Album Review: Anno 1696 by Insomnium

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.

4/5 stars

We don’t learn music anymore.

It’s no secret I love music. From my background as a pianist and composer to the wealth of songs from rock and metal artists around the world, it’s rare to find a moment when I’m not listening to music of some kind. From Beethoven to Behemoth, and Mozart to Mastodon, music is a central, fundamental part of my life, and I don’t think I could survive without it.

To that extent, the evolution of music consumption has been fascinating to me over the past few decades. To a large extent, I think the change from physical media to online streaming platforms has been a positive one, allowing far more artists to disseminate their music than ever before, getting their creations into the hands – and ears – of their fans. The ability to distribute music over the internet has revolutionized entire music scenes, never mind the industry as a whole, and where once young bands had to pawn their homemade tapes and CDs at gigs to the same crowds over and over, they can now see their music heard literally the world over with almost no effort whatsoever.

The ability to make revenue from record sales, of course, has diminished drastically, with streaming companies paying out fractions of pennies to starving artists, whilst keeping the bulk of their subscription costs to themselves. There are always two sides to every coin, and in this case the ability to distribute content globally means far less revenue per sale, or in most cases, per stream.

But there’s another aspect to streaming that I think has perhaps diminished our ability to truly enjoy and appreciate music, and it’s the overwhelming quantity of music available. With great quantity comes, if not a reduction in quality, a reduction at least of our ability to absorb the music and truly grow to know a song or album inside out.

Let me give you an example. Back in the early 2000s, I would frequently visit a local CD store to discover new music. Whilst there were a handful of bands who I knew, and would eagerly purchase each release the day it came out, I was also interested in discovering music from artists I had perhaps heard less of – or never heard of at all. To this extent, I would spend hours browsing albums, looking for album art, band names, and lyrics that spoke to me – all before ever hearing the music at all.

There was a lot of junk I discovered this way; artists who, had I been able to hear their music before purchase, I would likely have never spent money on. But there were some true gems, too – albums that stayed on heavy rotation, and which I grew to know like the back of my hand.

This lack of abundance – the fact that I could only afford to purchase a few albums a month – meant that I would spend those months listening to the same albums on repeat, over and over again, until I knew intimately which song came after which, exactly when the chorus was coming up, and was even able to sing along (to those songs that weren’t death metal) to the lyrics. I know Opeth’s masterpiece, Blackwater Park, better than I know some of my own compositions. I could sing along to ever single track from Sentenced’s brooding goth rock albums – especially Crimson and The Cold White Light.

The point here is that I learned these albums. They became a part of my subconscious, due to no other reason than I had nothing else to listen to. I might have listened to album 2-3 times a day back then – close a hundred times a month, until another album came out that I could afford to buy, and then I’d listen to that one a hundred times over as well.

This just doesn’t happen anymore. In the past few weeks, two of my favorite bands released new albums: Katatonia’s Sky Void of Stars, and Insomnium’s Anno 1696. I’ve listened to them a handful of times, certainly, but before long I get distracted, listen to some other new music, or have Siri play random songs ‘picked just for’ me. In the past, I would have been listening to these albums on endless repeat.

The worse part of this is that, in order for a song or album to truly qualify for that now-unattainable “endless-repeat” status, it has to be of absolute stellar quality. And not every band, every time, can produce that level of quality. Even Opeth, arguably my favorite band of all time, have released albums recently that I’ve only listened to a handful of times. It’s not because they’re bad albums; it’s just because the choice of infinite other music means that unless I’m utterly blown away at first listen, I’ll eventually drift off to other new entertainment.

In the long term, I think this may lead to another musical detriment: the absence of strong, thought-out albums. Sure, there will be some artists that will continue to write just what they want to write, but for many, this mentality of having to come up with “instant hits” may mean that they sacrifice long-form integrity for the sake of a quick success. Albums that contain one or two killers tracks, and the rest is hot garbage.

Of course, the concept of “filler” tracks isn’t terribly new. But I do fear that we may, over the coming decades, even see the death of the album altogether, as it becomes physically and financially easier to just release individual songs as they’re recorded. Even Slipknot have done this recently, with tracks such as All Out Life, and more recently Bone Church, not being intended for an album at all.

In any case, this is the evolution of music consumption. It isn’t inherently good or bad, but I do miss the days when I would “learn” an album simply because I would have no choice but to listen to it over and over again. I don’t think I can say I truly “know” an album released in the past fifteen years.

I hope that one day, someone will release an album that I’m so taken with, I only want to listen to it, and nothing else, for a month straight.

We shall see.

