Album: The Forest Seasons
Label: Nuclear Blast Records
And so the climax of Wintersun’s controversy is finally upon us! For those of you who are late to the party, Wintersun has been spending their fair share of time in the news due to vocalist/guitarist Jari Mäenpää‘s insistence that he can’t finish the long-awaited followup to Time I without having his own recording studio. After what seemed like eternal negotiations with Nuclear Blast, these Finnish folk metallers were able to launch an IndieGoGo campaign, with the proceeds going toward this studio. The crowdfunding campaign ran throughout the month of March this year, and on April 1st, completed at a whopping 464,330€, which was 285% of what they had hoped to raise. What did the funders get in return for their contribution? The Forest Seasons.
I’ve had my reservations about what The Forest Seasons might be like – will it be true to Wintersun’s sound, or will it be a half-assed attempt to gather cash for the studio so they can finish the album they really want to make? If they can’t make Time II without a studio, will this be any better? Well, some of my fears were assuaged by bassist Jukka Koskinen in an interview from earlier this year, and so I awaited the new album with an open mind, hoping for the best.
The album is, in recent Wintersun fashion, a mere four tracks, but four extremely long tracks at that, each clocking in at 12+ minutes in length and corresponding to a season of the year. On my first encounter with “Awaken from the Dark Slumber (Spring)”, I felt as though this album might nicely bridge the gap between their self-titled debut (2004) and Time I (2012) – the track is clearly less complex than the latter album, but has a bit more of the heavy feel of the original guitar-driven Wintersun album. It has a slow burn, and perhaps feels a tad repetitive at times, but it picks up very nicely; I suppose I can see the relation to spring – it starts out murky and dark, but picks up and gets better as time goes on. Not what I’d have expected or even hoped for when thinking of spring, but not a bad representation either.
“The Forest that Weeps (Summer)” isn’t quite as bright and sunny as you’d expect of a song relating to that particular season (unless that’s the gloomy Finnish perspective?). The glorious Wintersun-style chants are back as well, standing strong in this track. While Time I was notably lacking in any guitar solos, “The Forest that Weeps (Summer)” features a long guitar-driven segment or two (or more); I wouldn’t call them solos exactly, but the highly emphasized riff-work does bring some of that old flavor back into the mix, and it sounds ever so ‘Mäenpää.’
If you really want to hear a solo though, and a long one at that, you’ll have to wait for “Eternal Darkness (Autumn)”, which provides a great deal of shred while balanced with an almost Castlevania-esque background. As well, if you’ve missed those monkey blasts from Wintersun (I have not, personally), never fear, “Eternal Darkness (Autumn)” has brought them back. On the whole, this is a pretty dark and ominous song – not the way I personally see autumn. The cold echoes around the 9:30 mark feel like the depths of winter, not the chill of autumn. However, the aforementioned guitar parts do work very nicely. The one near 11:00 could have lasted longer, in my opinion. The song ends quite abruptly, without any form of transition into its follower, sadly. Fans of their first album will likely appreciate this song more than I did.
The album comes to its full climax in “Loneliness (Winter)” though, with the only track that truly suits its theme, at least by my standards. This songs reminds me of a cloudless, cool winter’s night after a fresh snow, with its twinkling sounds and slow pacing. The vocals, both harsh and clean, work to create a gorgeous ambience, and in particular, I love the blending of mid-range and lower growls – something I’ve never really noticed a band do before, but sounds phenomenal in execution. This is perhaps also the most reminiscent in style to Time I, so for those who long for more of that album’s feeling, you’ll hopefully get it in this one – I know I did!
On the whole? This album feels a bit weirdly dark to be about the seasons, as I consider seasons to be rather varied in mood, while the album isn’t (again, unless that’s the Finnish cynicism showing through, or they’re just trying to be way too metal). For example, I don’t see spring as a dark and grungy time, but light and hopeful; for an example, try this YouTube video of “Celtic Dream” by Ron Hardiman. “Summer” again too feels too dark, and I think the biggest energy and clearest sound should be coming through in summer, unless you want to go the Kiuas route, like in their “Summer’s End.” “Autumn” was all wrong, as I find autumn relaxing and mellow, yet powerful, like a Type O Negative song. Winter, on the other hand, I think they got exactly right. So thematically, I’m not really on board, though I won’t fault an album too much for not fitting my own specific ideas about a concept that could be taken in many ways.
Musically, however, you can’t turn your head up at this one. They cover a lot of ground with this, perfectly blending the styles they’re most known for. The vocals are excellent throughout, shining through particularly in the final track, which is by far the high point on the album, at least by my standards. And the guitarwork is great – I’m glad to see a bigger focus on it for a change of pace. If I can compel myself to ignore the thematic issues, which may or may not be personal to me alone, it’s not a bad album. You’ll find out soon in our festival report that I had trouble getting into the new material at Tuska, but I can comfortably say that I’m looking forward to their club show at the end of the summer now that the music is more familiar to me.
Rating: 8/10, 4 stars
[ed: some have been commenting that the rating is too high for the review – most of my complaints about the album relate entirely to personal feelings towards what seasons ‘sound like’, and my own distaste towards monkey blasts and thrashier metal; those who worry less about the ‘feeling’ and like thrashier metal (like Wintersun’s first album) will likely enjoy this album more than I, and I wanted to rating to reflect that]
1. Awaken from the Dark Slumber (Spring)
2. The Forest that Weeps (Summer)
3. Eternal Darkness (Autumn)
4. Loneliness (Winter)