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

Movie Night: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Year: 2018
Genre: Fantasy
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler

The  second installment of the “Fantastic Beasts” series featuring the adventures of Magizoologist New Scamander.

I was curious at the critical dislike for this movie, considering how successful “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” was back in 2016. In fairness, I didn’t go to see this movie in theaters when it was released, although I do regret that – if nothing else, the Wizarding World films have proved to be some of the most visually spectacular in recent cinema history.

After a while, I began to assume the hate was directed at poor casting choices, or controversial thematic material (e.g. Dumbledore’s alluded-to romance with Grindelwald), but I never really paid much attention until I finally watched the film the other night.

I thought it was great.

No, really – I actually very much enjoyed it. I do think I understand some of the criticism levied at it – in particular the plethora of characters, the inexplicable rewriting of wizarding history, and the bizarre, one-line reference to homosexuality (I mean, either dive in and embrace it, or just forget about it) – but for me, it was a worthwhile installment in what I hope will become an excellent series.

I was afraid that Johnny Depp would bring his characteristically outrageous performance to Gellert Grindelwald and ruin the character; I was also disappointed at the casting of an American in a distinctly European role. I was also afraid that Jude Law, who in my eyes can really only play a villain, would ruin Dumbledore for me.

I’m glad to say I was wrong. Depp was surprisingly understated and reserved – just what was called for. Law was able to be both charismatic, charming and dangerous – exactly what I wanted Dumbledore to be. And the supporting cast all performed admirably, as well.

The movie isn’t without imperfections; as a sequel to “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, Newt Scamander’s role is becoming somewhat relegated to the sidelines of another story. In fact, it really seems like the first film should have stood on its own, and this one been called something else entirely. I agree with the criticism of having a large number of characters, but not with the idea that there are too many to care about; I’m used to plentiful characters from Rowling’s novels, and it fit the feel of what she’s created in the past.

In the end, I’m glad I watched it, and although it’s no “Deathly Hallows”, it holds a dear place in my heart as a continuation of Rowling’s admirable magical world.

8/10 would watch again.

J.K. Rowling once again creates more than fantastic beasts.

I realize I’m a little late to the party on this one, but I just came back from watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Oddly enough, Little Satis didn’t particularly want to see it, though I’m not certain why; he’s loved everything related to Harry Potter for years.

In any case, I went in with deliberately low expectations, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a spin-off. Spin-offs are rarely any good (in my experience). Second, it’s not a book. And whilst the Harry Potter series is certainly not without its flaws, J.K. Rowling clearly proved herself as a fantastic author of books. The films that followed were better or worse, depending on the movie, but they couldn’t compare to the books, simply because they aren’t books. Adaptations, by necessity, are abbreviated.

In my estimation, she’s outdone herself.

And I have to say, I found myself pleasantly surprised. Granted, Rowling had some practice with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in terms of writing for the stage, but this is, to my understanding, her first attempt at developing a fully-fledged screenplay, dedicated to being seen on film.

And in my estimation, she’s outdone herself. I just finished writing an article about character development for the review blog Girl Who Reads (look for it on Friday!), and I rather wish I had had this movie to talk about in terms of what that looks like as a success. Despite introducing us to an almost entirely new set of characters (even Gellert Grindlewald is only referenced in the Harry Potter books), Rowling has managed to create fully living, breathing characters for whom we feel empathy, concern, and—dare I say it—love. Newt Scamander (portrayed admirably by Eddie Redmayne) is hardly a great wizard, but holds a whimsical charm that I can only compare to Bilbo Baggins—a character of values, morals and oddities. Every other character is equally well fleshed-out, with hints of backstory that are never overdone, nor ham-fisted down our throats.

The pacing is equally excellent, perhaps even better than that of her novels: whilst there is plenty of action to entertain, there are also serenely calm and beautifully charming moments that allow us to breathe, take in the surroundings, and experience once more the wizarding world that Rowling has so deftly created.

If this is Rowling’s first attempt at a screenplay, I’m excited to see what else she has in store for us. Unlike the Star Wars universe (which I also talk about on Friday), this feels like a natural expansion of the universe that we’ve come to love so dearly. There are, of course, references for the fans, but again they are not overt or in your face, and fit in well with the overall plot and pacing of the story.

Little Satis was ultimately glad to have seen the movie, and my wife, who’s hardly the biggest Potter fan in the world, enjoyed it as well. It’s one I would gladly watch again, and will proudly sit alongside the previous eight films as part of what I hope will become an ever-growing world of wizards and witches.