The Best Albums of the Past 10 Years

Those of you who know me will know that music is a deeply integral part of my life, from listening to performing to composing. Even as a child, I knew there was a magic in music, something that spoke deeply to my soul and lifted me up, even out of the deepest depressions.

As my musical tastes evolved from classical to rock and metal, I’ve never stopped enjoying everything that I’ve ever liked, and what’s wonderful about this is that I have only an ever-expanding list of music that truly bring me joy. And the best of that music, the songs, works and albums that stand head and shoulders above the rest, are those I would take with me truly to a desert island – they are those I could not live my life without.

There has been a great deal of incredible music released over the past ten years, and I feel that the beginning of 2020 is an apt time to look back on the last decade, sift through the hundreds of albums I’ve amassed in my library, and see which ones spoke to me deeply, truly, and with heartfelt passion. It was no easy task, but I was finally able to whittle it down to ten albums that, for me, are the essential highlights of the 2010s.

10. Ritual – In This Moment

Ritual, released 2017

In This Moment are a band I’ve kept a close eye on ever since I heard the title song from their album, Beautiful Tragedy. There was something raw and powerful about Maria Brink’s angst-ridden vocals, and although there were issues with her tone and pitching, I knew this was a band that could truly come to the forefront of the alt-metal scene with a bit of practice.

The good news is, Brink has definitely been practicing. Album after album her vocals improved, as did the songwriting, and slowly a mix of genres begin to find their way into the scream-ridden despair of their music. 2014’s Black Widow was a masterpiece of bleak, gothic metal, dripping with rage and fear, but it was with Ritual, in 2017, that I felt they’d truly come into their own. With influences as wide-ranging as blues and pop, and a cameo appearance by Judas Priest’s very own Rob Halford, it sounds nothing so much as if Adele were tortured, nailed to an upside-down cross, and force-fed to a wild pack of wolves – and I love it. Ritual is, so far, their crowning masterpiece, and for me one of the best alt-metal albums of the decade.

9. Black Labyrinth – Jonathan Davis

Black Labyrinth, released 2018

Ever a fan of Korn’s low-tuned nu metal antics, I was curious to see what frontman Jonathan Davis’ first solo album would be like. Would it be a Korn 2.0? Would it be 80s alternative? Would it just be a rip-off of whatever bands came before Korn?

The answer, oddly, is a bit of all of that. More personal than Korn, and indeed at times darker (imagine that!), Black Labyrinth is a journey through the mind of a deeply hurt, guilt-ridden and exhausted person – someone who’s been through all the shit the world could throw at him, and still keeps coming back for more. Nowhere is this more evident than on tracks such as Happiness and Your God, with Davis cursing the vile minds surrounding him for stripping him of joy, faith, and humanity. Musically, the style is reminiscent of Korn, but if Korn had started in the early 80s rather than the 90s, and the influence of his childhood music is evident here. The opening to Underneath My Skin sounds like it could have been taken straight from an early Sisters of Mercy track, and the deep bass riff of What You Believe could have been a Michael Jackson bass line, distorted and on speed.

More than this, though, this album connected deeply with me emotionally, the lyrics relatable and meaningful to someone who also struggles with mental illness, addiction, and finding self-worth. Davis truly poured himself into this album, and it shows.

8. Hammer of the Witches – Cradle of Filth

Hammer of the Witches, released 2015

Ever since their seminal debut, Cradle of Filth have set the bar for melodic black metal, and whilst they’ve had their ups and downs in the quality of their output over the years, there are a few albums that stand out as true masterpieces of the genre, blending gothic style, brutal riffs, searing vocals and orchestral flourishes into something straight out of hell.

Hammer of the Witches is one of these. Opening as they so often do with an orchestral prelude, we’re thrown to the beast immediately with the first true track, Yours Immortally …, and while the following tracks are excellent examples of Cradle of Filth’s mix of horror and the gothic, when we get to Blackest Magick in Practice we’re treated to a truly gorgeous riff – something straight out of Iron Maiden’s back catalogue, leading relentlessly onward over the course of nearly seven minutes to a flourishing finish, laden with razor-sharp solos and soaring female vocals.

The rest of the album is equally enjoyable, and for its 57-minute run time it never feels dull or drawn-out. Every song is unique, yet instantly identifiable, and is unreservedly their best album of the past ten years.

7. The Ninth Hour – Sonata Arctica

The Ninth Hour, released 2016

Over the years, Sonata Arctica have stayed in the running for one of my favorite bands of all time. When they’re bad they’re good, and when they’re good they’re nothing short of musical perfection.

