Thrash Hits’ resident Euro metal geek Tom Dare is having great fun with the long, long, long-awaited second album from Finnish widdlers Wintersun. But he thinks it’s much more than that – he thinks it’s a landmark.
When Wintersun announced back in 2006 that work composing album number two was underway, hopes were high. But as the years rolled by, Time seemingly joined the likes of Chinese Democracy and the mythical third Necrophagist record in the “when hell freezes over”-stakes when it came to a realistic ETA, fears increased. “Were they polishing a turd?”, we wondered. Had they been far too ambitious for their own good? So what a shock it was when Time I finally arrived, not just seriously good, but as one of the most important metal releases of its generation.
The mixing skill on the album deserves immense praise on its own – and given how this part of the record’s genesis was frequently blamed as one of the factors making it so fucking late, it should do. The sheer quantity of ideas bombarding the ear is frightening, and it would have been easy for this to turn into a complete mess of noise. But Jari Mäenpää has somehow made it work to greater effect.
The ideas come thick and fast, but they do resolve into coherence. You need to pay attention (and bloody good headphones or speakers), but it all comes across without sounding cluttered – on the contrary, it makes the whole albums sound positively colossal. The atmosphere is thicker and richer than the debut Wintersun by hugely significant distances as a result – and this is why it’s far more significant than simply a technological terror to be proud of.
The music sounds better as a result. It’s not window dressing or fluff or bells and whistles – it makes you enjoy the record more than you would if it were just the central melodies and riffs you were listening to. Partly this is the technical aptitude (which is frighteningly good) and partly this is the way it is composed. For all the ludicrous bombast and glorious OTT melodrama, the texturing is surprisingly subtly orchestrated, little flickers of melody popping in here and then fading away, while other isolated touches waft in before dying again. This is a long, long way from where we were simply a decade ago.
Back in 2002, it took Blind Guardian half their production time on A Night At The Opera to record just one (admittedly epic, but still just one) song, incorporating multiple parts into the landmark ‘And Then There Was Silence‘. Fast forward seven years, and an underground band like Xerath can make a debut album – one the band themselves have described as essentially a well-produced demo – using synthesised strings that, sonically at least, shits all over what the much better funded German power metallers did.
Ten years ago, this was cutting edge:
Even Blind Guardian seem to think that original recording has dated badly – why else would they re-record the whole thing (to its betterment) for a compilation this year? Throw in the huge production values of recent Nightwish outings, Fleshgod Apocalypse’s use of an orchestra in staggeringly brutal death metal and Devin Townsend’s Deconstruction insanity, and the bar for how good this element in metal can sound is much, much higher than when Dimmu Borgir and Rhapsody Of Fire’s early work came out. That level of production now wouldn’t pass GCSE music. But Time I has raised the bar more than any other for years.
Even the best symphonic components on metal records – the arrangements by Gaute Storås of Dimmu Borgir’s music, Pip Williams’ orchestration for Nightwish, and even Blind Guardian’s exceptional skill constructing ‘Sacred Worlds‘ on At The Edge Of Time – tend to deal more in broad strokes than minutiae. The “other instruments” – orchestral or otherwise – are treated almost like an individual instruments, like an exceptionally powerful keyboard synthesiser. Why? That’s how most of the music is written – using a piano. Only then is it arranged into violins, flutes and honking film-soundtrack brass. Time I was quite clearly written differently – and it’s this approach which results in that subtle, effective arrangement spoken of earlier.
Time by Wintersun. The future?
It sounds significantly like a far more Berlioz approach to composition, as opposed to the previous examples’ more Beethoven-esque method (for non-classical music buffs – Berlioz’s instrument was, in effect, the orchestra. He played the guitar a bit, but definitely wasn’t a pianist, so didn’t write at the keyboard – which perhaps explains why he was one of the greatest orchestrators the world has seen). Little asides interject, then drop out again. Individual sounds are completely absent for long periods, before flitting in for their moments of glory, before disappearing once more. It sounds as if Mäenpää was writing this myriad of different parts as he went along, rather than writing the harmonies and then assigning them parts once the shape of the song was finished – and the results are pound-for-pound far, far more evocative as a result.
In metaphorical terms, this kind of widdle is almost always used as icing on cake. The band bakes the cake (writes the songs), knows they want to ice it in a spectacular fashion, and know roughly what it’s going to look and taste like when it’s done, but leave the specifics to later (and frequently hire someone who knows what he’s doing to execute it). Sometimes it might form a jammy layer between to sponges, but it’s still a separate entity. What Wintersun have done is to work all those flavours and colours into the cake itself. They’re so baked together you can’t tease them apart at all.
Using an orchestra to make you sound more brutal. Clever.
This doesn’t necessarily make the songs themselves better. The key components – the strength of individual melodies – still have to be up to scratch. And it certainly isn’t to say Time I is the best metal album of 2012 because, although it’s undoubtedly amongst that calibre of releases, there are more emotive records, more memorable albums and more seamlessly constructed musical narratives.
But in terms of advancing the craft overall, in terms of showing the way forward for a whole area of metal, Wintersun have gone further than all. Time I should be looked back on in a decade as a landmark release for its style. That six year gestation period has been fully justified – and it’s made the rerecord of that famous Blind Guardian song sound dated inside a year.
Do you agree with Tom, or has he just shit out a load of old cobblers out there onto the internet? Drop us a comment down below.