(In this post DGR reviews the new album by Finland’s Insomnium.)
Taken at face value, the idea behind the title of Shadows Of The Dying Sun is an easy one to grasp. Poetically phrased, yes, but when the opening line of its titular song (and album closer) is, “We’re nothing more than shadows…”, you get a real quick understanding of what lies behind the title.
Very few things in the world can make me as pensive as an Insomnium disc, and Shadows Of The Dying Sun has had me thinking about the passage of time lately. It is a crazy thing to realize, but with this album Insomnium have been a part of my life for almost a decade, as I joined the zeitgeist like so many others did with the masterful Above The Weeping World. Since then, the band have been a hallmark of consistently great music, with Across The Dark representing an incremental jump forward and One For Sorrow feeling like another amazing disc as it grew on me.
I never could have told the past version of myself — who came to see Insomnium as such an important band, one who showed there is beauty in emotions such melancholy, depression, and frailty — that in later days I’d be reviewing their music and getting the opportunity to talk to guitarist (and one of the main songwriters) Ville Friman for a previous website. Insomnium are the band I go to for lyrical gems such as, “You can’t win always/but you can lose every time”, that absolutely take the wind out of my sails. So at face value, Shadows Of The Dying Sun should be more of that for me — another album that would let me roil in my melancholy and depression, allowing the group to overtake me with visions of cold and blue.
Yet this time it’s weird, because as far as messages are concerned, Shadows Of The Dying Sun is a surprisingly straightforward and hopeful disc… for Insomnium.
Two songwriting elements are in play on Shadows Of The Dying Sun. One is the common temptation to create the “summary of our career” disc, which many bands will do along about the sixth or seventh release (if they live that long). It’s the album where everything a band have ever done comes back in full force, the pieces clicking together like one giant puzzle finally solved. It’s a way of delivering a lot of familiar elements to a lot of stalwart fans, giving the album a very “returning home” sort of vibe. It’s music that’s immediately recognizable to fans. It feels like comfort food. That’s part of what happens across Shadows Of The Dying Sun.
Insomnium know what makes their sound work, and what makes their fans tick, and they serve that up fresh on a hot plate. It’s a smorgasbord of various Insomnium tropes, whispered vocals and everything. The Insomnium formula is one that works incredibly well, though, so even with that creeping sense of familiarity, the way they play within their own boundaries serves to keep things interesting. Here and there Insomnium do try to stretch those boundaries on Shadows Of The Dying Sun, but most of the album is spent pretty securely in their comfort zone — while expanding upon ideas that the group played with in the past.
Certain elements of their sound do get a much bigger focus here. For instance, they get a lot of mileage out of guitarist Ville Friman’s singing voice this time around. It’s an asset they had used in the past, but this time the vocal duties feel like they are split nearly 60/40 with bassist/vocalist Niilo Sevänen’s grunted stylings, suggesting that Ville had a much stronger hand in helping shape the vocal melodies this time around. If you really enjoy the interplay between the two, then Shadows Of The Dying Sun is the disc for you. Friman really has come into his own as a vocalist, with many of his melodies lending the band a very depressed bard quality/folk element. He has the singing voice of a lonesome traveling musician and it works well within the confines of the album, echoing off its cold walls.
Insomnium have also really cranked up the tempo on this album, with quite a few songs moving at a fast pace. Fans will have recognized Insomnium’s more melodeath-leaning tendencies already, but this time they appear in full force across multiple songs, and even give drummer Markus Hirvonen the chance to break out blast beats on songs such as “Black Heart Rebellion” and “The River”. If you enjoyed songs from Across The Dark such as “Against The Stream”, and the song “Every Hour Wounds” from One For Sorrow, you will welcome the moments on the new album where Insomnium become the standard-bearer for the Gothenburg kick-snare one-two punch. Needless to say, much headbanging and windmilling ensues during these moments.
