Interview with Insomnium guitarist Markus Vanhala | By Christopher J. Harrington
I know what you’re thinking: “A 40-minute progressive death metal song? Thanks, but no thanks. I mean, just think of all that wankery and self-indulgence! I know how that’s going to work out…” Well, Finnish melodic death metallers Insomnium have just created one such song—which happens to be the entirety of their new album—and the reality couldn’t be further from said thoughts. The new record is a mighty one: soaring brilliantly through the cosmos and establishing itself as quite an engaging and engrossing number. Winter’s Gate—an orb of celestial timbre released Sept. 23 on Century Media—flies past you like a dream: the kind you don’t want to wake up from.
“That’s what we aimed to create,” guitarist Markus Vanhala notes. “Something that moves forward, sort of like as if time was disarmed, something tranquil and immersive. We were hanging around the cabin during the time we recorded [2014’s] Shadows of the Dying Sun, drinking beer and listening to some epic progressive rock songs, and we thought of the idea of doing something like a 40-minute song. We forget about it for a few years and then revisited it, and here we are.”
Magically, Winter’s Gate weaves through barreling death metal fury, sprawling astral planes, and rich harmonious textures in what seems like no time at all. A soft blanket of psychedelic warmness conjures your catatonic attention, leaving you mystical and gleeful. Sections turn and bend with seemingly no effort; 40 minutes pass in a dazzling trance. Based on a story bassist and vocalist Niilo Sevänen wrote 10 years ago, the album includes the full story as a companion book with translations in English, Finnish, and German, and illustrations by Teemu Tähkänen.
“This is our art project,” Vanhala laughs. “You know, Pink Floyd had The Wall and Dream Theater had Scenes from a Memory. We wanted to do something different to keep it interesting, you know? It was almost like composing a movie, with the different moods and varying emotions. We also wanted to revisit the death metal from the early ‘90s, stuff like Opeth and Emperor. In a lot of ways, Winter’s Gate is a nostalgic project.”
The delicate balance the album dances around is its true measure. The ability to keep the listener engaged continuously is remarkable. Insomnium do so with a sort of magical wand: sparking calm and tension in a vast natural space. The album feels like the night sky and its infinite grooves. It has a depth that resonates, exactly because of its length.
“That was the trick: how were we going to keep this thing interesting for 40 minutes?” Vanhala muses. “We composed all the parts in different sections, then sort of put the album together like a picture. When we hit the studio, I thought the album was going to be particularly tough to record, but it went really well. There’s a lot of space on the album, and that really highlights the performances.”
The space is vast on Winter’s Gate, with curtains of falling stars surrounding every angle and guitar solos that sing melodic to the heavens. But things turn violently aggressive on a dime, no part deeper and more menacing than the last blast of insanity: a black metal-influenced phrase that blends in with about five minutes left in the song. It’s a section—like the album’s story and overall vision—that was birthed many years ago. “That last section was written 19 years ago when I was in the black metal band, Manala,” Vanhala states. “It was amazing to get to reuse it in this way.”