That being said, they’ve suffered in recent years from a series of lackluster albums, experimenting with various compositional aspects, failing as often as they succeeded. Ever since 2009’s The Days of Grays (to this day my favorite album of theirs), they followed with Stones Grow Her Name, with some odd songs and odder production, and Pariah’s Child, which frankly had some very silly stuff on it.

After two albums of, I hate to say, disappointment, I really didn’t have high expectations for The Ninth Hour. Perhaps that was a good thing, because it blew me away. Whilst they remain far from the best lyricists in the world, the sensitivity and delicate treatment of their quieter moments, juxtaposed with the fast-paced, juggernaut power metal they built their reputation on, made for an astonishingly good album. Even at 62 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and the middle of the album – typically reserved for a band’s weakest songs – are supported by the deeply sad Til Death Do Us Part and the ever-so-delicate Among the Shooting Stars. Even the 10-minute sequel to White Pearl, Black Oceans feels natural and thought-out, and the gentle, almost tragic subtlety of On the Faultline (Closure to an Animal), borrowing from the lyrical and musical themes of the opening track, is an absolutely perfect end to a nearly perfect album.

7. Shadows of the Dying Sun – Insomnium

Shadows of the Dying Sun, released 2014

Winter’s Gate aside, Insomnium are not a band who veer too far from their tried-and-true formula for making albums. You always get a short opening track that builds to lead directly into the second track, invariably the catchy, riff-laden single, before veering away into longer, more cerebral songs. Shadows of the Dying Sun is no exception, but the difference here is that where many of their previous albums’ later songs are somewhat interchangeable, each track on this album stands out in its own right, placed exactly where it should be, and following each other in a very natural order.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that Shadows of the Dying Sun is so far Insomnium’s best work, and make them for me one of the strongest staples of the melodic death metal scene. From the lyrical and memorable chorus of While We Sleep to the roaring fury of Black Heart Rebellion, and even the upbeat and encouraging Ephemeral, every moment of this album is crafted and tailored with care to ensure that ever song is as important as the next. There are perhaps better albums than this in the past decade, but something keeps drawing me back to this release – something honest, melancholic and yet hopeful.

5. The Book of Souls – Iron Maiden

The Book of Souls, released 2015

When Bruce Dickinson returned to the fold in 2000, bringing Adrian Smith with him to complete a triple-lead guitar lineup, it was to create one of their most masterful albums ever – the seminal Brave New World. Taking inspiration from their attempts at progressive metal in the 90s, and blending it with the melodic and bouncing riffs of the 80s that put them on the map, Brave New World was a sensation, truly proving that even an aging 80s metal band could still have something important to contribute to the world of music.

The succeeding releases, however – Dance of Death, A Matter of Life and Death and The Final Frontier – were progressively less impressive, harkening back to the unfortunate days when Blaze Bailey was on vocals and nobody could take them seriously. So when Iron Maiden announced that they would be releasing a double album including an 18-minute track about a British airship disaster, I was hard-pressed to think anything good could come out of it.

I have never been so glad to be so wrong. The Book of Souls is Iron Maiden’s most cohesive, structured and ambitious release ever, and if it becomes their swansong, it would be an absolutely perfect one. From the moment the ominous drone of If Eternity Should Fail, leading to Dickinson’s operatic vocal solo, to the epic finale of Empire of the Clouds, there isn’t a dud on the album – despite its massive 93-minute runtime. The true standout track, however, is The Red and the Black; over 13 minutes long, it contains one of the longest – and best – Iron Maiden rock-outs ever, with solo after solo coming fast and furious from all three guitarists, and Nicko McBrain and Steve Harris keeping a rollicking drum and bass rhythm that only urges the song further forward. Second to Brave New World, this is hands-down one of Iron Maiden’s best albums. Ever.

4. Feel the Misery – My Dying Bride

Feel the Misery, released 2015

My Dying Bride have literally never had a bad album. Even the somewhat contentious, electronic-tinged effort 34.788% … Complete in 1998 is still one of my favorites, and they’ve only matured and improved as the years have gone by.

That being said, their previous release, A Map of All Our Failures, was surprisingly brutal and heavy, even for a doom metal band, and whilst I learned to enjoy it over time, it still comes across as a little too harsh to me.

So when they released Feel the Misery in 2015, I was worried about the direction they were going in; were they returning to the more death metal roots from whence they came?

I need not have worried. Feel the Misery is quite possibly their most gloomy, melancholic album to date. It’s also one of their most concise, consisting of only eight tracks, most of which are under six minutes long. And whilst the first three, somewhat more epic tracks, flow smoothly into each other and have each their magic moments, it’s really when we get to the title track that you realize just how masterful this album truly is. Not only are A Thorn of Wisdom and I Celebrate Your Skin some of My Dying Bride’s most unique tracks ever, the penultimate song, I Almost Loved You, is on the level of 1996’s Gods of the Sun‘s closer, For My Fallen Angel. One of the saddest albums of the decade, this is truly one that will live in my hall of fame.