The other songwriting element in play is a sense that things are relatively upbeat in the Insomnium world — not so much as a result of the lyrics (many are still filled with doom and gloom sentiments), but because so many of the songs on Shadows Of The Dying Sun are so up-tempo. The pacing really makes the doom and gloom moments feel like interstitial pauses in time, rather than something to dwell on. The songs on this disc feel like anthems for life, with perfectly timed guitar leads and glorious sounding solos coming in at just the right moments in each song.
And of course there is “Ephemeral” — the true oddball of this album — where Insomnium really stretch their wings and throw you a curveball, showing that the band are feeling brave and kind of punchy with this album. Yes, many of the songs on Shadows are familiar Insomnium tracks (with the speedier ones in the mix), but “Ephemeral” is where the band really push their songwriting to the breaking point.
I love this song so much. I also absolutely love that Insomnium had the balls to release “Ephemeral” as the true lead-off track for the album, because it really is the odd one out. It’s the Insomnium version of “You Only Live Once”, delivered in the stanza “One Life/One Chance/All Ephemeral”, meaning it could all fade away at any moment. It’s upbeat, fast, and catchy as all hell. It’s probably the closest that Insomnium will ever come to delivering a genuine pop song. As shameless as it is, I’ll be the first to admit it absolutely works on every count. I reviewed the song separately when it was released as a single if you want even more in-depth views about it. The album version does have some minor changes — mostly in the mix, which favors the low end of the spectrum a little more (the bass is clearly more present), but also in a more extended intro. Otherwise the song remains as untouched and as effective as ever.
The aforementioned song “The River” also merits separate mention. It bounces between a variety of moods, and at seven minutes feels like a journey across music in general, moving from fast, to slow, to mid-tempo and allowing the band to really stretch out.
The addition of Omnium Gatherum’s guitarist Markus Vanhala to the band’s lineup is a double-edged sword. In one sense, I could not imagine anyone more perfectly suited, short of one of the guys from Be’Lakor or In Mourning (and for those one or two of you Insomnium fans who may have never heard those groups, allow me to link you to two amazing albums here and here) than the guitarist from Omnium Gatherum. On the other hand, especially with his other group having released an amazing album in Beyond last year, his playing is immediately recognizable. The guy loves his held notes and glorious sounding guitar solos.
In fact, Vanhala has one of the absolute best moments on Shadows Of The Dying Sun with the closing solo of “While We Sleep”. That’s the sort of solo where the guitar speaks to you. It’s a “fuck yeah!” moment as it just peals in after the “We Need To Slow Down” bridge calms everything for a quick second. It feels perfectly calculated for that precise moment and it really proves that Markus is a great addition to the band — but man, are we always going to be able to nail exactly whenever that dude steps up to the plate.
With all of that said, with comfort food analogies and oddball moments and discussions of a new guitarist laid out before us, Shadows Of The Dying Sun is still an Insomnium album, one where the band work just as well as they ever have before. They still know just when to have that extra swell of background orchestration and key work, just when to make the guitars rise in the mix, and just when to let things cool — to let us see the beauty in the melancholy that they have captured so well over the years. This feels like the album where Insomnium became fully aware of just how good they are at capturing those fragile, crystalline emotions of melancholy and at the same time realized that people use their music not only to embrace such feelings but also as a way to lift them out of those blue moods — as if Insomnium could bear the weight for us.
My feelings about the closing track really sum up my feelings about the album that shares its name. As the chorus rises with both clean and screamed vocals going strong, Insomnium become triumphant — something for us listeners to unite behind as we sing along with the many hooks throughout the disc. And as the song closes, so too does the album, in the same way many Insomnium albums have done since Across The Dark (sadly, no rain this time), with the cold and distant synth playing, yet with just enough in the melody to stop it short of becoming some unmitigated harbinger of loss.
Shadows of the Dying Sun will be released in North America on April 29 by Century Media and can be pre-ordered here. Below, feast your eyes and ears on the official videos for “While We Sleep” and “Revelations”.