Monday 6 March 2023

Insomnium - Anno 1696 (2023)

Country: Finland
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 24 Feb 2023
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While I didn't intend this in the slightest, this ninth Insomnium album starts out strikingly similar to the Burgundy Grapes album that I happily pointed out was unlike anything I had ever reviewed at Apocalypse Later. Of course, it does darken a little and it has more edges, but it's still calm folk music. A hoarse spoken word voice shows up a couple of minutes in and then it launches into what we expected all along, because Insomnium are a melodic death metal band and Burgundy Grapes are about the exact opposite of that. Those couple of minutes aren't dissimilar but the rest surely is and that long intro worked well as a transition.

Now, even at their fastest and heaviest, Insomnium still have firm roots in folk music, with plenty of folk storytelling on this album too, given that the songs, based on a short story by bassist Niilo Sevänen, explore the witch hunts of the late 17th century, such as the Torsåker witch trials. These events have resonance today and their emotional impact is most felt in Godforsaken, which kicks off with haunting guest vocals from Johanna Kurkela that sometimes feel Celtic and sometimes remind of the lilting voices of the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir.

This is a real gem of a song, by the way. It's fair to say that I enjoyed both opening tracks, a kinda sorta title track called 1696 and then White Christ, but Godforsaken takes their epic feel and ups the ante considerably. It's a cut above from the outset, easily eclipsing the earlier songs, but the second half is especially devastating. Kurkela certainly set the stage for it, but it's the mood that the song finds once it drops to spoken word and inexorably works its way forward from there that truly nails the song as a highlight.

The album can't maintain that level of quality, but it's a tremendously high bar to keep up and it's not far off when all is said and done. The aspects I expected are still here: a strong sense of doom, even when Markus Hirvonen's drums are furious; melodies everywhere, even with an overtly dark sound; and some prog in the how Insomnium handle dynamic play, breaking songs into movements and shifting back and forth between peaceful sections and more aggressive ones. I'm still hearing Paradise Lost in the guitars and early Marillion in the guitars and keyboards.

What leapt out this time was the richness of the sound. There's a weight to it but also a lightness, as if it's a dense and heavy solid but with enough balloons attached to it that we can make it move with little effort. The keyboards are a huge part of this, even though they're not always obvious, a texture behind everything else. If we try to focus on them we won't always be able to, but it's safe to say that Coen Janssen is there anyway building a fog of sound for the regular musicians to play inside. The fact that there are three guitars helps too, because they've found an effective way to divide duties so that there's always bedrock and embellishment. It's a step beyond the traditional lead/rhythm split to ensure that ther'es always something interesting happening.

Whatever they're doing, they're doing it impeccably well and they do it on each of the eight songs on offer this time out. Godforsaken is easily the standout track for me but, the more times I listen through this album, the more The Rapids stands up to be counted alongside it. I don't know if it's just due to its slot as the closer, but it feels more urgent than anything else here, as if Insomnium establish their level of intensity, maintain it for seven tracks and then decide to push past it for the eighth. It's an epic too, albeit a slightly shorter one, and the song I might rank third behind these two happens to be the third epic on the album, Starless Paths. Clearly, the longer the Insomnium song, the more I'm able to immerse myself into it.

And so this is an easy 8/10 for me. The only question I have, as I reach the point where I've listened through enough times for the songs to start to become old friends, is whether I should up that to a 9/10. I don't remember feeling that way on their previous album, Heart Like a Grave, so I guess this is another step up for them. Either way, I see that I wrapped up that review by noting that my son has seen Insomnium live twice now and I have yet to see them. I was aiming to do so in April 2020. I wonder how well that worked out...

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