Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Wintersun's 'The Forest Seasons' - Album Review

Wintersun are one of those bands which I have listened casually to some extent over the years, but have never really properly made the effort to get into. I bought their second, and up until last month their latest, album Time I not too long after it came out in 2012 but it never particularly grabbed me. Around the same time I also purchased a copy of the band's self-titled debut album from 2004 but, to my shame, it has remained unplayed all this time! I think it is fair to say that Wintersun have just never really excited me enough to ever get me to properly sit down with their discography - despite how sparse it is! Despite this, Wintersun's infamy over the years has not passed me by. The band, if you can even really call Wintersun a band, was formed in 2003 by singer, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter Jari Mäenpää while he was a member of the Finnish folk metal band Ensiferum. Mäenpää left Ensiferum the following year to focus on Wintersun full time and has since become something of a pantomime villain in the metal world. Wintersun was a genuinely well-received album back in 2004, and this immediate success clearly went to Mäenpää's head. In the eight years that passed between Wintersun and Time I, Wintersun fans had to put up with missed deadlines, broken promises, and cancelled concerts while Mäenpää worked on his masterpiece: Time. Only Mäenpää can really explain the reasons for these delays, and he has attempted to do so over the years with many lengthy and sometimes seemingly-unhinged Facebook posts, the result was all but the most ardent Wintersun fans had all but given up on Mäenpää by the time Time I was released. Time I, seemingly half of the promised Time album, certainly received mixed reactions on releases and it continues to divide opinion to this day. There is no denying the creativity of Mäenpää and the scope of his vision when it came to Time I, it was just poorly executed with the final album sounding like a sonic mess, without any real clarity. Time I was the modern metal world's answer to Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy, although that comparison is not really apt as Chinese Democracy was actually good! Five more years have passed and we seem no closer to Time II's release, and Mäenpää has damaged his reputation further with more broken promises and a ridiculous public spat with his record label Nuclear Blast when they refused to finance the building of a personal Wintersun recording studio. That being said, earlier in the year Mäenpää made the shock announcement that a new Wintersun album was imminent. This new album was not to be Time II however, but a brand new project called The Forest Seasons. Advanced copies of the album were sold through a crowdfunding site which Mäenpää said will help finance his long-dreamed of studio where he will finally finish Time II. If all this sounds ridiculous, that is because it is, but I have to say that Mäenpää has really come up with the goods on The Forest Seasons. Where Time I was an overblown and confusing mess, The Forest Seasons is a leaner, more melodic beast that sounds much better (despite a few moments where the production suffers from too much going on at once) and is an instantly-enjoyable listen. Made up of only four lengthy songs, each one representing one of the four seasons, this is an album that is easily the best thing I have heard from Wintersun to date, and will probably help to restore Mäenpää's reputation somewhat after years of madness.

