As the residential Mope of Nine Circles®, I have what some would call a moral obligation to cover metal of the atmospheric, morose type. Finland, of course, is basically ground zero for melancholic metal, and Insomnium have long been the country’s finest export in melodic death majesty. Their extensive discography, spanning over a decade, offers a treasure trove of emotionally charged and introspective metal that is as regal as it is heavy. This week’s column can essentially be viewed as a “Best of” for the band and includes staples from their live sets as well as some of their prime studio cuts. Without further ado, the Nine Circles Ov… Insomnium.
“The Elder” (from In the Halls of Awaiting, 2002)
Insomnium’s debut was quite a surprise for fans of melodic death metal. Keep in mind this was 2002, so the pioneers of the genre had all but derailed from their original sound. In Flames had forsaken their original path, Hypocrisy pushed out the stinker known as Catch 22, and Soilwork were soon to follow with the widely-panned Figure Number Five. Insomnium, however, remained true to the genre’s roots while incorporating a heavy influence of folk ala Amorphis, but darker and moodier. “The Elder” demonstrates the band’s tight songwriting chops and highlights the tasteful leads of guitarists Ville Vänni and Ville Friman. Weird, brittle production aside, it’s a beautiful song.
“The Day it All Came Down” (from Since the Day it All Came Down, 2004)
While the band’s debut wore its folk influences on its sleeves, their sophomore outing relied more on its swift leads, razor-sharp riffs, and driving rhythms. “The Day it All Came Down” has one of the most recognizable opening sequences that melodic metal has seen in the past 15 years, and if it doesn’t make you want to stomp things into the ground, get outta here. These are the kinds of guitar harmonies that deserve to be mentioned alongside the greats of all of metal. The acoustic break in the middle is smartly integrated, a mere breather before triumphant melodic leads tear the house down in the song’s second half.
“At the Gates of Sleep” (from Above the Weeping World, 2006)
It was difficult to pick just a few songs from this album, since Above the Weeping World is arguably the finest moment of their career –– it retains the dusky, longing atmosphere of the first album while still offering a plethora of immediately memorable riffs and pushing the band into more progressive territory. This particular cut, one of the longer ones on the album definitely wears the influence of The Jester Race unashamedly, but its quiet, clean guitar arpeggios and slithering bass lines are what drive the song’s dynamic and make it so affecting.
“The Killjoy” (from Above the Weeping World, 2006)
Doesn’t it make sense to put two great tracks back-to-back? If Insomnium ever came close to digestible single territory, this is it. With guitar lines that bounce back and forth between driving chord patterns and fret-tapping acrobatics, and an ending section that deftly combines clean guitars with backing keyboards and crushing double bass, it’s a brilliant balance of strength and fragility.
“Down With the Sun” (from Across the Dark, 2009)
Above the Weeping World proved to be notoriously difficult to top, and while Across the Dark is by no means bad, it saw Insomnium take a different approach and focus more in mid-paced territory while injecting more keyboards and atmosphere. The album’s true opening cut, undoubtedly one of the band’s best songs ever, maintains the focus on guitar melodies and excellent songwriting but also uses subtle piano lines and synths to create an ambient backdrop. Some have called it the best melodic death metal song since 2000. A bold statement? Yes. But probably not too far from the truth.
“Weighted Down with Sorrow” (from Across the Dark, 2009)
Continuing the band’s tradition for putting their most morose, atmospheric tracks at the end of each album, “Weighted Down with Sorrow” is an absolute triumph. Opening with dreary, swelling strings, its steady, bittersweet main riff gives way under the hard truth of the lyrics: “Nothing can offer content/Nothing can ease the pain/Nothing can wear off the sorrow/One is born to bear within.” It’s a shiver-inducing track with the depths it plumbs emotionally, and having heard it live for myself last fall, it was even more of a powerful reinforcement of the song’s message.
“Every Hour Wounds” (from One for Sorrow, 2011)
While “weak” is a very relative term concerning Insomnium’s output, One for Sorrow is the only album that has a “been there, done that” sensation. This particular track is a huge standout, though, namely for its dynamic tempo changes and midsection that uses flourishes of clean guitar and violin against palm-muted guitars before a wall of harmonized guitar tapping drives the song to its end with a memorable, anthemic chorus.
“Revelation” (from Shadows of the Dying Sun, 2014)
While my feelings are mixed on this album as a whole, “Revelation” is one of my favorite tracks the band has ever written. The way in which the clean guitar figure, which starts the song, is worked into the midsection and the climactic build toward the end is one of the smartest songwriting moves they’ve ever made, and its uplifting mood from its midpoint on echoes the work of companion outfit Omnium Gatherum. Seeing this live made every hair on my arm stand on end.
“The Promethean Song” (from Shadows of the Dying Sun, 2014)
Over their past two albums, Insomnium have done an excellent job of working in melodic choruses without sacrificing the atmosphere conjured during the heavier sections — “The Promethean Song” is the strongest of this sort that they’ve written to date and stands as one of Shadows‘ stronger cuts. The chorus recalls the melodies used on the album’s own single, “While We Sleep,” and the lyrics hammer home Insomnium’s long-standing message of looking for glimmers of light in the middle of the darkness.
There are other excellent tracks that I wanted to include here, but picking out the gems from a long discography is challenging enough. Check out the playlist below and dig deeper into the dusky depths of Insomnium.