonstrating that Insomnium remains a relevant player within the genre, both musically and conceptually. Regardless of the theme's geographical and historical context, it serves as a metaphor for the ignorance, superstition, and lack of critical thinking that plagues part of modern society, often resulting in the persecution of those who dare to think differently from the prevailing moralistic majority (aka rest of the flock). In honoring the women who burned in the fires of ignorance, Insomnium also gives voice to every free-thinking men and women that push the boundaries of what is possible, and for that alone, Anno 1696
is a resounding triumph.