The album gets underway with the longest song, the near-fifteen minute epic Awaken from the Dark Slumber (Spring). After a minute or so of atmospheric wind noises, the drums kick in and a symphonic instrumental passage complete with some Oriental-inspired melodies gets things off to a strong start. Reading the album's liner notes, it is clear that The Forest Seasons, more so than any of Wintersun's previous albums, is a Mäenpää solo album in all but name. The other three band members: guitarist Teemu Mäntysaari; bassist Jukka Koskinen; and even drummer Kai Hahto; are conspicuous by their absence for the most part with Mäenpää instead opting to handle all of the album's instruments and programme the drums. In fairness, the programmed drums actually sound quite good, with plenty of punch, but Hahto is such a great drummer it seems a shame that his skills are not utilised here. Mäntysaari and Koskinen provide some additional vocals throughout, but overall this is clearly Mäenpää's project. Awaken from the Dark Slumber (Spring) is mostly a fairly mid-paced effort, with Mäenpää's harsh vocals dominating over gothic and symphonic backdrops. Mäenpää has always aspired to write grand and epic pieces, and this song definitely comes close to fulfilling those aspirations. Unlike the majority of Time I, Awaken from the Dark Slumber (Spring) is well-produced and there is a good balance between the heavy guitars and the more ethereal orchestral elements. This song is probably the most upbeat piece on the album, with folky melodies thrown in fairly often to provide a strong sense of melody throughout and allows Mäenpää a chance to show off his lead guitar skills. He rarely indulges in lengthy guitar solos, but the folky interludes here allow him a little opportunity to spread his wings. Short sections that feature clean vocals also add extra melody, and are used sparingly enough to make sure they make maximum impact when they do come in. The second number, The Forest that Weeps (Summer) opens with a frantic acoustic guitar melody over which layers of effects and subtle string arrangements are laid. While not quite as upbeat as the previous number, this is still a relatively light-hearted piece on the surface that makes liberal use of shimmering keyboard textures which are a great contrast to the harsh tones of the guitars. Many riffs throughout have the swagger of many of the great traditional metal bands of the past and, despite it's length, the song has a more traditional structure with an obviously melodic chorus that repeats throughout. The chorus makes use of Mäenpää's clean vocals, and the his folk-esque chants bring to mind the band Týr at times. The singer of Týr appropriately makes an appearance on the track, as part of a large choir made up of members of many metal bands such as Ensiferum, Turisas, and Children of Bodom. This choir helps to really bulk out certain sections of the song and it really adds depth. The song contains many instrumental interludes, which again make use of folky melodies. There is a great section about two thirds of the way through which starts out acoustically and then moves into a hard-hitting riff-driven section which features the same melody that was playing on the acoustic instruments played over a variety of tempos for effect. The last portion of the song contains the chorus, but thing time sung by the choir for full effect which is just as powerful as is sounds!

The album takes a heavier turn on Eternal Darkness (Autumn) which features prominent black metal influences and a murkier overall tone. Again the songs builds up slowly with an atmospheric intro, but as soon as the drums kick in with the blast beats the song really gets going with a dramatic stabbing string section and buzzsaw rhythm guitars. Mäenpää's black metal rasps are actually very convincing, and shows his diversity as a vocalist - something which he has probably not pushed himself far enough with previously. While I am not a big fan of black metal, I appreciate it occasionally, and the symphonic black metal of bands like Dimmu Borgir is certainly exciting and enjoyable. While not as good as their dark bombast, Mäenpää has done well on Eternal Darkness (Autumn) to channel that spirit and create a dark and heavy song that fits in with the overall album but also feels like something new for Wintersun. Most of the song moves along at a fast pace, which is thanks to the fast blast beats courtesy of the drum machine, but the pace does slow down sometimes and allows mournful guitar leads to shine through. This gothic turn helps to keep the song fresh, and stops it from becoming an assault on the senses. In fairness however, this is not the case with the faster sections anyway as the balance between the black metal elements and the extremely effective orchestral scores is pretty much spot on. The song is very well produced and this keeps things flowing nicely and ensures that the nuances are not lost in the mix - something which happened constantly on Time I. A lengthy shredded guitar solo is another highlight of the song, and shows that Mäenpää's guitar playing can really shine when it needs to. The album's final number, Loneliness (Winter), changes things up again with a melancholic overall feel and a much slower pace. Comparisons can be drawn between this song and many of the bands that make up the world of gothic metal with methodical guitar rhythms and moody orchestral sounds dominating the sound. While Mäenpää usually sings the majority of his songs in his harsh voice, much of this song is sung using his clean voice. While his clean vocals are a little rudimentary in comparison to his harsh delivery, they still work well and help to convey the song's mood perfectly - fitting in with the wintry, desolate themes. Explosions of heaviness are still present here, and these see Mäenpää growling once again, but for the most part this song is fairly laid back in comparison to the rest of the album, which helps things wind down after the black metal exploits of the previous song. Towards the song's end, you really start to get used to Mäenpää's clean vocals too, and I feel that this is something that he could work into something really effective with time and more practice. This song is a showcase for him vocally, and it is great to see him spread his wings. Overall, The Forest Seasons is an album that I did not expect to enjoy anywhere near as much as I do. Wintersun have never really done it for me a great deal previously but this album, despite only being four songs long, has made me change my mind about them somewhat. Hopefully Wintersun albums of the future will follow the well-produced mould of this one, and not the overblown and chaotic sound that was present on Time I.

The album was released on 21st July 2017 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's official lyric video for Awaken from the Dark Slumber (Spring).

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