There's a point in every band's career where, after locking onto a formula for a number of albums, the restless muse within impels a departure from established norms. Such shape shifting commonly takes the form of stylistic departure, or experimentation, as it is so often referred. Look hard enough, and these changes usually come right after a landmark or hugely successful album is released. Where do we go from here? asks the artist. For melodic death metal kings Insomnium, whose six studio albums have followed the 'each one better than the last' trend of increasing fame, the band appears to have decided to deviate from what their fans might expect. Interested parties will have already heard that seventh album Winter's Gate was crafted as a concept album. What's more, it shall be comprised of but one song, a shade under forty minutes in length.
No surprise then that the band caught wind of the idea when they were holed up together listening to Crimson by Edge of Sanity. Even less surprise that they chose to work with said band/album's mastermind Dan Swanö, to help produce Winter's Gate. Its become commonplace to hear the phrase concept album uttered with derision, as if we live in a world where Pink Floyd, Queensryche, Rush, and Edge of Sanity haven't penned absolute masterpieces based upon a single concept. Plunging onward, Winter's Gate comes to us not from a starry eyed pack of youngsters but from a veteran group who have proven their mettle and their chops. Nonetheless, will the music captivate the listener with the same all encompassing emotion as past works, namely 2014's masterful Shadows of the Dying Sun?
A frigid blast of wind heralds this ambitious forty minute song. Intended to create an atmosphere of icy cold, this simple sample more than sets the initial mood. As the opening notes take shape, like a figure approaching through the murk of a raging blizzard, tension hangs thick in the air; it really does transport the listener into the arms of an adventurous tale. The marriage of melody and blasting drum work is a tight one, packed with the melancholy only these Finns seem capable of injecting into such extremely heavy music. The first 12:00 minutes follow their own arc, winding up and winding down with the same dreamy riffs and background keys. This melody bookends all the hooks and blasting death metal this band is known for, complete with a couple of quieter, proggy moments. Following that, an infectious bit of plucking gives way to truly creative instrumentation, the prog leanings they wished to incorporate now beautifully apparent. Clean vocals appear, whispering their caress over the capering melodies beneath.
The album tells a tale of both battle and self-reflection, the mood of the music reflecting the mood of the character about whom the tale is spun. A downright gorgeous set of leads around the 15:40 mark takes us to a rising, heavy, slower bit reminiscent of a quest in strange lands, climbing unforgiving slopes to face a dreaded and demanding foe. The music manages to be both tranquil and monstrous, guitarists Ville Freman and Markus Vanhala producing an absolute symphony for the ear. Keyboards, provided by Swallow The Sun's own Aleksi Munter, create an underlying orchestral foundation which upholds the album's varying moods. Clean choral vocals over acoustic guitars around the 19 minute mark show Insomnium wearing the guise of a classic rock band, something this ambitious band manages seamlessly.
Niilo Sevanen's throaty rasp may be the most emotive growled vocal one can hear; certainly up there with the old-school Aaron Stainthorpe's of the world. Some trade off between it and Freman's clean vocals make for a duet as tragically, violently beautiful as the hunting falcon and its prey. Orchestral touches were mixed quite well – nary a kick drum or floor tom strike fails to hammer the listener, as sticksman Markus Hirvonen turns in yet another superb performance behind the kit.
Piano interludes pierce the album around 25 minutes in, flourishes of orchestral keys swirling like flurries in a soft breeze, holding off until Insomnium dip into doom along with their forays into prog territory. The results are stunning. This album could easily have been overproduced, losing the heavy and sorrowful heart that beats beneath every Insomnium composition to date. Winter's Gate is very carefully wrought; it envelops the listener like the blazing hearth-fire in some long-ago Nordic hall.
Orchestral swells amid the backdrop of death metal remain tasteful throughout – this will never be mistaken for a Nightwish album – while guitar leads tantalize and then it all fades away. The fire and fury do return, closing things out with foot firmly upon the gas pedal, until the melodies fade out and we are left with only the battery of the winter winds to sing us home again.