Insomnium – Anno 1696 – Album Review
Album Title: Anno 1696
Label: Century Media Records
Date of Release: 24 February 2023
On paper, Insomnium should be one of my favourite bands of all time, and yet they are not. Theirs is an epic and melodic style of death metal that also brings folk, doom, and dark metal influences to bear on their music, not to mention a smattering of black metal occasionally too. As if that wasn’t enough, the line-up also boasts Markus Vanhala, guitarist with Omnium Gatherum, arguably my all-time favourite melodic death metal band, certainly of the last ten years or so.
And yet, it wasn’t until Insomnium released ‘Winter’s Gate’ in 2016, their seventh full-length album, that I really started to take note. ‘Heart Like A Grave’, released in 2019 also made an impact but for some reason, there has always been something stopping me from falling hard for a band that does just about everything right.
‘Anno 1696’, the quintet’s ninth record, is utterly captivating. From beginning to end, it delivers just about everything that I could ever want from a band of this ilk. There’s aggression, melody, emotion, darkness, atmosphere, and plenty of power and conviction. I always knew that Insomnium were this good, but it has taken ‘Anno 1696’ to hammer home this realisation for me.
One of the most striking things about this album, is the lyrical content. Based on a short story by bassist/vocalist Niilo Sevänen , it is set in the year 1696 against a backdrop of the Torsåker witch trials that beset Finland and Sweden. As Sevänen explains in the press release, “All that talk about 70 women beheaded in this small Swedish parish? It’s real stuff from history! And as if that weren’t enough, there are also some very dark tales of cannibalism and child murder from the years of the great famine.”
Naturally, then, the lyrical tone of ‘Anno 1696’ is very bleak, dark, and full of melancholia, further accented by the equally dark and evocative cover artwork. And, for those of you who know and love the output of this Finnish quintet, this is the perfect platform upon which to build their familiar brand of heavy metal. And by heavens, do they deliver.
It all begins innocuously enough, with ‘1696’, very much a song of two halves and the most immediate statement of intent. Acoustic guitars and folk-like drums create the sonic backdrop for nigh on a third of the song, building up the atmosphere and the sense of bleak wilderness. Hushed, semi-gruff spoken word vocals overlay the simple but effective affair before, like a hammer blow, in come the heavy guitars, flamboyant and expressive drums that signal the beginning of the onslaught. Blastbeats and fast-picked riffs abound, but so does a subtle melody that is built upon by mournful lead guitar lines, blistering bass, and enhanced by those barked gruff vocals of our aforementioned lyricist. It’s a wonder quite how they do it, but misery has rarely sounded this good.
But this is only the beginning, because the ensuing seven tracks offer no let-up in quality or enjoyment. If anything, the album gets even better at times. An immediate example of this is with the sumptuously irresistible one-two of ‘White Christ’ and ‘Godforsaken’.
There’s a brooding, almost Gothic-tinged aura to ‘White Christ’ that features layers of subtle synths within its mid-tempo skeleton, and boasts guest vocals by none other than Sakis Tolis of Rotting Christ. It’s the ultra-melodic section towards the end that gives me chills upon chills though, such is the strength of the melody and the way that it sounds both beautiful and utterly mournful at the same time.
There’s a Middle-Eastern/North African feel to ‘Godforsaken’, which is brought to life via some ethereal female vocals courtesy of guest vocalist Johanna Kurkela alongside authentic instrumentation. However, in much the same way as the opening track, the quieter environs are torn asunder by a full-on explosion of sound. The fastest blasts on the album from drummer Markus Hirvonen make this one of the most extreme on the album, but despite the generally frantic pace, there are plenty of shifts in tempo, and lots of light and shade built into the composition. The variety only serves to enhance the power and the drama of the song, whilst at its heart, there’s another elegant and fragile melody that emerges through the keys and the lead guitar lines. And when you think it can’t get any better, in march the clean, plaintive vocals that tug fiercely at the heartstrings, playing Omnium Gatherum at their own game of blending ferocity with gorgeous beauty. I’m not kidding, this song has the power to reduce a grown man to tears. Admittedly, I’m no Jason Momoa or Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, but still, the song has real magic running through its veins to reduce me to a pile of blubbering rubble.
In a not dissimilar vein, ‘The Witch Hunter’ deploys some well-placed clean vocals to great effect, but to be honest, the entire track is yet another highlight within a record of sublime highlights. The atmospheres, the brief acoustic interlude, the increased bass presence, and the vibrant yet melancholy lead guitar lines all conspire to create genuine brilliance, the kind that simply cannot be ignored. ‘Lilian’ is a shorter number, but no less impactful thanks to brisk tempo, thunderous rhythms, and ever so slightly more of a mainstream immediacy to it that calls to mind the likes of Amorphis at their most recent best.
And then, there’s the closing piece, ‘The Rapids’, that does its very best to create the title of the song in musical form. Possibly the most theatrical and dramatic of all of the compositions, it ebbs, flows, swells, recedes, and tosses the listener from one emotion to another over the course of seven short minutes. Anger, frustration, acceptance, misery, maybe even a touch of hope buried deep; all and any human emotion is touched upon within this tumultuous but brilliant closing track.
Without a doubt, this is my favourite album within the Insomnium discography, one that stretches back over eight previous records and the better part of a quarter of a century. I am beguiled, soothed, elated, and generally challenged emotionally by an album that is utterly incredible from start to finish. It is also the album that finally cements Insomnium’s place in my heart – and once there, it takes a hell of a lot to dislodge. But on the evidence of ‘Anno 1696’, I don’t think I ever want them to be dislodged. This album is nothing short of immense.
The Score of Much Metal: 95%