Wintersun – The Forest Seasons

There’s clearly some brilliance hidden somewhere in Wintersun. It’s not trivial to make concept albums with long songs and multi-layered instrumentation. To even attempt such a feat takes a certain degree of ambition and courage. Even when an attempt like this fails, it’s hard to fault a band for trying. Hard, but not impossible. It can be made especially easy when the band act arrogantly and set themselves up for failure. Positioning an album as “this is not the amazing album we promised, but something inherently and intentionally inferior to tide you over” is just not an attractive proposition for fans. Even setting that aside, if the music was good enough, that could erase all bad will. If it is good, that is. And it isn’t.

What is The Forest Seasons? That’s a complicated question. Let’s try to eliminate what it isn’t. It’s not the successor to Time I, which was supposed to have come out more than half a decade ago. It’s not the album the band struck a deal with the label for, the album the band talked up as the most amazing and complex work of metal artistry. What is it, then? It’s an album the band deemed adequate to release, to use as fodder for a crowd funding campaign to build an unnecessary studio that has been their unicorn for years. Sure, let’s give them that for a second and judge the album on its merits. The circumstances surrounding the release cycle have been rather questionable, but in the end, it’s the music itself that matters, right?

Well, not exactly. Jari Mäenpää, frontman and mastermind, never seems content with just making some music. There always has to be some conceit, some grandiose plan. The Forest Seasons was supposedly modeled after Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The original piece consists of four concertos, each representing – you guessed it – a season. The concept in itself is fine, it can work. But sticking slavishly to the concept could be a bad thing. Just like how the music is what the final consideration for when it comes to the business model, so it should be when it comes to the concept. However, just like the business model, the concept seems to have been put before the music. The album consists of four 12-14 minute songs, which makes for a rather tedious listening experience. Each track consists of 2-3 different sections, individual songs, basically. There aren’t a lot of motifs that are carried throughout the whole duration of each, so the end result is annoying rather than progressive or clever. The album could have easily been broken down to ten or so pieces, but an obsession with trying to imitate Four Seasons, for no real reason, just makes The Forest Seasons an exercise in frustration. These aren’t lengthy masterpieces like “Sadness and Hate” or “Sons of Winter and Stars”.

What’s worse is, most songs feel artificially lengthened. Wintersun are often praised for their orchestral elements and epic vibe, but they also write damn good riffs. Here, we have a more back-to-basics approach. More simplistic folky riffs, with repetition, are the name of the game. The drumming isn’t as exciting, either. The band really weren’t kidding when they said this wasn’t the best album they could theoretically make. It feels rather phoned in. There are cool parts here and there, and they still know how to write some hooks, but this is unarguably the worst material they’ve ever recorded. The problem is that it doesn’t feel ambitious. Sure, the concept is grandiose, but claiming something is epic and amazing doesn’t make it so. Throwing a concept on some riffs doesn’t make for good songs. It’s not unlistenable musically, it’s not horrible, it’s just horribly uninteresting.

What makes matters worse is that the production is rather lacking. This is almost a flaw that justifies itself. The band’s claim was that they didn’t have a studio to make Time II sound as good as they wanted to, and this album was within their means. So, the poor sound actually validates the band’s claims, right? Well, Time I was produced by the band as well, but it’s significantly better than The Forest Seasons. The drums are too loud, the guitars are too thin and low, the vocals are way too loud, and the keyboards use samples that sound like a budget keyboard. It’s a surprising step back, really. The screaming sounds quite poor, like black metal, compared unfavorably. That it’s so loud in the mix makes it that much worse. The singing is good, and it sounds fine, but it tries too hard to be dramatic. At this point, it feels rather hard to deny the obvious. The ridiculous sales pitch, the overwrought concept that dominates the songwriting, the production that over-emphasizes Jari’s vocals beyond anything else, the guitar playthrough video that shows more of Jari’s face singing than his guitar playing (he doesn’t even play guitar live anymore). The personality is at the center here. It’s all about validating Jari. It feels way too indulgent. Sure, Wintersun was always indulgent, but the quality always justified the excesses. It comes with the territory. But here we see a musician so enamored with his own narrative, surrounded by so many enablers, that it’s rather sad.

In the end, who knows if Time II will ever come out, and who knows if it will even be good. To be fair, they’ve played several tracks from it live already, so who knows why it isn’t out yet. Maybe they need to drag out a few more crowdfunders and release a few more lackluster albums before they finally get to it. And again, The Forest Seasons isn’t even terrible. It’s a mediocre album that has some moments. The problem is that it’s insulting. The way it’s sold is questionable. The way it puts concept before songwriting is frustrating. The way it’s produced is disappointing. In the end, there’s something here for fans. They’ll surely enjoy some of it. But that’s because they’re just starved. Starved for more material from what used to be a brilliant band that squandered their potential for 13 years. If The Forest Seasons came out around 2010, with a sound that the band hired a professional for, it could have made some waves. But after so much smoke and mirrors, after so many years, it’s just underwhelming. The handful of good moments don’t justify all the baggage. At this point, it’s just hard to care.

The Forest Seasons is available 7/21 via Nuclear Blast and can be pre-ordered here.

"If a tree falls in a cave and no one sees it, does it cast a shadow onto the cave wall?"