Finnish melodic death metal band Insomnium have one of the broadest wingspans of any artist in that subgenre, incorporating theatrical and symphonic elements without eschewing the heaviness and rapid riffing that keep one foot firmly planted in the death-metal sphere. Their latest release, Shadows of the Dying Sun, continues that tradition and then some, veering from over-the-top extreme/speed metal to operatic tracks that you might even call death-metal ballads.
Melodic death metal generally includes two major elements: technically proficient, hook-laden guitar lines, and screamed or growled vocals. Insomnium adds many other twists to their particular flavor, with strings, pianos, acoustic guitar lines, and vocal harmonies (sung in normal voices) in choruses. It hasn’t been a straight line from the genre’s originators like Celtic Frost and Carcass, but the result is a more accessible brand of “melodeth” that should appeal to fans of everything from contemporary extreme metal to the earliest waves of speed and thrash.
Shadows of the Dying Sun starts innocuously enough with “The Primeval Dark,” a slow-building doom track that clocks in at barely over three minutes, a sign that Insomnium aren’t trying to pummel the listener with unnavigable ten-minute songs, and the song is just the teaser for the tremendous “While We Sleep,” into which it leads without a break. The lead guitar line is joined by a second axe for some parallel riffing before we get an actual sung verse, musical motifs that continue even as the song shifts tempo and direction multiple times. It’s among the most overtly listener-friendly death metal tracks I’ve ever heard: melodic, theatrical, even bombastic, and far more coherent than I’d expect from a six-minute snog of this complexity.
The abrupt tempo shifts of “While We Sleep” are a recurring musical theme for Insomnium, driving other tracks as well. “Revelation” opens with a straightforward European speed metal riff, then drops the pace by more than half for the funereal verses, picking back up in the bridge to the initial tempo, then finding the middle ground for what passes for a chorus here. “Ephemeral” is similarly catchy, an abject lesson to pop acts that try to appropriate punk or metal for commercial airplay, thanks to memorable guitar lines and a growl-along chorus that play well with the heavy rhythm lines and the rapid percussion that marks this clearly as death metal, while also playing around with timing and rhythm. Meanwhile, “Collapsing Words” dispenses with those velocity changes – the song drives in with a rapid-fire pedal-point sixteen-beat riff that evokes 1980s European speed metal and even its predecessors like Iron Maiden and Diamond Head, although it’s probably the one track that would have most benefited from a traditionally-sung vocal.
The album’s centerpiece track is the eight-minute opus “The River,” comprising several movements, including the juxtaposition of slow-changing guitar lines over blast beats, as well as an acoustic intro where lead singer Niilo Sevänen actually sings – although the lines sound more effete than he likely intended because of his accented English. The track builds from the slow intro into multiple swells of machine-gun drumming and fast-picked guitar leads, but the bridges between the choruses are major-chord interludes with clear and compelling melodies. That song and “Lose to Night,” which I’d call a ballad if I didn’t think that would be offensive to Insomnium fans, show both growth in Insommium’s songcraft and breadth in their musical interests – you don’t write this kind of song if you only listen to metal and hard rock.
There are misses here; “Black Heart Rebellion” is just a giant blast-beat, a sop to the portion of the crowd that just wants it faster and louder and more annoying, while “The Promethean Song” would have worked better at about half its 6:40 running time. Even the title track suffers from the same issue of bloat – and as the tenth song on the album, it ran into my own fatigue by the time I’d reach it on straight listens through the disc because of its length and languorous pace. That’s also a function of the overall ambition of Shadows of a Dying Sun, which, at 70 minutes, is almost double the length of some recent indie releases, and has appropriately high musical aspirations without forgoing Insomnium’s sense of melody and even commercial appeal. It’s the best new melodeth album since Carcass’ Surgical Steel, although with Arch Enemy and At the Gates coming out with new albums soon, it’ll be an epic summer for fans of the genre.