Those of you who’ve been following me for a while will be well aware of my love for all things heavy metal, and one of my favorite bands is Finland’s Insomnium – a long-standing staple of the melodic death metal their homeland is known for.
Insomnium have been releasing top-tier melodeath for over twenty years, starting with their debut LP In the Halls of Awaiting back in 2002. They rapidly struck a formula of balancing brutal riffs with melancholic, haunting melodies and harmonies, and have rarely deviated ever since. In fact, if there is a complaint to be lodged against Insomnium, is that each album doesn’t really feel like much of an evolution for the band. They tend to open every album with a intro track that blends seamlessly into an upbeat pop single, followed by a series of more forgettable, if more challenging, longer songs.
They changed this up in 2016 with the album Winter’s Gate, which took the form of a seven-part sequence of songs that actually form one massive 40-minute track. To date, this represents their most adventurous and progressive attempt, but they returned to their tried-and-true formula with 2019’s Heart Like a Grave (which actually contains, beyond the intro and pop single Valediction, some of their best and most accessible music to date).
So where does that leave their most recent release, Anno 1696 – a concept album based on a short story by bassist and vocalist Niilo Sevänen? Like Winter’s Gate, it eschews the standard album structure that Insomnium have used since 2002 in favor of eight slabs of equal-quality melodic death metal (although the opener, 1696, has the feel of an intro track, despite being over six minutes long). Two songs – White Christ and Godforsaken – mark the first open collaboration with vocalists outside of the band, with the first featuring Rotting Christ’s vocalist Sakis Tolis, and the second bringing a haunting melodic performance from Finnish folk singer Johanna Kurkela (also known from her collaborations with fellow Finns Sonata Arctica).
Each track is, as has always been the case with Insomnium, exceptionally well-produced and composed, and with the longest track clocking in at around eight and a half minutes, none of them outstay their welcome (in the past, some of their longer songs have felt a little overbearing). Blast beats are balanced with more tempered drumming, acoustic guitars blend well with heavy riffs, and melody – as to be expected – is paramount to each song. As the album progresses, odd time signatures and longer acoustic passages are a welcome break from the standard 4/4 heaviness that often drags this sort of music down.
However, for all of this, no one track feels terribly memorable, and whilst each is certainly distinct from the other, the album feels missing that one standout hit that Insomnium have been able to produce in the past. At 51 minutes, it’s also one of their shortest albums (only Winter’s Gate, the one-song album, and Across the Dark are shorter), and feels like it could have afforded an additional 4- or 5-minute track that really “pops”.
With that said, what is here is atmospheric, well-written, and fits the bill of a concept album about a witch perfectly. There’s no argument that Insomnium are at the top of their game musically, and the album’s structure does form a welcome break from the standard format that they’ve typically restricted themselves to. Although it can’t be said that it contains their best individual song to date, taken as a whole it is still one of their best albums, and for fans of melodic death metal is well-worth a good few listens to really appreciate the depth that it has to offer.
If you’re new to Insomnium, or want to explore melodic death metal for the first time, you’d be better off starting with Heart Like a Grave, or 2014’s Shadows of the Dying Sun, but if you’re familiar with the band already, then dive right in and enjoy another solid effort by Finland’s premier melodeath act.