It’s a bitterly cold night up in North London and one that belies the bubbling and fervent energy brimming amongst those queuing outside the O2 Academy in Islington. Those of a bolder disposition may be inclined to heed security’s pleas to shuffle up for warmth from your fellow concert-goer (though one suspects they’re thinking more along the lines of crowd control but let’s indulge in the slight absurdity of that notion for a moment), but it’s a warmth that’s much-needed. Needless to say, the beer blanket is at max tog-rating tonight to stave off the cold and weather the storm that is Insomnium‘s aptly-titled conceptual opus Winter’s Gate.
Bringing the thunder to open the festivities in this all-Finnish line-up is Wolfheart, fresh with a new album on the way later this year (keep an eye out). Soaking up the immediate adulation from the assembled masses, their set is a no-frills tour through solid cuts of melo-death. “The Hunt” raises the curtain in the required raucous manner, with chunks of riffs feeding a hungry crowd and swift neck noodling courtesy of Mika Lammassaari washing it all down. A fitting opener and what follows is subsequently a strong set.
Their interaction and engagement is brief, with demands for circle pits being met with small pockets of interest, yet it’s a focused affair and one that benefits all – no faffing about; let’s rock. As a spectacle, the synchronicity of windmill headbanging from Lauri Silvonen and Lammassaari is something to behold – they must set aside rehearsal time to dedicate themselves to it! Use to full effect in new bruiser “Boneyard”, the cut from their new album plonks down right at home with other classics like “Zero Gravity” and sow the seeds that the new opus will be another hulking slab of melo-death (certainly, the crowd seemed keen). A strong start with plenty of (wolf)heart… Winter’s ice broken…
What’s immediately apparent when Barren Earth chime their opening notes is that this is a different beast to their Finnish brethren. Sporting a hard-rock spark of energy tinged with an almost folk-influenced power metal lean, their set roars to life amid a solid audition for a workout DVD by guitarist Janne Perttilä. What follows is an energetic first half to a set that included fan favourites “Flicker”, “Set Alight” and “A Shapeless Derelict”. It’s a fun whirlwind of entertainment and dutifully lapped up by the crowd; matching the band’s palpable energy, joule by joule.
Yet the second half descends into a more reserved affair which was thanks in no small part to the sound and mix issues that plagued the set. From clicks, crackles and feedback, it detracted largely from a fine performance (especially from Faroe Island-native vocalist JónAldará). It’s joyous in metal to find a vocalist that can handle the bowel-churning growls and soaring cleans (particularly since Mikael Åkerfeldt has ditched the Cookie Monster impression vocals), yet this is rather hampered by a failing mix – the energy appeared to be sapped from Aldaráas he battled to be heard with his soft cleans above the rest of the band. Granted, soft cleans will inevitably lead to a drop in volume but it shouldn’t be to the point of inaudibility. Even the appearance of a Stephen Merchant-lookalike roadie with the obligatory gaffer didn’t fix the issue, so the energy dropped off and Perttiläwas reduced to mere spasmodic bursts of energy. Epic closer “On Lonely Towers” rounded proceedings off admirably but,despite the best of efforts, the set was left rather tainted with thoughts of “if only” and “what could have been?”
Now there’s just something about concept albums that gets the fire burning. Threading a narrative through a collection of songs to tell a story through music – what’s not to love? Now Insomnium have taken up the challenge with their latest release Winter’s Gate and tonight, it gets its bow in London. It’s rare that an album is played in its entirety upon release, but the band’s fans are treated to the whole shebang. Unprecedented? Yes. Effective?Absolutely.
Broken down into seven moments, Part One bursts into life with a flurry of riffage and melodicism that is every bit what the much-celebrated Finns are renowned for. Yet there is plenty room for softer passages of sweeping acoustic guitar and synthesizer swashes, that lead to infectious singalongs and chanting. It’s a force to be reckoned with live. It goes down a storm, with nary a word said between each track; ensuring the best flow and replication of the record. There was even time to be amused when during Part Three, the crowd fell out-of-time with their clapping (clearly a room full of non-musicians, sloppy musicians or just buried in the beer blanket), though when Insomnium launched into favourites such as “While We Sleep”, they more than made amends. Rousing, rabid singalongs, clapping and chanting under the conduction of Insomnium main man Niilo Sevänen, the atmosphere became alive with electricity.
Unlike their predecessors, the mix gods smiled down upon Insomnium, blessing them with the good fortune of a bountiful and balanced mix that only served to enhance the experience. It’s a shame that so much of a show can hinge on decent sound – you can be the most celebrated songwriter going with acclaim, talent and songs in abundance, but the second there is a proverbial spanner in the cogs of your mix, it’s all uphill from there. So when the final strains of the band’s encore ring throughout the venue and they soak up the applause, it highlights its critical importance.
There are worse ways to spend a Wednesday night than seeing three of Finland’s finest melo-death exports tear a new one. With the aggression of Wolfheart, near-operatic power of Barren Earth and the sheer majesty of Insomnium, it’s varied enough to avoid monotony and yet still heavier than a lead whale, even despite Barren Earth taking the fall for technical issues. With the weather being as cold as it is (there’s a joke somewhere about brass monkeys and their balls in there), the January blues gripping hard and the impending fun and games of the global political situation starting to unfold, tonight provided a welcome touch of escapism.