3. Endless Forms Most Beautiful – Nightwish

Endless Forms Most Beautiful, released 2015

I’ve always loved Nightwish’s bombastic, symphonic power metal, but when they started recording with live orchestras in 2002 with Century Child, they really became a different beast altogether. Never looking back, Nightwish have gone from strength to strength, even through three different vocalists, and when they released the concept album Imaginaerum in 2011, I didn’t think they’d be able to top it.

I was wrong. 2015’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful, inspired by the writings of Charles Darwin, is all that Imaginaerum was, and more. Not quite a concept album, the songs are more loosely based around the magic and wonder of the natural universe, with several songs directly referencing evolution as the most wondrous thing to ever occur in the history of time.

But beyond the lyrical content, the songs themselves are perfectly balanced, the orchestra blending seamlessly into the metal to the extent that neither one would work without the other. Every song is crafted masterfully, and the closer – the 24-minute epic The Greatest Show on Earth – is perhaps the album’s highlight, featuring spoken words from Richard Dawkins, blends of whale song and lion roars, and a dark, atmospheric piano opening that builds and builds to a massive crescendo by the final third of the song.

Endless Forms Most Beautiful is not only one of the best symphonic metal albums of the decade, it is truly one of the best albums, period.

2. .5: The Gray Chapter – Slipknot

.5: The Gray Chapter, released 2014

Slipknot are an unstoppable force; beyond a band, they spawned an entire culture around their music, affectionally calling their fans ‘maggots’, and taking their time between releases, ensuring that every album and song they create is nothing more than sheer perfection, a soundscape of rage and despair that echoes into the souls of millions, bringing people closer together through their shared love of this band. In recent years they’ve toured endlessly, released We Are Not Your Kind to critical acclaim, and seem stronger than they’ve ever been.

This wasn’t always the case. When original bass player Paul Gray overdosed in 2010, it seemed that Slipknot’s career might well be over. Coming only two years after the release of their fourth album, All Hope Is Gone, the band, ever a family, were thrown into despair, and it was unclear if they would ever be able to recover.

Coming on the heels of this tragedy, in 2013 Slipknot also lost their longtime (and famed) drummer, Joey Jordison. At first there was a great deal of rumor and conflict around the exact reason for his departure, and although it was later revealed that a neurodegenerative disease had been a factor, the animosity between the band’s members had never been higher.

So when it was announced that they were working on a fifth album, it wasn’t clear whether or not they’d be able to work through the pain, the grief and the rage, and come up with something that could top their previous four efforts. But of course, Slipknot delivered. And not only did they deliver, they did so in the only way they knew how: by dedicating the album to their lost companions.

.5: The Gray Chapter is a requiem to Paul Gray, and from Corey Talor’s powerful opening lines (“I don’t want to get back up / But I have to, so it might as well be today”) it was immediately clear that here was a band that not only refused to give up, but found strength in despair and courage in the face of tragedy. To me, .5: The Gray Chapter is Slipknot’s totemic masterpiece, a testament to grief, rage, loss and renewal that can – and will – never be topped.

1. Heritage – Opeth

Heritage, released 2011

And so we come to our number one album of the past ten years. For those of you who know me, you should know that Opeth are hands-down my favorite band of all time, so it may come as no surprise that I would cite one of their four albums this decade as my number one favorite. Yet with Heritage, Opeth took a hard left turn into uncharted musical territory, and along that path, turned into something so far removed from the Opeth of yore that it might as well be a wholly different band.

Completely abandoning the progressive death metal that has served them so well for nearly 20 years, Heritage is a look back to the 70s prog influences that had hitherto only been hinted at. Inspired by bands such as Genesis and King Crimson, the songwriting is intricate, complex, and masterful. Each song feels like a session improvisation, and yet with such meticulous attention to detail that it could only have been written and planned over months, with blood, sweat and tears poured into it.

On top of that, the production of this album is quite simply exquisite. From barely audible flutes to roaring rock organs and crunchy guitars, this isn’t an album to listen to lightly; in fact, some of it is almost unlistenable except with very good headphones, or an expensive sound system. And oh, is it worth it to listen to it like this! The sound and production is as much an art here as the notes that make the songs themselves, and despite continuing this style throughout the rest of the decade, they have simply never topped this first ‘new’ Opeth album.