Wintersun’s eponymous debut was a watershed album for me. Before Wintersun, I listened exclusively to power metal. If I found the courage to tell someone I liked metal, I assured them I didn’t listen to “the heavy stuff with the screaming”. But the basis of my hasty qualifications began to crumble away as I became bored by the pomp and feather-light punch of supposed “power” metal, and I found myself enjoying the odd song with harsh vocals. Wintersun was the album where extreme metal finally began to “click”, and struck through the stubborn levee that I’d built. As such, it was the bridge for the heavier parts of the metal, an album which made me more confident in listening to the music I liked rather than the music I already knew. That is the very essence of a “stepping stone”, opening up a whole new field of music for us if not whole new methods of listening.
It’s difficult to express how completely Wintersun bewildered me without sounding hopelessly hyperbolic. When I first listened to “Starchild”, I literally could not comprehend the notes I was hearing. The intensity of the blast beats married with the speedy riffs, active keyboard, and abrasive screams resolved itself into a muddle in my mind. Even directly after hearing the song, I could not recall any specific melodies. All I knew was that I liked the racket coming out of my speakers, and I liked it very much.
After a few weeks digesting the album, the soup of new sounds distilled into something I could understand. I devoured the virtuoso soloing in songs like “Winter Madness” and “Battle Against Time”. The consonant melodies sweetening the album as in “Sleeping Sun” appealed to my power metal sensibilities. Despite its blatantly poor lyrics, “Sadness and Hate” communicated to me a depth and breadth of emotion I did not realize this newfangled “screaming” business was capable of achieving. “Starchild”, with its infectiously passionate chorus and breakneck composition – complete with a slow, sensitive interlude – shot to the top of my “Favorite Songs of All Time” list. Through Wintersun, a new realm of music was suddenly accessible to me – and its unquestioned god was Jari Maenpaa.
I was prepared to bash this album. I was prepared to validate the reasons that have led me to neglect this album for the past couple years. For example, some of the songs are horrendously bloated. “Battle Against Time” and “Sleeping Stars” each have nearly two minute long intros that add nothing of particular merit, and “Beautiful Death” reverses the formula with a worthless two minute outro. The keyboard is reedy thin at times, especially when forced to carry the melody without the aid of the guitars. And frankly, “Winter Madness” lacks the melodic seasoning that carries the other songs, and its technically impressive solo just doesn’t sound as nice as Jari’s effort in “Battle Against Time”.
But despite these legitimate issues that led me to stray away from Wintersun, a concerted listen with fresh ears has proven that my concerns are not so grave as I once thought. The album relies heavily on the strength of the riffs which form the backbone of its songs, but fortunately Jari Maenpaa can write uncommonly melodic leads. “Starchild”, “Sleeping Sun”, and “Sadness and Hate” all work off a single benchmark lead that grounds the songs and allows for a return to familiar territory. Normally, this would be a setup for failure in metal – but in part because of the strength of the riffs, the repetition is welcomed. Jari also uses a clever technique to keep the same riffs sounding fresh and exciting. In “Starchild”, Jari introduces the benchmark riff early and often. In doing so, he creates a listener’s expectation of where and when the riff will appear. Then, about halfway through the song, the brilliant riff conspicuously disappears as the song takes a turn into more progressive, experimental avenues. Finally, as the song reaches its climax in the closing moments, the vocal chorus returns – but this time without the riff that had previously undergirded the chorus, or the entire first half of the song for that matter. In this manner, Wintersun creates and subverts expectations in order to keep the same riffs viable throughout the duration of a song.
Now, I can fully understand the album that melted my brain years ago. I can understand the use of tension and release in “Sadness and Hate” that I could once only feel. I no longer revere the album to the point that I cannot laugh at the fact that Jari’s Finnish accent somehow becomes a Boston accent whenever he says the word “star” (24 times), which marginally reduces the emotional impact of songs like “Stahchild.” But for all it is and all it’s not, Wintersun packs enough juice to satisfy discerning melodeath listeners, and will always hold a special place in my collection for being the harbinger of a new era in my metal listening.