REVIEW:  Insomnium – Anno 1696


There are a handful of bands on the Finnish metal scene that have reached untouchable status, simply because their musical legacy is of the highest rank. Undoubtedly, one such band is INSOMNIUM, who are continuing their streak of great releases with another concept album. Titled “Anno 1696,” the Finns’ ninth full-length deals with sorrow, unrest, witches, religion, and superstition and is set for release on February 24th, 2023, via Century Media Records.

Following in the footsteps of 2016’s “Winter’s Gate,” this new album is once again based on a short story by Niilo Sevänen. It tells both the main and the back story of Lilian, a woman imprisoned and accused of witchcraft and murder by witch hunter, Johan Kalmander, her love story with Juho Antinpoika, and a plot twist I’ll let you discover for yourselves. However, this is historical fiction, as the story is loosely based on the witch hunts and trials that were happening all around Europe, especially the Torsåker trials, about which Sevänen stated, “were a horrible source of nightmarish inspiration. All that talk about 70 women beheaded in this small Swedish parish? It’s real stuff from history!” It’s a very bleak and gloomy tale, with a soundtrack to match its dismal and grim nature.

Chosen as the first single, mid-tempo “Lilian” is the most straightforward and the most (early) INSOMNIUM track on the album, being melancholic yet very melodic and relentless in its guitar harmonies and powerful drum work. Second single, the duet with ROTTING CHRITSSakis Tolis, “White Christ,” edges more on the atmospheric side of their sound, without sacrificing heaviness and melody, the two vocalists working well in tandem with each other to present the antagonist’s state of mind and his extreme religious fervor. As for the third single, cinematic “The Witch Hunter” is about as melodic and mellow as it gets (by INSOMNIUM standards) with a layer of acoustic guitar driving the experience, while the dynamics between Niilo Sevänen’s harsh vocals and Jani Liimatainen’s clean vocals harken back to their sound on “Heart Like a Grave” (2019). Only “The Unrest” is mellower than this single, acting like the album’s ballad and boasting beautiful acoustic guitar melodies, clean vocals, and a very tale-by-the-camp-fire –type of vibe.

But don’t let these songs lull you into a false sense of security, as the rest of the tracks are pretty much on par with the material from “Winter’s Gate,” blending death and black metal into free-flowing melodies, the aforementioned titles creating ebbs and flows in the album’s progression by balancing light and darkness, thus making “Anno 1696” feel dynamic and adding tons of layers to the storytelling aspect. In truth, listening to this record feels like reading a book, with each song being its own chapter, its own universe, as it tells part of the overarching narrative. In this respect, the album is very diverse, nuanced, and rich in its sonic palette, everything from the usage of acoustic guitar under electric guitar (“Lilian”) and piano notes that elevate the mood of otherwise heavier songs (“The Rapids”), all the way to vocal melodies that brighten the atmosphere of the song – most notably on “Godforsaken” to which Johanna Kurkela (AURI, EYE OF MELIAN, ALTAMULLAN ROAD) lends her angelic voice – being employed for maximum results.

The ebb and flow movement I mentioned earlier is also employed beautifully on the tracks, especially the longer ones, creating interest while juggling the various moods. Going back to “Godforsaken,” it opens up with Kurkela vocalizing, but soon brutal guitars and thunderous drums take over, only to lead back to Kurkela, before introducing Niilo Sevänen’s intense growls. This back-and-forth between the two vocalists gives the track a neat balance of harsh and mellow soundscapes to play around with. There’s a guitar section that adds a new flavor to the fold with the bridge of the song being minimalistic, but also dark and folksy in nature. Opening track, “1696,” starts up with acoustic strumming, drums, and a spoken word part that sets up the story, but around the 2-minute mark, it erupts into a blacked death metal passage, a transition that not many can pull off so seamlessly. In the same vein, “Starless Paths” is a heavy and compact track with a few pockets of light coming through in the form of either an acoustic moment, the slowing down of the tempo, or even a piano section, which speaks volumes about their songwriting abilities. The impressive vocal delivery also needs a special mention because, without Niilo Sevänen’s skill in transitioning from nasty growls to low harsh vocals and even whispers, or the stamina to keep up with the pace of the vocal melodies, this album wouldn’t have that immersive storytelling edge that it has.      

To conclude, “Anno 1696” offers yet another great reason to love INSOMNIUM, perfectly blending the harsher soundscape of “Winter’s Gate” with the melodic accessibility of “Heart Like a Greave” into one cohesive unit while also expanding their sound by adding some new elements to their brand of Finnish melancholy. Consequently, this makes the album stand out in their discography as the logical next step that they needed to take into what can be seen as the band’s modern era, but without losing anything that made them melodeath legends in the process. Needless to say, they are absolute masters of their craft and “Anno 1696” sees INSOMNIUM at the peak of their creativity. As such, it should come as no surprise that this album is already a strong highlight of 2023, as well as a firm contender for (Finnish) Album of the Year in my books.  

Written by Andrea Crow


White Christ (feat. Sakis Tolis)
Godforsaken (feat. Johanna Kurkela)
Starless Paths
The Witch Hunter
The Unrest
The Rapids


Niilo Sevänen – bass / vocals
Jani Liimatainen – guitars / clean vocals
Markus Vanhala – guitars / clean vocals
Markus Hirvonen – drums
Ville Friman – guitars


Century Media Records


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