(DGR reviews the new album by Finland’s Insomnium, which is out now.)
A few times over the course of my time here I’ve been able to function as an NCSstrodamus of sorts, and when it came to Insomnium’s recently released album Winter’s Gate, that time came once again. Winter’s Gate is Insomnium’s seventh full-length release and one of those albums where we could not possibly have been more prepared for it, almost like a couple of the reviews we’ve done this year were prescient glimpses into the future, so that when the band announced that Winter’s Gate would function as one strict over-forty-minute-long song, we were ready for it.
We’ve already covered a couple epic-length EPs/Albums this year with a single track of about forty minutes — the ones that come to mind belong to Necrosavant’s Aniara MMXIV and Gorguts’ Pleaides Dust. So a forty-minute track from Insomnium was immediately intriguing — an interesting turn from a band whose discs have up to this point been pretty concise, with each song its own island.
If anything, it was one hell of a way to break them out of what was more clearly becoming a well-working and well-established formula (and admittedly, one I have an immense soft spot for). With Winter’s Gate functioning as a chance to spice things up and really shift things around for the band, not only did Insomnium embrace the idea of the epic-length song but they’ve also wrapped their arms around a grand sound to get there. In doing so, they have put out one of the stronger releases in their disography so far — quite an act, given that Insomnium’s discography up to this point is really impressive.
As Insomnium have moved along in their career they have shifted sound a bit, and prior to this release would occasionally slip in a pretty up-tempo song or two, a song that was actually not too far removed from the canon of tradional melo-death songs as opposed to their original hybrid of melo-death and moodier doom. So there’s a precedent for Insomnium kicking things up a notch.
What came as a surprise, though, was the opening segment of Winter’s Gate and just how much of it was a blast-section on the drums. The disc actually opens as you would expect from an Insomnium disc, and in some ways Winter’s Gate has basically allowed the band to pick out a “best of” Insomnium and compact all of it into a forty-minute track, but even then, Insomnium’s work hasn’t been so blast-heavy up to this point.
Winter’s Gate opens huge, with a quiet piece quickly collapsing away behind a wall of fast guitar, immense choir, and a wall of cymbal and snare that has drummer Markus Hirvonen just raining hell down on his kit for a bit. Considering that the album art for Winter’s Gate is a drawing of a mountain, and with the disc itself serving as one story, the immensity of the opening makes sense.
A good chunk of Winter’s Gate is actually spent treading amidst the swell of keys and bombastic choir, really only calming down toward the middle of the song, so you’ll know within the opening five minutes of Winter’s Gate whether you’ll be locked in for the rest of the album.
The tracklist is broken up into several distinct segments, but the song itself spills into each track, so those moments of separation on the album list feel more like a formality than any actual hard stop.
One of the things that has worked best for Insomnium is when they get “literary” — for lack of a better term. It has led to the releases that stand out the most in their discography. It is the times when the band cite poets, quoting them verbatim at times, and also penning lyrics themselves that go beyond the simpler and more straightforward songs. I’ve found that when the lyrics sheet itself reads like poetry, Insomnium tend to elevate themselves into a much loftier position.
While their more straightforward songs can be varying shades of “pretty good”, when the group get a little highbrow is when they become absolutely great. Winter’s Gate plays to that strength, achieving the aforementioned “best of” sound that the band have going for most of the song. They pick and play with elements that had previously been used maybe once or twice, and really expand upon them here.
Winter’s Gate is a huge song and they go for a big sound to match it, really flexing out each individual element and rarely stopping, the moments of calm being few and far between. Lyrically. they use the same approach, telling a massive story, with the only breaks serving as a change in the act-structure for the song. If you have an appreciation for dramatic structure, you can recognize some of the gears turning within the overall Winter’s Gate machine, but seeing how they function serves to make things more fascinating in this case because Insomnium really do make things work here.
A key test for an album like Winter’s Gate is whether you would want to sit through the whole thing live, and in this case it’s a resounding yes. The song has every member of the group playing to his strengths, whether it be the numerous guitar pieces in the back half or the story being told, Insomnium have structured Winter’s Gate’s peaks and valleys in such a way that the overall track remains dynamic and interesting for the whole listening session.
The quieter and acoustic moments quickly give way to some of the heaviest work Insomnium have done and the band are also well-served by a large backing keyboard track and the integration of choir pieces, whose voices basically serve to buttress the larger moments of the song.
Winter’s Gate is Insomnium reaching for a larger sound, but it has resulted in the band making a forty-minute track that I would love to see front-to-back live; it is a manifestation of all their best work up to this point, crammed into a dense story that sounds enormous for most of its time. Usually Insomnium have crafted heavy songs that can be beautiful and calm, but this time the band have written a storm, befitting the snow-covered mountain that makes up the cover art for the disc. Even if you aren’t a fan of the brief quiet section, the two massive sections that make up the front fifteen and the back fifteen or so are worth it on their own.
By sidestepping what would have felt like the most obvious forward progression in Insomnium’s career, i.e., releasing another collection of ten or so fantastic individual songs, the band have made something far more interesting and exciting, revitalizing and rekindling what would have otherwise been a “known factor”. Winter’s Gate has jumped beyond Insomnium having reliably good music and instead entered the fray as one of the best releases of their career.