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Nightscapes of winter starlight. (part 1) - 93%

hells_unicorn, October 22nd, 2012

There is an open-ended character to the whole process of composition, in any craft, though perhaps mostly so in the musical medium. Styles are often determined not by little nuances in the instrumentation or implementation in the finished product, but by an overt divergence in audience priorities. Contrary to what some may suggest, the division that exists between pop music and underground music isn’t necessarily a level of virtuosic talent on one side or the other, but in the level of intimacy that the man/people on stage share with their audience. It’s a foregone conclusion that Jari Mäenpää has a relationship with his audience that is comparable to a tightly-knit cult, but unlike some other bands that out there, Wintersun has found itself developed to the point where it’s compositional grandeur borders on the level of pomp and largess normally associated with the architecture of Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic cathedrals.

This analogy holds up with particular appropriateness when considering Jari’s long-standing project “Time”, which has finally seen its public debut, at least in part. It carries with it the same level of colossal attention to detail that likely went into the construction of the massive structures of the medieval period both in western and eastern Europe, as well as the rocky production schedule and frequent adjustments that would have come with them too if the corruption of church politics during that era is likewise considered. All one need do is put the 4-minute plus overture “When Time Fades Away” on repetitive play and try to mentally deconstruct all of the melodic interplay and harmonic relations they all share, which culminate in a brilliant and highly unique convergence of European folk and Japanese atmospheric music. The sheer level of different ideas, all of them fit together into a cohesive whole while all being individually intelligible, reflect a heavy attention to detail that alone excuses the massive amount of time it took to get half of the story completed.

One could rightly question the logic of putting together an album that is built entirely out of long, drawn out epic compositions and brief instrumentals loaded with synthesized orchestrations and massive vocal overdubs, but this entire album functions on a level where logic has a far more limited role in relation to the emotions inspired by the starry winter nightscapes depicted both lyrically and musically. Both “Sons Of Winter And Stars” and “Time” go through a series of contrasting sub-songs (the former is officially separated into 4 parts, while the latter functions this way in a more implicit sense) that feature Jari’s signature songwriting as heard on the debut album, but in a more restrained way and alongside a much larger arrangement of keyboard sounds. At times it almost seems as though this band is veering a little too close to mimicking the orchestral bluster of Epica, but with a much more introspective lyrical approach, but Jari’s virtuosic sensibilities manage to paint a picture equally as massive yet much more heroic and, ironically enough, fatalistic. This album isn’t a call to action, but a call to dream, and urges for the most distant from reality-based visions possible.

But perhaps even more significant than any individual song or idea present in this grand conglomeration of sound is the significance it holds for Jari’s insistence on creating long-winded terminology to describe his style. The constant cross-pollination of differing genres, including but not limited to: folk, melodic death, power, shred, symphonic and ambient metal all point to a rare form of eclecticism that manages to straddle all of these borders without losing itself and becoming inaccessible. Quite the contrary, this is among the most accessible albums out there with multiple songs clocking in at over 8 minutes, save an album or two in Pink Floyd’s long past. Nothing on here comes across as being beyond the scope of a casual fan of melodic death metal, yet few could point to a single band as having crossed this many boundaries while still keeping the overall sound comfortably within the realm that the likes of Eternal Tears Of Sorrow and Kalmah tend to keep their audiences in.

It is a bit curious that in spite of the long durations, these songs actual listen as such in spite of themselves, rather than collapsing into a mess of abstract expressions. “Land Of Snow And Sorrow” actually goes even further still and runs contrary to the rabidly technical tendencies of Jari’s work and listens like a down tempo, groove based modern metal anthem that has been dressed up with a massive deluge of keyboard sounds and vocals. It’s recurring theme, which is repeated almost to the point of droning at the album’s onset, is among the more memorable folksy themes to come out of the style since its rise to prominence in the later 90s, and even goes so far as to channel some of Jari’s latent Ensiferum ideas at a few points. It is a bit different from anything Jari has written up to this point so it is understandable that some view it as filler, but it definitely grows on the listener after a few times through and proves to be the most distinctive song of the 5.

The biggest liability that this album has going for it, which is self-evident to anyone who has been following the band up until now, is the massive amount of hype and the split of this album into 2 much smaller, seemingly incomplete halves. Similar fates befell Judas Priest and Helloween in conjunction with one of their well-known 80s albums, resulting in 2 halves being successively released for the latter and a shorter single release with a bunch of left-over b-sides in the former’s case, though neither suffered the 6 years of delays that this one did. The resulting feeling of incompleteness on here manifests itself as a simple half-cadence for the forgiving ear, but as a feeling of business-oriented profiteering to the less forgiving one. Ultimately the irony in all of this is that this has zero to do with the content found on here, and everything to do with the consequential cult character of Wintersun’s audience and detractors, but it nevertheless will impact the album’s reception, save for a few ambivalent types like myself who just like the music and couldn’t care less for the peripheral things that go with it.

This is one of the best albums to come out in 2012, and when put together with its sequel (which we hopefully won’t have to wait 3 more years for), may prove to be a step up from the debut, but by itself it “Time I” has a small lingering feeling of incompleteness that keeps it from being what it probably should have been had a few things happened differently. Perhaps at some future date there will be a limited edition where parts 1 & 2 will be merged into a finalized whole, but in the meantime, just ignore the hype and enjoy this album for what it is, a massive endeavor that manages to be catchy and intricate with hardly a clash between the two extremes it embodies.

Later submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on October 26, 2012.