The fine line between experimentation and loss of direction is one which we have pointed to in the past. In fact, you could say that it stands at the center of most discussions that see the light of day at Heavy Blog. This question, of when exactly boldness ends and folly begins, is one which plagues all of human existence. However, in a genre of music like metal, where experimentation is hardwired into the basic definitions and self image of the genre, it becomes even more important. Insomnium‘s newest album, Winter’s Gate, is almost a text book example of why this question is important and the kind of context that gives it birth. Standing at the peak of their career, with six albums in total and the latest two being absolute masterpieces, Insomnium must ask themselves: what next?
Their answer is Winter’s Gate, a forty minute long album/track that is deeply connected to a book. The concepts of this story, written by none other than Niilo Sevänen, the vocalist/bassist for Insomnium, are refreshingly familiar and yet original. It revolves around a band of vikings but one lost and in dire straits. Far from the bloody thirsty and simplistic image usually portrayed of these historic and complex figures, Winter’s Gate instead sees them struggling against the elements and winter’s harsh grip. This deep tie to a powerful concept already does much of the work for the music; the vocals are engaging, heartfelt and interesting, containing actual depth of expression.
However, this inherent concept is a double edged sword. One track albums are an artform, a medium that requires great talent at composition. From the early works of Yes to the latter attempts like Gorguts‘ Pleiades’ Dust, there are fine examples of this technique being utilized to create a rich soundscape for the listener to get lost in. However, it’s not simply a matter of taking music from several different tracks and sewing them together; this creates a disjointed feeling, with breaks and fadeouts that hint at the original structure while hindering the delivery of the one track format. Sadly, this is the case with Winter’s Gate: it doesn’t really benefit from the one track model because it doesn’t actually utilize it. Thus, it also ends up being a frustrating experience for listeners, denying them of accessibility and ease.
The music itself is, as expected, amazing. From the first moments and their epic, classically melodeath riff, through the emotional, poignant acoustic guitars of the middle of the album and all the way to the inescapably moving finale, Insomnium are still at the very top of the melodeath scene. Their brand of melancholy and introspection is unmistakable and unmatched. Especially apparent is the attention the band have paid to the production, making sure that every leitmotif stands out and is available to the listener for future callbacks. However, that can be said of all concepts albums; calling back to ideas and using repetition in interesting ways is not what makes a one track album.
Instead, one should feel as if a story is being told, a journey made. That requires clever use of repetition, literary methods and musical subtlety that few bands can achieve. Other than the callbacks, there are no elements which speak of a one track composition. The movements are distinct and contain little to no fluidity between them, the flow is a standard one for an album, containing every rise and fall one would expect and a summary which, instead of looking back on all that has passed, only adds new elements towards closure. Thus, the album just feels like a collection of tracks with artificial, forced bridges stuck between them. The blatant effort to say “here is where a movement ends” kills whatever momentum the one track method might have garnered and simply feels wooden and out of place.
At this point, one might say “So what? The album isn’t a one track masterpiece but the music is still good, right?”. While this is certainly true, there are prices that come with the one track model. For one, they hurt the replayability of the music; you’re not always able or are in the mood for forty minutes of Insomnium. With previous albums, you can simply play one track and move on or whichever number suits your fancy. Here, you are committed to a lengthy, exhaustive exploration, an investment of time that ultimately doesn’t pay off more than a listen to multiple track album does. Therefore, you pay the price but get almost nothing in return. The music in itself is great, but the context it is delivered in doesn’t do justice to it. As a notion of art in a vacuum, this is a respectable and bold idea that most bands wouldn’t dare to follow, but whether an audience will be convinced by this format as applied in Winter’s Gate is debatable.
This is not to say that albums can’t be long or demand that one sits all the way through and focuses intently on them but there has to be payback. Unfortunately, on Winter’s Gate, there’s just not enough of that to justify the format. It still remains a good melodeath album, with a host of engaging ideas, catchy leads and an exceptional, as always, vocal performance. However, it feels inorganic, awkward and unfortunately too self-aware at its connecting points. It is still a worthy addition to the annals of Insomnium’s conquest of melodic death metal but it is sadly constrained by an external and artificial format choice that robs it of a lot of its delivery. This reviewer is tempted to split the score at the bottom into two but shall refrain from doing so. Instead, it should be taken with a caveat: the score is high but your mileage may vary depending on your sensitivity to album length, ease of access and organic feeling.