I often struggle to pin-point just what metal is these days. Much in the way that the monikers “alternative” and “indie” spawned a train of hyphenated genres more nauseating and indulgent than a human centipede, budding sub-genres of metal seem hell-bent on making me feel old. Still, I often pine for something that is simply metal: an unhyphenated, glorious soundtrack for slaying dragons and hunting yetis across the arctic night. You know, feel good music.
Enter Insomnium’s new album One for Sorrow unto my car stereo as I drove through the winter’s first snowfall. ‘Inertia’ gets things rolling with the requisite opening meditation. Like Prospero summoning The Tempest from an empty stage, clean guitars invite clouds over the horizon before breaking into a torrential halftime dirge that floods Niilo Sevänen’s [vocals, bass] spoken words. Drenched in reverb and delay, a single guitar plucks a sparse call and response as a subtle drone lurks beneath.
Recalling post-rock heroes and unsung metal kin Explosions In The Sky, Insomnium command their guitars with disciplined dynamics and a production savvy that affords the quartet a brutal efficiency with their sound. While many of their peers fill out their sound with a mix of keyboards that can often lend a Tubular Bells-esque layer of cheese, Sevänen and Ville Vänni [guitar] lay out their guitars like so many irons in the fire and only rely on subtle string pads to weld their signature tapping lines to their low-end bedrock.
But while the guitarists draw deep from the standard bag of tricks, you could still count the number of conventional guitar solos on your right hand. Shred heads may call fie, though I confess I didn’t even realize the dearth of solos until I sat to write this review for a guitar-centric website. Rest assured that the album holds a trove of savage string play (see the machine gun pummel that introduces ‘Only One Who Waits’), but the proficiency here is wielded like a paintbrush rather than a club.
Busy tapping lines never come off as crass or indulgent. Dizzying and catchier than a tornado of fishhooks, beneath the fingers of Ville Friman [guitar] and Vänni, the six-string cliché becomes a sturdy firebrand that sears ‘Meandering Through the Shadows’ into your eardrums. And just to ensure it’s not forgotten, the theme is soon harmonized to stoke new life into it and affirm the band’s compositional might.
Indeed, Insomnium comes from the compositional school of Iron Maiden: every riff or refrain that warrants a raised fist, a war cry, or a banging head will inevitably be harmonized. The mid-ranged guitar riff that announces ‘Song of the Blackest Bird’ is patiently carried up through the first verse, and all the while the second line slowly bleeds to prominence as the growled vocals commandeer the low end.
|‘Regain The Fire’ music video.|
The balance even plays into the mix of vocals as the chorus to ‘Regain the Fire’ finds unison growling and singing not fighting for dominance, but rather merging into a duet of Beauty and Beast. The album is filled with moments like these; agile interplay between the band and the mixing board that push both elements to greater heights.
Sturdy as each of the ten songs stand on the own merit, One for Sorrow flows remarkably well from start to finish. The album builds to its climax at the midpoint with the furious trampling ‘Every Hour Wounds’ and spends the rest of its duration making measured attacks as restrained clean breaks allow the riff-tailored drums to pummel upon reentry. ‘Decoherence’ is at once elegiac and victorious, a stirring instrumental on clean and acoustic guitars that slows for some reflective breaths before lighting up ‘Lay the Ghost to Rest‘ like a Viking funeral.
For those of you who like your reviews boiled down to a few words that might amply pigeon-hole the band to a record store shelf that doesn’t exist, Insomnium is damn fine melodic death metal and One for Sorrow is one of the best and immutably metal albums I’ve heard in a while.
If there’s one criticism to claim, it is one that will likely fall deaf on the ringing ears of this site’s patrons. Beneath the dense layers of guitar, the bass loses its leviathan weight that churned the waters on past masterpieces like Across the Dark, and the drums parts never seem to escape the pages of a guitarist’s sketchpad. But as 6 string-centric as One for Sorrow may be, it still deftly succeeds at the fundamentals of the genre: crushing riffs, anthemic choruses, classical harmonies, impeccable production, and an imbued sense of victory that as bad as things may be, Insomnium are all the badder. Unfortunately, founding member Ville Vänni left the band after completing One for Sorrow to focus on a career as a surgeon. One could assume that it’s the only logical next step after cutting so well into the heart of metal.