Insomnium’s 2016 outing, Winter’s Gate, saw some mixed reviews upon release. Sure, a few publications praised its accomplishments as a single forty-minute conceptual suite, yet others were less enthusiastic about the melodic death metal troupe’s changes in structure and style. For better or worse, their follow-up, Heart Like a Grave, will likely land in the same place for many listeners. That said, it commonly outdoes its predecessor due to some truly gorgeous and devastating passages, as well as a more effective balance of memorably light and dark moments.
Heart Like a Grave sees longtime touring member Jani Liimatainen (ex-Sonata Arctica) officially joining the Insomnium camp to help fellow guitarists Ville Friman and Markus Vanhala shoulder the compositional weight. Together, they aimed to make Heart Like a Grave “an epic tour de force of Finnish melancholy, drawing inspiration from some of the bleakest tales, lyrics, and poems of the north.” For the most part, the quintet succeeds in that goal, resulting in an enticingly symbiotic relationship between symphonic fragility and straightforward fury.
Starter “Wall of the North” works as both one of the best instances of that juxtaposition and one of the best tracks on the LP overall. Its immediate subtle tragedy is downright breathtaking, as mournful piano notes and chords cascade around grief-stricken strings until harsher timbres—percussion, electric guitars, keyboards, growled verses, etc.—build upon that foundation. Mirrored guitar riffs are alluringly added later, and its seamless segue into another highlight, “Valediction,” is quite powerful. It feels very much like a continuation of the opener, and the clean chorus evokes the compact dignity of Ihsahn and Enslaved in all the best ways. As the record continues, several other standout dichotomies—such as the acoustic guitar work in “Neverlast” and the block harmonies in “And Bells They Toll”—maintain that exquisite fusion.
Insomnium’s token savagery is also on full display throughout, with “The Offering” containing an almost nonstop barrage of ungodly syncopation and screaming. (It also houses one of the best guitar solos of the whole affair, as well as some nice classical touches.) Afterward, the grand turmoil of "Twilight Trails"—complete with marching drums and prophetic narration—yields an epic yarn before the penultimate title track acts like a deep and all-encompassing stylistic reflection on everything Insomnium have laid out previously. The ride isn’t quite over yet, though, since “Karelia” conjures magnificent closers like Opeth’s “Epilogue” (from My Arms, Your Hearse) in its instrumental end credits majesty. Filled with soaring introspective guitar lines, beautiful acoustic guitar arpeggios, flowing synth tapestries, and guiding rhythms, it gives Heart Like a Grave even more theatrical heft.
Heart Like a Grave satisfies on all fronts, combining many robust bits of heavenly despair and unrestrained outrage into some of the most awe-inspiring, multifaceted, and engrossing tracks of Insomnium’s career. While it’s not meant as another lone composition, the sequence flows well enough to work as a straight-through marathon, too. If you’re a fan of its predecessors—or just like the genre as a whole—Heart Like a Grave is pretty much essential listening.