Feb 162023

(On February 24th the Finnish band Insomnium will release their ninth album, Anno 1696, via Century Media Records. Today we present DGR‘s extensive review.)

It’s an odd realization when it occurs to you that there are now bands where you can almost speak to their entire history since you started following them. While I can never claim that I got in on the ground floor with Finland’s Insomnium – I was one of the class who got into them via the “Mortal Share” music video – it wasn’t that difficult to dig backwards into the group’s discography, considering that 2006’s Above The Weeping World was only their third full-length.

Hindsight being as it is, it isn’t too hard to see that with Above The Weeping World, Insomnium had already laid out much of the groundwork for what would become ‘their sound’ over the following decade and a half. At the time, every Insomnium release was like a nectar of the gods as the group’s profile seemed to grow slowly but steadily, and it seems like it has only been with the past few releases that they’ve been able to really reap the rewards of that effort.

Of course, numerous lineup additions – with very few full-on member exits – have added to the band’s formula over the years, but 2019’s Heart Like A Grave left them in an interesting spot. It was an album full of ideas and a lot of different contributions, but like many albums of that sort, a whole collective of different ideas and directions can often seem like a collection of completely separate songs with no clear throughline. At times it seemed like Insomnium were working really hard to figure out what an Insomnium release was like after having existed for over twenty years.

Photos by Terhi Ylimäinen

The band choosing to return to the world of conceptual pieces for their newest album Anno 1696 isn’t too surprising. Instead, it feels like Insomnum recognizing where their recent strengths have been. Giving themselves a thematic concept to write to seems to revitalize the group, and even something as grim as the historical setting chosen for their newest album still has that same effect.

Whether they are using poets for lyrical inspiration, short stories penned by fellow band members, or the historical witch hunts taking place in the closing years of the 1600s for the newest one, Insomnium rally around a theme like few other bands can. It worked for them when they went long-form during Winter’s Gate, and Anno 1696 feels like the most organic extension of that album. While not quite as epic as the bare-chested shouting from a mountain during a blizzard moments of Winter’s Gate, Anno 1696 brings with it a variety of folk instrumentation and melodies, heavier stomps to match the violence within, and yes, remains just as melodramatic and morose as Insomnium have come to be known for.

Anno 1696 does share a lot of similarities with its immediate predecessor, in that once again a lot of ideas and different melodeath styles are in play. Insomnium have made a career of dancing on the line between doom and melodeath, and lately they’ve been more than happy to fully give in to the two-step gallop that became a defining characteristic of the latter genre. The difference that makes Anno 1696 work a little better is that the band put in a lot of mileage trying to wrap everything around their central theme, and so songs will often go from being straightforward metallic headbangers into folksier instrumentations, to even more ambitious prog-metal moments.

There’s a lot of talent in the central Insomnium grouping these days and they flex a lot of that muscle here. They start ‘epic’ with the stage-setting of “1696”, wherein a lot of the themes and even a few of the smaller melodies of the album are introduced. They go wide in scope in the first song and it feels like the song is six-plus minutes long because that is what it needed, rather than a band shoveling coal into the furnace to try and make the machine travel for six-plus minutes.

“1696” is the song from which most of the album sprouts, with the quickest diversion to the left in “White Christ”, a song featuring Rotting Christ/Thou Art Lord/Solo Artist Sakis Tolis. The band must’ve gotten the memo early that Sakis would be making an appearance within the song because it’s the one time where Anno 1696 really deviates outward, the song itself taking on the stomping form that many a Rotting Christ track do, almost perfectly tailored for their guest’s howled yells in the chorus while the band lay out the witch hunting to come.

“Lilian” – the earliest single from the album – is the band giving fully into that previously mentioned melodeath two-stepper style of riff. It’s a shockingly quick track for an Insomnium song and has shades of previous songs like “Neverlast” and “Every Hour Wounds” from the group’s previous discography. By this point in the album, at four tracks in, you’ll note that Insomnium have already darted off in four seemingly different directions, but “Lilian” is a strong song on its own – hence why it was probably an early salvo from this release – but also serves as a good contrast to the song just prior to it, “Godforsaken”.

“Godforsaken” is the song where the Anno 1696 trip becomes worth the effort. At eight-and-a-half minutes it is certainly a weighty beast, but it is also one of the most ambitious and dynamic songs to come out of the Insomnium camp in some time. Earlier we mentioned that Anno 1696 may not quite reach the same ‘epic’ levels that Winter’s Gate did, but it does come damned close within the confines of “Godforsaken”. It is also another one of the songs that expands the scenery in the tale unfolding within Anno 1696, which can help explain why later in the album there’s an acoustic break before the final closing events.

“Godforsaken” is where the songs within the album start to tie themselves together, so even when bookended by a stomping single before and a solid two-step gallop that follows, you’re still cognizant of the musical journey you’re on once “Starless Paths” shows up for another near-eight minutes of time, rather than feeling like you’re getting the track-sequencing equivalent of being tossed around in a rowboat in rough waves.

Insomnium‘s latest feels like the most sure step the band could’ve taken after the Argent Moon EP. For a bit, it seemed like they were a little waylaid in terms of crafting what made up an Insomnium release and were open to trying out a whole swath of things. Shadows Of The Dying Sun and Heart Like A Grave can often feel like siblings, with Winter’s Gate being this bizarrely epic experimental outlier. Yet, with the folk-metal elements of Argent Moon and the dour cold that often bathes that EP, Insomnium found something to expand upon. It seems that by going forward with a conceptual inspiration and grandiose songwriting style, the band have created a spiritual successor to the last time they got literary in Winter’s Gate.

At forty minutes, Anno 1696 doesn’t overstay its welcome at all. You may not notice how quickly it seems the release has looped back around, with “The Rapids” tying back around into the opening moments of the release. Insomnium put a lot of memorable moments within Anno 1696, each trip through seeming to blur with the next exciting segment coming up soon. While the initial segment can feel like Insomnium planting one starting seed and flying off in a handful of different directions, they do find their center point and keep wrapping things back around to it.

Anno 1696 is impressive not just because it shows that Insomnium can write a great release when they have a central idea, but also because they prove they can still do so nine full-length releases into their career.


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