The modern metal world will occasionally present us with the album-length song concept. Green Carnation, Gorguts, Meshuggah… sort of. It is not a new idea. And in fact, bands like Opeth, Cradle of Filth and Iron Maiden have built impressive records around single ideas, so composing a single piece of music that spans the length of a traditional record is certainly not unprecedented.
Usually it is a veteran band that does it. A band that is maybe trying to push a boundary or define a limitation, if there is one to define. A band that has already explored the obvious, and is looking to see if there is another method of making their music, maybe; I don’t know.
As a fan, though, does the single song present me with a good listening experience?
Strangely enough, in all those above examples, and most other examples, yes it does. There is something about trying to remain focused enough to pull off a forty minute song or collection of songs with a central idea that seems to inspire bands. Stated outright it seems like a gimmick, but in execution it is actually a successful endeavor, more often than not. It can even inject some new life into a band that may be starting to feel pedestrian.
Insomnium has made some great melodic death records, but their last felt slightly staid; average, though to my ears that has more to do with the MDM community building on the premises they helped establish. This is an inevitable effect of being good enough to still be around after several years.
In attacking the single song format on Winter’s Gate, Insomnium have lifted themselves once again into greatness, though maybe not the top tier. But they have brought their fire to this recording, and have forged a compelling, headbanging album.
After a short soundscape and introduction to the main melody, the initial riff comes galloping, bringing deathly cold vistas with it. Said main structural melody is almost earwormy, so having the band attack it so brutally for the first movement of the song provides the listener with something both immediate and memorable. It is a simple enough melody, but Insomnium is able to create a lot of variation from it, so it does not become stale. Other recurring themes keep the song vibrant, but all are tied together with this main melody.
If you know Insomnium you know you are going to get some quieter, folky moments, and you are going to get some clean chorales, so it is no surprise that they use them here, but again they are used to wonderful effect. This is a veteran band and they show they understand their strengths perfectly.
The one thing the album-length song almost always suffers from is moments when you feel like you have heard enough. When listening to music, perception really is reality, so anything in the experience that moves you away from enjoying yourself can kill a song, or an album for future listens. But Winter’s Gate does not, to my mind, have any of these moments. By record’s final third the listener is invested and able to simply enjoy the finale.
Performance wise, the band are above reproach. Niilo Sevänen’s main vocals are as raspy and dark as ever, giving their signature gravitas to the sometimes aery orchestrations the band uses. Ville Friman’s clean vocals are controlled, understated and add just the right amount of counterpoint. His and Markus Vanhala’s guitar work is flawless and seamless. And the rhythm section of Sevänen and Markus Hirvonen are as one. Insomnium has never been problematic in the musicianship department, but there is a fire to their work here that seemed lacking on their last outing.
The production is likewise flawless. The instruments are filthily recorded, and cleanly presented. Even the keyboards/programming are tastefully done. The music is vibrant and powerful without ever losing any of the heavy that keeps it grounded.
Any downsides? Not as such. There may be a feeling that, while this is a great record, it is also sort of expected. It is not breaking down any walls or burning any bridges. In spite of its perhaps intended adventurousness of format, the album is really just a very good Insomnium album, not a game changer. Those that have felt the presence of Opeth will still feel it, for example. And of course, when a record is a single song you have no place to end if time presses. You are either in it for the long haul or you are restarting it over and over. Or you may be careful enough to keep your place, but I never am.
Regardless, while this is not a massive new statement, it is a great record, and that is the bottom line. I have listened to it on a loop for several days and still find myself humming the main riff or a secondary melody. The heavies are heavy, the lovelies are lovely, the frozens are frozen; the album is memorable, exciting and worthy of this veteran band’s impressive catalog. If you enjoy epic metal and melodic death, this is a good choice.