Anno 1696

Century Media
rating icon 8.5 / 10

Track listing:

01. 1696
02. White Christ (feat. Sakis Tolis)
03. Godforsaken (feat. Johanna Kurkela)
04. Lilian
05. Starless Paths
06. The Witch Hunter
07. The Unrest
08. The Rapids

It's not unusual for bands to pay a price for being consistent. INSOMNIUM have trundled along, fruitfully and without fuss, for the last two decades; unquestionable masters of a frosty but full-blooded strain of metal that spits fire into the night sky, equidistant between black and melodic death metal. Perhaps even more impressively, three quarters of the band remain from the Finns' first album, "In The Halls Of Awaiting". Only the arrival of guitarist Markus Vanhala (also OMNIUM GATHERUM) caused any ripples in the INSOMNIUM continuum, and even then the only noticeable effect was that the band grew in strength and started writing more complete and crafted albums. The price being paid is that steady forward progress makes for a poor headline, and INSOMNIUM rarely get the attention their music deserves.

Persistence has its own rewards. Since Vanhala's first album with the band, "Shadows Of The Dying Sun", they have been in particularly fine form: both the bold, conceptual splurge of "Winter's Gate" (2016) and the frostbitten heroics of "Heart Like A Grave" were rapturously received, and deservedly so. "Anno 1696" emulates the most impactful moments of both those records, weaving them into something bigger and better.

Based around a short story by frontman Niilo Sevänen (as was the case with "Winter's Gate"),  the ninth INSOMNIUM album dwells predominantly in the same icy ballpark as its eight predecessors, but this time the scope seems broader, the overall vibe more vividly cinematic than before. The title track slopes mysteriously in on acoustic guitars and primitive percussion, very much an overture in feel, before Sevänen's hushed snarl ushers in the first wave of weather-beaten riffing.

INSOMNIUM have been refining their sound all the way along, but without ever stripping away the extremity or intensity that defines their first few records. Here, the guitar melodies are simpler, more graceful and less intricate than they might have been 20 years ago, but the vengeful hiss of blastbeats remains a fundamental component in the Finns' arsenal too. The contrast between those extremes, coupled with the obvious fact that INSOMNIUM have forged intuitive bonds with one another over the years, makes the songs more powerful and more memorable. "White Christ" would be an instant winner even without a vocal cameo from ROTTING CHRIST's Sakis Tolis. Fortunately, the Greek legend is always a formidable presence, and the contrast between his grisly roar and Vanhala's bittersweet solos is particularly startling. Similarly surprising, in the best possible way, is when fellow Finn Johanna Kurkela (AURI) appears midway through the epic, eight-minute "Godforsaken"; her ethereal vocals winding around the grandiose ebb and flow of INSOMNIUM's newly expansive melo-death barrage.

Not everything points to the same progressive mindset. "Lillian" is simply a great metal song, hewn from the same ingredients as the album's lengthier pieces, but reduced down to INSOMNIUM's pure essence. An acoustic, reverb-drenched miasma, "The Unrest" sounds like a song unearthed from some distant, mist-shrouded past. Both contribute hugely to this record's overall flow and emotional impact, while the deeper, darker and more inventive likes of "Starless Paths" and "The Witch Hunter" fill in the atmospheric blanks. As a parting shot, "The Rapids" is as brutal as anything in its creators' catalogue, but also graced with melodic hooks that sparkle like stars.

Still hell-bent on evolution, while continuing to honor their original masterplan, INSOMNIUM have always been great, but now they're even greater. "Anno 1696" proves it.

Author: Dom Lawson
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