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An unending cycle of esoteric woe. - 82%

hells_unicorn, November 13th, 2017
Written based on this version: 2017, CD, Nuclear Blast

How does a fatalistic wretch caught in an unrelenting rut of cynical contemplation view the passing of time? This question is one that may well have been posed many times by philosophers, but it seems quite fitting that the relatively new school of extreme metal would be the one to offer an answer. The unique middle ground that the melodic strains of black and death metal occupy between melancholy and rage has been a fertile place for composing tales of woe, and more recently an atmospheric strain of the former camp has proven quite willing to stretch this approach into massive fits of musical meditation that preclude any degree of mainstream appeal. In the midst of all this, riding into the fray with a folksy, symphonic and epic gloss stands The Forest Seasons, the third studio offering of one of metal's most polarizing and least prolific characters Jari Mäenpää. It should likewise be underscored that though this album bears the Wintersun insignia, the near totality of what constitutes this album is solely the handiwork of its helmsman, to the point of it being a de facto solo project.

It goes without saying that Jari has always been a man who goes off into his own world once the songwriting commences, but with this endeavor this idea is taken to its logical conclusion. Like a dreary bard afflicted with both a desire for death and an ironic status of immortality, his lyrics paint the picture of a vast forest that shares his disposition, locked in a cycle of death and rebirth where the light and warmth of summer brings only the anticipation of the eventual frost of winter, and the latter season's arrival comes like a supernatural coachman to shepherd the land back to the beginning of the same cycle. The surrounding musical and vocal expressions contain a curious mixture of symphonic flair, atmospheric nuance and eclectic stylistic devices that mark a drastic departure from previous works. The surprises are many, including but not limited to Jari occasionally employing a deeper death bark comparable to Amon Amarth's Johan Hegg to accompany the higher pitched Gothenburg growl meets blackened shriek and dynamic clean singing that have tended to be his trademark, but they go a bit deeper than a few individual ingredients and permeate that entirety of the album.

In a sense, this album goes further than the quirky gimmicks and world music elements that adorned Time I and seems to crossover from the symphonic melodeath realm into something more blackened and atmospheric. It bears a fair degree of similarity to some of the larger scale work of Moonsorrow and Falkenbach, tending towards a more moderated tempo, a varied mixture of keyboard sounds that occasionally even dips into ambient territory here and there, and forsaking a lot of the technical wizardry that adorned Wintersun's eponymous debut. Then again, a rather impressive and long-winded guitar solo finds its way onto "Eternal Darkness (Autumn)", itself a song that spends much of its time in the blackest territory of any offering on here, almost sounding like a more folksy and technically tinged nod to early Emperor and Enslaved with a higher fidelity production job. Yet, be it a string of fancy ax work on the aforementioned song or a highly distinctive acoustic passage to open and close the At The Heart Of Winter era of Immortal inspired "The Forest That Weeps (Summer)", this is music that tells a story, and all the surrounding elements meld beautifully into one cohesive whole.

Though at first a seeming stranger to those who are initiated to Wintersun's earlier incarnation, The Forest Seasons is not entirely bereft of typical trademarks that have come to be associated with Jari's handiwork. Somewhere amid defying just about every expectation that one would have for his approach to songwriting with the ambient turned mid-paced and occasionally dissonant symphonic opener "Awaken From The Dark Slumber (Spring)", things take on a familiar tone during the latter half of its near 15 minute duration with a triumphant gallop and a familiarly folksy gang chorus of husky basses and baritones that bears an uncanny resemblance to several songs heard on Ensiferum's Iron. This gang chorus approach gives way to an even more massive sea of voices on the subsequent and slightly shorter ode to the winter season, not to mention a rather astounding and heartfelt solo vocal performance in a near-crooning tenor on the closer "Loneliness (Winter)" that also reminisce on some of the more brilliant moments of the debut. Ironically enough, the background vocals are the only area where Jari saw fit to include the other members of the band, making this all but a one-man project after the mold of esoteric atmospheric bands like Midnight Odyssey and Lustre.

There is a paradox to this album that likely did not escape notice to those who got beyond the hype and infamy surrounding its creation and the people involved, and that is the fact that it managed to garner so much of both in spite of being so geared towards the esoteric. This isn't the sort of album that one would expect to come with the backing of a label like Nuclear Blast, nor is it normally the sort of conceptual work that normally receives a bulky and crisp production. It is a highly ambitious offering that masks itself within a shroud of repetition and gradualism that stands in stark contrast to the shred-happy, blazing fast, progressively minded debut effort, opting for atmosphere and a subtle sentimentalism that comes off as being more nostalgic than impact-based. Any flaw that it has relative to past works is largely measured in a slight degree of over-ambition in the songwriting department, which makes this album far more of a grower and even an acquired taste. It isn't really accessible to those who prefer a more straightforward strain of melodeath with a symphonic edge as found in Eternal Tears Of Sorrow or Omnium Gatherum, yet is a bit too polished to really play to the lower-fidelity atmospheric crowd. It is off in its own world, a lonely forest in a parallel dimension where few venture, but those manage to do so find a place rich with scenery and images to fill their daydreaming minds.