A few weeks ago, I went to see Insomnium live here in Houston, on their opening slot on the Epica/Alestorm North American trek. It was my first time seeing them, and was the culmination of many months of anticipatory buildup for me, as I’d only really awakened my interest in the band this year through their excellent recent release “One For Sorrow” (that much to my shame, I missed upon its initial release in 2011). As the days drew nearer to the show, I was listening to the band’s entire discography on heavy rotation, at home, in the car, on the Ipod. There are few things better in metal than being able to see a band live during the period where you’ve just gotten into them, everything’s still a bit fresh, and that new found listener passion is still there. It makes the experience of seeing them live that much more powerful.
Insomnium were inspired live that night, playing in front of what I suspected was a larger audience than they really expected (the show started late and most of the Epica fans were already in attendance, a packed house actually). They only played six songs but the audience to the side and front of me were reacting as if they were the headliner — headbanging, throwing up the horns, hair flailing, sweat drops flying off in every direction, and shit eating grins pasted on our faces as I’m sure we made menaces of ourselves to the politely patient Epica and Alestorm fans that did their best to get out of the way. It was a great night, and I jammed them on the way back home as well — I couldn’t get enough. Still can’t.
Symmetry is an interesting thing. Alongside Insomnium, lately I’ve been finding myself listening again to albums by one of my favorite and now long defunct Finnish bands, Sentenced. I realized that the album that introduced me to those manic Finns was 2002’s The Cold White Light, a near perfect collection of songs that I can still listen to all the way through to this day and feel the same magic that I felt back in ’02. As such, there exists a neatly wrapped decade’s worth of time separating my introduction to both Sentenced and Insomnium, two Finnish bands that share more in common that just my personal anniversaries. What I loved about Sentenced was their ability to create beautifully melancholic melodic metal that despite its occasional tongue-in-cheekiness, could be extremely emotional at a very deep level. It wasn’t even about the lyrics, which were simple, effective and poignant, but more about the sweep and scope provided through the songwriting, and the uncanny ability of how something as normal as a guitar melody or solo could evoke feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Their songwriting could be poppy and hook laden to be sure, but still weighty, heavy and definitely not something that could be mistaken for light, alt-radio-rock. It was far too dark for that, there was a pervasive sense of gloom that permeated songs like “Killing Me Killing You”, “Drain Me”, “Cross My Heart and Hope to Die”, and “No One There”. Despite that feeling, those songs were filled with lyrical and musical beauty — take the latter for example, an elegiac pronouncement of remorse for an estranged relationship, and the reality of isolation, abject loneliness, and the feeling of despair at facing the prospect of life and death alone. Its buoyed along with melodic guitars, and an almost positive sounding chorus, yet it is perhaps the heaviest song the band ever wrote, its emotional weight immense.
Sentenced were a remarkable band, underrated to this day and worse of all, they seemed to call it quits just as they were achieving great things artistically. Their 2005 release. The Funeral Album, was their swan song and it was every bit as awesome as its predecessor. Miika Tenkula, their lead guitarist and primary songwriter, was the heart and soul of the band — and it was his voice that underscored nearly every song they wrote. When he passed away in 2009, only thirty-four years young, I hardly found it shocking to read that he had a serious drinking problem that apparently got worse after the band ended. The raw emotion and pain within their music had to really come from somewhere true — sadly that is. I wondered if there would ever be a band that could provide me with that particular fix that Sentenced so effortlessly delivered. There is — I believe their countrymen in Insomnium are the spiritual successors to the musical legacy that Sentenced chose to leave behind.
Granted, Insomnium’s distinctly unique take on melodic death metal is a distinctly differing style from the crunchy, hooky metal of Ville Laihiala-era Sentenced, but the two bands share an essential atmosphere and spirit — perhaps something found within the Finnish personality itself. This time of year, as autumn colors itself everywhere, I typically long to listen to music that is perhaps a touch more sombre, earthy, gritty, and yes, melancholy. I find within tracks such as “Weighed Down With Sorrow” from 2009’s Across the Dark, an ethereal, haunting feeling as lead guitars seem to weep out melodic passages that convey far more emotion than any lyric could possibly hope to. Primary songwriter and guitarist Ville Friman seems to have this stuff in his blood — his guitar part that kicks in at the 3:20 mark of “Lay the Ghost to Rest” off One For Sorrow is breathtaking … its sheer simplicity; a wailing lonely guitar solo that ushers in a crushing wave of relentlessly heavy guitar riffage in one supreme, emotive sweep is the kind of watershed moment that you’ll hit repeat on a seven minute long song for without hesitation. His interplay with fellow guitarist Ville Vänni on that album’s title track, a slow, moody, tribal drum beat led doom monster is not only delicately intricate, like the best moments between Izzy and Slash, but displays a level of artistry that rises above the typical Maiden-esque guitar approach found in most melodic death metal (read: Gothenburg).
Setting aside music for a second, these two bands share similarities in other aspects of their art. Their booklet pages for The Cold White Light and The Funeral Album are filled with gorgeous photography of desolate arctic desert, serene Finnish countryside, the final booklet page of the latter featuring a photograph of silhouettes of birds in flight — striking when you consider the album art for Insomnium’s One For Sorrow. The overall art direction of both bands in terms of sleeve design and packaging, as well as other media such as music videos shows a tendency to lean towards understatement, and refined elegance — as well as a predilection to juxtapose songs full of complex human emotion against the backdrop of the simplicity of nature. I’m not sure this is on purpose, but regardless for some primal reason it really ties both bands together for me, and if its noticeable to a newcomer to Insomnium like myself, I’m sure others who have enjoyed both bands for awhile now have picked up on it too.
If you have never listened to Sentenced, or are even later getting to the Insomnium party than I am, you’d do yourself a favor by remedying both of those issues immediately. Both bands’ discographies are all over Spotify for free even, so you really have no excuse. If you think that what sounds like depressing listening isn’t really your cup of tea. then I again suggest listening to both bands. One more thing they both share is the inexplicable presence of what can only be inadequately described as a positive edge to their music — not in a dopey way, but in that sense that through listening to music that explores these types of emotions and sentiments, there’s a release or catharsis provided that you might not get in trying to cheer yourself up by listening to… I don’t know, Accept’s Russian Roulette (as stupidly fun as that album is). Both Sentenced’s and Insomnium’s elegiac, haunting lyrics and crushing, heavy power will break through you to expose those simple, deep, universal human emotions that most of us keep hidden, while simultaneously reassuring you with an indelible melodic sweep.