Saturday, May 24, 2014

"Shadows of the Dying Sun" album review

Despite the album name, this post is actually going to have nothing to do with astronomy. Insomnium, my all-time favorite band, just released a new album! And I finally got my pre-ordered copy thereof. It also comes with a lyrics booklet (of course), and each song has a little blurb about the writing process for that particular song, so now I have even more material (and can actually see the lyrics!).

Between their previous album, One for Sorrow, and Shadows of the Dying Sun, Insomnium underwent a line-up change. Their previous guitarist left the band to dedicate more time to his career as a general surgeon (!) and his son, who was born in 2011. He left very shortly after the release of One for Sorrow, and was quickly replaced by Markus Vanhala, who is now the lead guitar for two metal bands at the same time, Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum. His influence as a guitarist is apparent from the beginning. If you listen to enough Omnium Gatherum, you'll definitely recognize Markus' playing style.

On to the album itself. I'm going to go through each track individually, then give you my overall summary.

1) The Primeval Dark. Starting with their second studio album, Since the Day It All Came Down, Insomnium generally opens each album with a (mostly) instrumental intro track. A number of these (The Gale, Equivalence, Inertia) are fantastic pieces in their own right that I see as inseparable from the second track. Insomnium themselves seem to agree with this assessment to a degree. When I saw them on tour for One for Sorrow, they played The Gale and went directly into Mortal Share (second track off Above the Weeping World). Compared to past intro tracks, I find The Primeval Dark lacking. Sure, it leads into While We Sleep fairly well, but it doesn't really add anything to the song itself.

2) While We Sleep. While We Sleep was the second song released as a single, and the first to have an accompanying music video, and it definitely got my hopes up for the album as a whole. Even with the clean vocals, it sounds like pretty classic Insomnium. The instrumental work is great here overall, and seems very rhythm driven. Drumming has never seemed like a particular strength of Insomnium's. It's solid and easily supports the rest of the band, but that's about it; it's nothing special. That holds true here as well, but every instrument fits in to its spot perfectly, so song works brilliantly as a whole. As usual, the song is dominated by lead guitar work, proving that Vanhala is fitting in to his new band just fine.

3) Revelation. This was Insomnium's first song released from this album alone. Again, the lead guitar carries the song, but not without significant contribution from rhythm guitar. In some parts, I swear I can even hear the bass line! Overall, this song is just plain beautiful. The lyrics in particular resonate seem to be celebration of being fundamentally human. In particular, I see it as being all about human curiosity and pursuit of inspiration. Personally, I view it from the perspective of a scientist, but others may take the lyrics to mean something entirely different than I do, and that's part of what makes it great.

4) Black Heart Rebellion. This song has grown on me a bit since first hearing it. As is fairly typical for Insomnium, the lyrics are fantastic. I feel they may be the best part of the song, personally. The instrumental work is not terrible, but it feels kind of unfulfilling ultimately. Initially, the more chaotic nature of the song put me off a bit, but with the lyrics in front of me, it makes complete sense. The song itself is about individuality, and being able to maintain your own path in the face of adversity and external forces (often other people) attempting to change who you are.

5) Lose to Night. The first thing I noticed about this song is that the introductory riff sounds an awful lot like that from "One for Sorrow", the title track of their previous album. Here is the relevant part from "One for Sorrow", and here is the relevant part from "Lose to Night". Do you hear that? It's not identical, but I can't help but think the similarity is intentional. As such, my first question was whether or not these songs are related to one another in any way. "One for Sorrow" about "taking chances and losing your trust in the process" says songwriter Ville Friman. To me, at least, it comes across as being about the end of a relationship in which one person doesn't want it to end, while the other just wants out. Rough, but definitely relatable to most people. At any rate, "Lose to Night" is more about the recovery process and moving on after "learning things the hard way". Either way, life goes on, and you can (to quote my all-time favorite movie) "get busy living, or get busy dying".

6) Collapsing Words. According to Friman, this song is more "traditional Insomnium". Unfortunately, what that ends up meaning is that this track does absolutely nothing new. It follows a similar formula to older Insomnium, but just isn't as good. Without the excellent riffing on the chorus, this song would be utterly skipable.

7) The River. This song definitely has the most wasted potential on the entire album. Clocking in at 8 minutes, it's the longest song on the album, and definitely feels like it has the potential to be the next "In the Groves of Death", especially the lyrical content. Simply put, this song is about death, more specifically about Charon, the ferryman on the river Styx who guides the souls of the dead into Hades. This song doesn't sound like I think it should until you hit the 6 minute mark, at which point it finally takes off and becomes awesome. Otherwise, the song is yet another lackluster showing on this album.

8) Ephemeral. Ephemeral was first released as the title track of an EP released by Insomnium in September of 2013, and it pretty much blew me away. I loved the song instantly. As such, I am very annoyed at the re-recording they did for this album. The opening to the song sounds like a fucking Linkin Park song for Christ's sake, and the rest of the mixing is just all-around inferior. The EP version of this song can be found here for comparison. The sudden, fast, heavy opening worked perfectly for this song, so I can't even fathom why they abandoned it. Very disappointed here.

9) The Promethean Song. My god, this song is a chore to get through. I'm sorry, but it is just plain boring. The music was written by Vanhalla, who says he was inspired by past closing songs like "Weighed Down with Sorrow" and "One for Sorrow". The only logical explanation is that he was listening to those songs at half speed. The lyrics are, once again, the best part of the song. Though given my opinion of the rest of the song, I admit that that's not saying much. By this point, they have severely overdone the clean vocals; they got those right on "While We Sleep", but almost nowhere else on this album. Insomnium has already proven they can do the long closing-type song without being boring, which they do very well in "In the Halls of Awaiting" (particularly impressive, since it was their debut album), and perfectly in "In the Groves of Death".

10) Shadows of the Dying Sun. Friman was clearly hitting the Carl Sagan punch when he wrote this song, only he got the message a bit wrong. Rather than conveying the excitement, curiosity, and hope that Sagan's Pale Blue Dot excerpt never fails to do, "Shadows of the Dying Sun" focuses on the insignificance of humanity on the grand scale. I don't dislike it for this though; I feel this is an important perspective to keep in the back of your mind at times. The song itself, like much of this album, falls short of what it could be. Parts of it are certainly catchy, and it was written to be a kind of hypnotic, repetitive song. But to be hypnotic, one must be sucked in to begin with, and that's where this song truly fails for me. There's nothing that catches my interest until I open up the lyric booklet.

Overall, this album is actually kind of disappointing. The lyrics are probably, all around, the best I've seen from Insomnium to date, but nothing else is consistently up to par. The music as a whole is just... lacking. It feels like they tried to make something new and try new things as musicians, but they just didn't come up with anything truly amazing in the process. The clean vocals are nice once in a while, but they've worn out their welcome by the end. Further, the vocals seem to be pushing Insomnium farther from energetic, heavy songs like you get on previous albums (songs like "Mortal Share" or "The Only One Who Waits"). They've definitely slammed on the brakes for this album, and the result is that long, potentially epic songs like "The Promethean Song" are just plain boring. Clean vocals are most often accompanied by a soft backing instrumental section that tends to ruin the flow of a song (assuming, of course, it had any to begin with).

For having a few good songs and good moments within songs, outstanding lyrics, and overall disappointing and lackluster performance. I give Shadows of the Dying Sun a 6.5/10.

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