Review by Raphaël on February 24, 2023.
Let me set the stage for you. The year is 1696, Finland is experiencing a mini ice-age, which means that the crops are dying in the field, people are starving and doing atrocious things to survive, such as cannibalism. Add to all that, the church is blaming everything on the devil and its servants, witches. This is the setting for Insomnium’s new album, Anno 1696. Insomnium followed basically the same recipe as their 2016’s concept album, Winter’s Gate. The album comes with a short story written by Niilo Sevänen, Insomnium’s main vocalist and bass player. Lyrically, each song follows this story with the main difference from Winter’s Gate being that the album is separated into eight songs instead of having only one 40 minute song.
Before diving in, I’ll talk a bit about the current lineup. Since the beginning in 2002, the band has the same core lineup consisting of Niilo Sevänen (bass, vocals), Markus Hirvonen (drums) and Ville Friman (guitars, clean vocals). In 2011, Markus Vanhala (guitars), from Omnium Gatherum, brought his incredible guitar talent making the sound of the band even richer. Finally, in 2019, Jani Liimatainen (guitars, clean vocals) joined the band and added another layer to the sound. I mean, if three guitar players are good for Iron Maiden, why not Insomnium!
On their 9th studio album, Insomnium shows us they are a well-oiled machine that moves through brutality and beauty effortlessly. The album needs to be enjoyed as a whole, from front to back, and you absolutely need to read the short story accompanying it. All songs connect to one another and tell a story of love, trust and being caught between two worlds. The story of a woman’s love for her child and husband all set in this brutal world where it’s not clear what is real and what is not. Told from the point of view of Arvid, the doctor, who believes in medicine, science and genuinely wants to help others. Johan Kalmander, the ruthless witch hunter sent by the church to rid the land of evil. Lilian, the woman accused of killing her step mother and three other people. And finally, Juho Antinpoika, Lilian’s husband, a good man caught in between all of this.
The first song, called '1696', starts with a slow and folky guitar picking. Around the middle, the song greatly intensifies into straight heavy but melodic and full of atmosphere death metal, coupled with superfast blast beats, tremolo riffing and an epic sounding back track. At the same time, things greatly intensify lyrically: “Hour of bloodshed, hour of lies, The hour of murders and vile crimes, No redemption and no pity, No forgiveness of the White Christ”. The music is intrinsically linked to the lyrics and acts as the soundtrack to the story, giving even more weight to the words.
Moving on, there are two guest vocals on the album. The first is on the song 'White Christ'. The higher pitched, screamed vocals of Sakis Tolis, from the greek black metal band Rotting Christ, do a good job contrasting the lower growled vocals of Niilo Sevänen and highlights the words of Johan Kalmander, giving them an extra feel of power: “I’m the one who wields the sword of God, I’m the one who holds the sacred rod, I’m the one who finds the truth with iron, I’m the one who finds the truth with fire”. Most of the song has the same tempo, a kind of slower, thumping rock beat. Towards the end, everything slows down even more and a beautiful slower guitar solo is played. The second guest vocals are provided by the Finnish folk singer Johanna Kurkela, on the song 'Godforsaken'. It starts with her beautiful and angelic voice, vocalizing a capella but then, quickly starts with the full metal might of the band. A slow cymbal and snare beat coupled with really fast double kick bass drums with an icy cold, yet super melodic tremolo picking. Towards the end, after 6 minutes of a masterfully written melodic death metal song, it’s not over because Jani Liimatainen and Ville Friman provide one of the emotional highlights of the album, both signing with beautiful cleans: “If hope, once dead, now awakes If hope, once gone, is reborn”. There are incredible emotions in their voices, one of the many moments you will have chills. The song then ends with a beautiful instrumental fadeout, which ties in perfectly with the next song.
'Lilian' is probably the most traditional sounding Insomnium song. It’s super melodic, catchy and, like most of Insomnium songs, filled to the brim with atmosphere. It depicts Juho Antinpoika’s, Lilian’s husband to be, for the first time seeing her and falling in love immediately. It provides a good pause in the story before everything falls apart. I’m sure it’s going to become an Insomnium classic really fast. It has all the hallmarks of a great Insomnium song. I’m not entirely sure what their secret is: it may have to do with their signature blend of major and minor sounding intervals in their chord progression, that makes you automatically feel good inside. Regardless, no one does it like Insomnium and they proved once again they are masters at their craft. 'Starless Paths' offers what is, in my opinion, the very best Markus Vanhala solo of the entire album. In 'The Witch Hunter', there is a sort of climbing melody that resolves in grandiose clean vocals from Jani and Ville once again. All in all, these three songs prove that Insomnium is far from finished writing heavy, catchy and super creative music.
'The Unrest' is a folky, simple, yet rich sounding short song. The main acoustic guitar melody is accompanied by piano notes, a beautiful, melodic backtrack and superb cleans. Add to that the signature super low whispers of Niilo Sevänen and you have the perfect song to act as a pause before the tragic final act of the story, the calm before the storm if you will. Now we finally arrive at the epic conclusion of this story, 'The Rapids'. It starts with a few delicate piano notes, but it clearly foreshadows something intense. The song is really dynamic, mixing intense death metal moments with slower and quieter spoken words sections. I have to do a slight spoiler warning for the end of the story: in the final moments, Arvid tackles Johan Kalmander on the edge of a cliff to save Lilian and her baby, resulting in both men falling to their death in the rapids. The music brilliantly connects to the story and makes you feel like you are being dragged in the violent waters with both men.
So, with Anno 1696, Insomnium proves once again they are the masters of melancholic and beautiful death metal. No other band can create a piece of art as complete as this. They were able to craft a beautiful story in this brutal setting and create music that is expertly woven to fit perfectly with the story. The attention to details is phenomenal, down to the beautiful cover art made by Sami Makkonen, showing Lilian, who is positioned as if she was on a cross, depicting this poor woman as some sort of martyr, just another detail helping to fully tell this story. To be honest, it’s hard for me to find any flaws to this album. I’m pretty sure it will be regarded as an all-time classic in their already perfect discography.
Rating: 10 out of 10553