How difficult it must be to follow a perfect album.
Wait, wait… Not that kind of perfect album. Perfection is a pipe dream, and there are no perfect albums. Sorry, Pink Floyd, Rush, Prince, Public Enemy, Black Sabbath, Black Flag, Priest, Maiden, Death, King Diamond, Opeth and umpteen fist-loads of other bands that have produced perfect albums with flaws that actually serve to enhance their perfection in the long run.
Near-perfect? Winter’s Gate was a near-perfect album inside the ever-spinning Insomnium universe because, 1) the songwriting and musicianship was exemplary, even for this veteran act, and 2) it was notably… Unexpected? Not because the band had at long last fully strayed from their steadfast melodic death metal roots (quite the opposite), but thanks to the peculiar gamble of presenting a short story (written by Insomnium bassist / vocalist Niilo Sevänen) in a single 40-minute song. Metal fans are certainly no stranger to this method—even within the limited world of melodeath, Edge Of Sanity perfected the approach with 1996’s Crimson—but based on Insomnium’s increasing popularity that culminated with their most commercial effort, 2014’s Shadows of the Dying Sun, the band seemed set up to reroute the living hell out of the remains and opt for an even more marketable sound with their follow up. Instead, Winter’s Gate basically discarded the ever-encroaching “emotional rock” in favor of a return to bonafide death metal, with the abundant mellow stretches not feeling any less emotional, but certainly less commercial. In short, Insomnium threw a perfect curve ball, and it was very effective.
But yeah, you can’t exactly follow up Winter’s Gate with another 40-minute short story detailing what happened on the other side of that fabled island the Vikings stumbled on (where Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 clearly crashed,) so Heart Like a Grave thankfully does not. What it does do, however, is prove Insomnium ain’t finished surpassing expectations. And likewise, it confirms that the band is still unafraid of mixing in emotional rock elements that (absolutely should) broaden their overall appeal.
Case in point: “Neverlast,” “Pale Morning Star” and “Twilight Trails” are among the best songs the band has recorded to date, bar none. The entire record takes crucial elements such as «soaring», «epic» and «sorrowful» to intensely satisfying heights, but those three songs in particular do so to the point of explosion, and also with the greatest amount of variation. “Neverlast” is absurdly infectious and soars with a towering spirit that hits a peak toward its close that will very likely lift you from this earthly plane; “Pale Morning Star” is so bloody triumphant it borders on ridiculous, and it also makes you wonder if Insomnium somehow assimilated Borknagar; and “Twilight Trails” makes melancholy fucking heroic, shouldering what feels like a lifetime’s sum total of grief by its 5:30 mark, but doing so with a ferocious heart while standing on a glorious mountainside.
This would, um, normally be the point where we’d eagerly share one of the above-mentioned songs in order to strengthen the hype, but none of them have been released yet. In lieu of that, please enjoy the following picture of Insomnium trying to remember where they parked their langskip.
[Editor’s note: the simple act of wishing for one of the above songs clearly had a dramatic effect. A video for “Pale Morning Star” was released today and can be seen here.]
As stated by the band, sorrowfulness is the true star of the show here, and even though Insomnium’s brand of melodeath has always had that touch of dreariness that puts them closer in line with Swallow The Sun than, say, Dark Tranquillity, Heart Like a Grave ups the gloominess ante in a way that recalls the golden age of the early-to-mid 2000s that produced bleak gems such as:
- Rapture – Songs for the Withering 
- Novembre – Dreams d’Azur 
- Draconian – Where Lovers Mourn 
- Swallow The Sun – The Morning that Never Came 
- Daylight Dies – Dismantling Devotion 
The title track is a perfect example, commencing with a forlorn bit of mellowness before a magnificent melodic run buries the listener in a terrifically amiable sense of autumn. The guitar work throughout Heart Like a Grave is nothing short of breathtaking, and it carries this song straight into your heart on an arrow’s tip that’s gilded by that gorgeous lead toward the song’s close.
“And Bells They Toll,” “Mute is My Sorrow” and the wonderful closing instrumental “Karelia” follow similar suit, with the former being the most mellow and clearest illustration of Jani Liimatainen’s clean vocals (which are more scant than expected on this record). Really, the only potential hiccup occurs smack dab in the center of the record with “The Offering”—a song that starts off in a customary Insomnium sort of way, but ends up injecting a surprisingly uplifting stretch of shoegazey post alt-rock by the 2-minute mark that’s candy-coated enough to make the slightly less sugary “Mute is My Sorrow” seem equally as poppy. (It is not as poppy. Close, perhaps, but not quite.) At any rate, “The Offering” is a fairly skippable song, particularly if you’re interested in maintaining the rest of the record’s glumness, but even this song manages to end on a beautiful lead.
To recap: perfection is a mostly bullshit contemplation in a world where a perfect record like Powerslave contains “Back in the Village.” Or, at the least, perfection is mutable, often flawed, and depends on factors such as time and place. With that in mind, the ultimate outcome with regard to Heart Like a Grave is this: if you’ve been a fan of Insomnium for years, you will find heaps to fall in love with here—perhaps to the level of Above the Weeping World or beyond—especially if you appreciate an extra dose of misery. And if you’ve somehow managed to avoid hearing this band up to this point and find the idea of absurdly heartfelt melodic death metal that soars like a goddamned eagle intriguing, you will be equally as gratified. Put simply, Heart Like a Grave is an absolutely perfect follow-up to Winter’s Gate.