Finland has always been home to some of the best melodic death metal bands around (such as Children of Bodom, Omnium Gatherum, Amorphis, and Ensiferum). Of course, gloomy quintet Insomnium are up there, too. In fact, everything they've done since 2002's debut LP—In the Halls of Awaiting—has placed gorgeous folk tapestries and contemplative lyricism within their tremendously vicious foundations.
2019's Heart Like a Grave was arguably their best outing to date, and unsurprisingly, follow-up Anno 1696 surpasses it. Shorter and tighter than its predecessor, it's a more cohesive and easily digestible statement that further proves why Insomnium are at the top of their class.
As confirmed in the album's press release, Anno 1696 draws on the culture and mythology of the band's native country. Specifically, it "summon[s] a manifesto of grief and hope from the ever fertile and melancholic Finnish soil" by taking listeners into "a dark and troublesome past in Northern Europe, a time of witches, of superstition, of bloodlust and frenzy. And of werewolves." To that end, frontman Niilo Sevänen has even penned an accompanying short story that, despite not being reviewed here, definitely enhances the rich themes and vibe of the record itself.
Of its inspirations and goals, Sevänen explains: "The Torsåker witch trials were a horrible source of nightmarish inspiration. All that talk about 70 women beheaded in this small Swedish parish? It's real stuff from history! And as if that weren't enough, there are also some very dark tales of cannibalism and child murder from the years of the great famine."
It's no surprise, then, that Anno 1696 is also inspired by Aino Kallas' 1928 novel, Sudenmorsian (The Wolf's Bride). "It's probably the single best novel ever to come from Finland. It has this very dark and tragic tone that I wanted to capture when writing my story," adds Sevänen. Meanwhile, guitarist/clean vocalist Markus Vanhala clarifies that the corresponding music is meant to “go back to the more primal and rawer delivery” of Insomnium's past.
That emphasis on rougher edge and macabre storytelling are apparent straight away, as the introductory title track prioritizes hyperactive percussion, crushing guitar riffs, downright demonic singing, and lycanthropic narration. Verses such as "Hour of bloodshed, hour of lies / The hour of murders and vile crimes / No redemption and no pity / No forgiveness of the White Christ” are deeply visceral and compelling.
Plus, the instrumentation is ripe with in-your-face ruthlessness, lively rhythmic change-ups, intersecting guitar lines, and even some bookended acoustic respites for poignant conceptual continuity. It's a captivatingly representative way to start in every respect, as well as one of Insomnium's best songs to date.
Naturally, subsequent pieces such as “White Christ” and “Godforsaken”—which feature guest singers Sakis Tolis (Rotting Christ) and Johanna Kurkela, respectively—maintain that brutality amidst injecting their own specialties. In particular, Kurkela's ethereal crooning (alongside an especially emotive and mystical arrangement) is a standout of the whole LP.
As superb as those compositions are, however, Anno 1696's greatest inclusion is undoubtedly “The Unrest.” A beautifully realized portrait of musical contrasts, its sinisterly sung verses are counterbalanced by an utterly divine folk metal backing. What's more, its robust and pastoral choruses (“Hear not the cries in the wind / Ward off the darkness / Mind not the whispers within / The songs of the unrest”) harness both the most beautiful vocal harmonies and melodies of the entire collection. It's truly a work of art.
Beyond being an essential entry into Insomnium's catalog, Anno 1696 is a highpoint of modern Finnish melodic death metal as a whole. The quintet's characteristic artistry permeates the whole sequence not only musically but also narratively; as a result, it's a meticulously crafted and ceaselessly mesmerizing journey that embodies the best of what Insomnium—and the genre to which they belong—can do.
Bravo, boys, and best of luck trying to top yourselves once again when it's time for the next one!