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Wails abound in the icy grave of dreams. - 91%

hells_unicorn, October 4th, 2019
Written based on this version: 2019, CD, Century Media Records

Imagine, if you will, a parallel world of seemingly boundless borders, encased in a state of perpetual winter, differentiated only in the degrees of coldness and the terrestrial contrast that distinguishes forests, mountains and wide-reaching plains. It could perhaps be likened to Lovecraft’s Dream Realm; save that it is not a place of cosmic dread so much as one of existential sorrow and fatalism. Yet, despite its generally negative connotation it is also a place of aesthetic beauty and naturalistic awe, timeless in its constancy like a sea of glass. This world is the one that Finnish melodeath pioneers Insomnium enter whenever they conceive of a new studio creation, and one that they have lately been sharing to some degree, if not rivaling over, with fellow Finns and contemporary melodic death travelers Omnium Gatherum. Though they share many common stylistic traits, the former outfit has enjoyed a longer relationship with this unique state of being both tranquil and raging that they come off more as natural inhabitants of their world, whereas the latter contemplates it more like a master philosopher attempting to translate it to a real world audience, neither one necessarily being better than the other, yet each being sufficiently distinct.

Coming off a couple of solid yet somewhat glossier and slightly post-rock leaning offerings in 2014’s Shadows Of A Dying Sun and 2016’s conceptual homage Winter’s Gate, Insomnium has opted for a more conservative yet also more ambitious offering that in Heart Like A Grave turns the clock back closer to their earlier days. Though it wants for nothing in terms of lofty atmospheric elements and serene keyboards to accompany the death metal-infused battery, it comes in a more aggressive and driving form that is more befitting of a band under the more extreme end of the metal spectrum. It maintains that typical balance of darkness and light between ethereal melodic guitar and clean vocal chants, and the thudding heaviness of the riff work and low-groaning death barks that has consistently been their staple, occasionally flirting with the power metal tendencies of the broader Finnish sound of the early 2000s, but comes across as far more nuanced and vivid. To the uninitiated, the parallels between this album and something by Kalmah or Children Of Bodom are obvious, but even more obvious is the greater degree of emphasis on layers of sound over technical impact, though this outfit doesn’t slouch in the musicianship department to any degree.

As with any surprise, the first ingredient deals in what is expected, and Insomnium’s mode of existential sadness has always carried a storybook character to it even when the album itself isn’t necessarily a conceptual affair. The opening number “Wail Of The North” has all the makings of a serene, atmospheric introductory segue that would fade into an opening thrasher at its onset, yet proves to a complete song unto itself that progresses through several contrasting sections, melodic segments and barked verses. Nevertheless, the real bit of this mighty arctic storm ensues on the next song “Valediction”, which seamlessly shifts between haunting vocal chants, forbidding guttural growls to rival Amon Amarth and a solid signature thrashing riff to bring it all together. Generally speaking, the shorter the song’s duration, the more in line with standard death metal things feel, as moderately pounding affairs like “The Offering” and “Neverlast” veer the closest to a traditional Gothenburg mode after that of At The Gates and Dark Tranquillity. Meanwhile, more elongated epics such as the slow-paced journey into obscurity “Karelia”, quasi-thrasher “Twilight Trails” and especially the towering epic “Pale Morning Star” run the entire gamut of thematic possibilities while still being easy to follow and chock full of memorable melodic hooks.

Whether this constitutes the greatest musical achievement in Insomnium’s more than 20 year career is a matter of debate, but it is definitely a cut above their output since the beginning of the current decade and stands as a fine album to close it out. It is often asserted by would be critics that an album such as this showcases a band further maturing, but this band is a less like a natural being going through a mortal life cycle and more akin to an immortal spirit born into eternal adulthood that chronicles its journeys through infinity, each offering denoting reactions to the differing phenomena amid the endless icy tundra. Similarly, there is a seemingly counterintuitive warmness that occasionally enters this otherwise frosty endeavor, as if this same spirit is capable of building fires at points of rest and expressing the sensation of being refreshed by the heat before setting out unto the next distant horizon. This is the sort of vivid picture that this band has always painted with their albums since In The Halls Of Waiting first made waves back in 2002, and all that has really changed is a more potent studio production to make this band’s hazy instrumentation clearer. For any adventurous listeners out there who like their melodic death metal deep, engaging and highly cathartic, this is an album not to be missed.

Originally written for The Metal Observer (www.metal-observer.com)