There’s no doubt that the last few years have been a dark time in the world, particularly for musicians with halted touring and interrupted release schedules being prolific. As a result, most bands undertook to spend this period writing new material—something which Melodic Death Metal stalwarts Insomnium took quite literally, taking the time to write both music and corresponding literary material (in the form of a short story) telling a dark story of power and the lengths that mankind will go to achieve a goal. The end result is the band’s latest album Anno 1696 — a concept album focused on the witch hunts that took place in late 17th century Europe.
Album opener 1696 sets a palpable tone for what the band has conjured on this outing. The nuanced introduction slowly builds before the dark and fierce undertow of this song takes over to smack the listener like a freight train running a million miles per hour. It’s fierce, it’s visceral, and it’s something that most listeners probably aren’t expecting to come from Insomnium, which makes its position as album opener one that is surely going to surprise. The second track White Christ is a much more recognizable track, and while the bombastic nature of the verse instrumentation paints a picture of a track more befitting a death or black metal band, the chorus section is unmistakably Insomnium and its soaring guitar melodies are sure to enliven most listeners. It’s an interesting meshing of sounds and one that works really well here.
One of the biggest surprises on the album occurs during the opening of the third track Godforsaken, with a female-led vocalization bringing the song in. Being something that hasn’t been incorporated into the band’s repertoire to this date this inclusion certainly came from left field, and in the context of the song it works remarkably well. Following on from this introduction was a faster-paced and more ferocious outing with interesting guitarwork interlaced atop smattering blast beats throughout the opening half before the track transforms into a more euphoric and ambient affair towards its tail end.
As the first single released off the album, the fourth track Lilian perhaps lulled listeners into a false sense of security about what this album is about. The track is the perfect embodiment of Insomnium’s longstanding curated sound, and while it is one of the shorter tracks on the album it is still packed with as much goodness as you would come to expect from the band.
The fifth track Starless Path begins with a more melodic introduction but delves quickly into a tremolo-picked verse that foreshadows the transformative process that this song undertakes over its eight-minute duration. Changing between the chaos of these fast sections, and the calming melancholy of its more melodic passages helps this song weave together the darker and lighter sounds on this album. When coupled with the theatrical element in the middle, and the quieter key section towards the end before the riveting solo kicks in, you are left with a brilliant song that has so many new learnings each subsequent listen that it’s hard not to keep it on repeat.
Bringing in the tail end of the album, the sixth track (and third single) The Witch Hunter maintains a strong tempo. While there are some interesting pauses and line mutes used throughout the song, and an interesting interplay between the spoken word lyrics and growled sections, it’s the euphoric cleanly sung chorus sections that stand out on this one. Lyrically dark but beautifully delivered, this track is a stand-out on the album.
The penultimate track The Unrest sounds like a bite direct from Game of Thrones as a slower acoustic affair that captures some really interesting melodies before the album closer The Rapids sees the band channeling their inner thrash tendencies and lifting the tempo one final time to close the album out strongly with a frenetic belter.
With the underlying album concept penned as a short story by bassist and vocalist Niilo Sevänen, and with the music being cultivated specifically for it, Anno 1696 feels similar to 2016’s Winters Gate in regards to being a concept album, but feels far more improved and polished from the band’s growth in the ensuing years. Representing a snapshot of a very dark, savage, and dramatic time in Europe’s history, the literary nature of Anno 1696 provides a compelling setting that is sure to engross listeners.
With the music for this album being cultivated to fit this story, its dour nature clearly permeates throughout. This is not the regular melancholic faire that Insomnium is known for and while there certainly are those elements that come through, the darker and harsher nature of the story and its setting reigns supreme. While older fans will undoubtedly appreciate this harsher tone–something that hasn’t truly been embraced by the band since Above the Weeping World in 2006–it may catch some of the band’s newer fans off guard.
Musically, the band continues to show substantial growth on Anno 1696. While their songwriting craft is as strong as ever, it’s refreshing to see them embrace some of their darker and more underground musical inspirations. It’s no secret that many of the band members are fans of prolific black and death metal acts, and the ability to lean heavily into some of those songwriting aspects helps accentuate this story. White Christ is perhaps the most fitting example of this, with the main riff sounding like something befitting of a Rotting Christ track, but molded into something that is still quintessential Insomnium, but tracks like The Witch Hunter also embrace it.
The triple-guitar combo that the band has employed over its last two major releases and EP has paid major dividends. While the music has remained largely the same, the intricate layering of the three guitar tracks over the bass and drums helps create an incredible soundscape to enthrall listeners. With that being said it is really the vocals that hold major credence on this release, with Sevänen delivering his gutturals with intensity and venomous spite not yet heard before. However, as a perfect dichotomy, the cleanly sung sections to the tracks they are employed on provide a terrific palate cleanser method for the band to help balance out the intensity at times. All of this works in perfect unison and is elevated through a fantastic mix that never feels muddy or jumbled to create an enjoyable listening experience from beginning to end.
Additionally, guest appearances are things that Insomnium has sparingly used throughout their career, with only a handful having occurred over the space of the last 26 years. Anno 1696 is a pioneering effort on that frontier with two guest vocalists. While Sakis Tolis’ vocals are a perfect fit on the aforementioned White Christ, it’s really Johanna Kurkela’s appearance on Godforsaken that is a stand out for the band as their implementation of something completely unused throughout their career highlights the risks that the band continues to take to this day.
Anno 1696 is a dark tale but is one that is definitely investing in. With this album, Insomnium will transport listeners to another place and time and are sure to raise a few eyebrows while doing it. Sporting a darker-than-normal sound, but expanding on everything they have done to this point, Insomnium have created an album that shows that even after 25 years of existence that they aren’t afraid of embracing new things, and have still got plenty of tricks up their sleeves!