Beginning of Fall Album Capsules: Insomnium, Alcest, and Opeth

I’m gonna be real upfront. I want there to be a lot of different content on this blog, more than just film reviews, though that’s always gonna be our bread and butter around here. So, I’m gonna be making a whole lot of little dumb experiments, some will stick, some won’t. Please hold with me through them. 

This one is an attempt to figure out a way to do some album reviews. I’m doing metal, not only because it’s what I know, but it’s also where my first ever works of criticism lie. Fun fact. 

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Alcest – Kodama

Released by Prophecy Production on September 30, 2016

Alcest is the kind of band that gets a good ol’-fashioned fight going in the metal community. Their grasp on the title of “metal band” has always been tenuous at best (barring Le Secret) and Alcest has always felt more comfortable with shoegazers and bands like Deafheaven that flirt with infusing metal into their work, though Alcest has done less and less of that as of late. Shelter was most notable for a lack of any metal influence at all, essentially a post-rock record with vocals along the lines of Sigur Ros or Talk Talk. It’s led to the kind of hackles that get raised anytime a metal band abandons the metal, which is a shame, because Alcest is still doing phenomenal work, even without the riffs backing them up.

So, good news, Kodama puts some of the metal back in. I mean, no one is gonna mistake this thing for Revocation or Meshuggah, but Neige’s pained and caustic screams make a return as do the occasional explosion of a black metal riff or a blast beat section. Alcest kind of remembered (and this was I think many people’s problem with Shelter) how effective those metallic sections could be as the post-rock crescendo and as an emotional release to the build-up.

That metal ethos also rests with a more focused record. While retaining the band’s dreamy and painterly qualities, the title track and “Untouched” in particular, Kodama finds itself remarkably more focused, guitar work deftly telling a story and vocals loaded with meaning even without a recognizable word of English in the whole thing. There’s no riffs, but the texturing gives the songs just as much of a spine. There’s an earthy, mystic quality to these songs, appropriate given the influence Princess Mononoke apparently had on this record.

It’s unfortunate Kodama doesn’t maintain its grace through its whole. This is an incredibly frontloaded album (a shame when it’s as short as this one is) and it gets limp towards the end, kind of spiraling off into nowhere where it needed a big, powerful punch. And for people who’ve not been hot on the non-metal Alcest, this feels like a very tiny olive branch, not much to draw back in people who weren’t already fans.

But for those who still are, there’s a lot to admire here. In my eyes, Alcest consistently puts out beautiful work, and anyone who’s stayed on board has a great little present to unwrap with Kodama. 

Grade: B+

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Opeth – Sorceress

Released by Nuclear Blast and Moderbolaget on September 30, 2016

Hoo boy.

Okay, look, I’m all for letting artists grow and change and find new influences that work for them. Hell, I’m all for letting a band completely change styles if they feel like it, that’s the whole point of growing as an artist. But I’m also firmly a believer that I don’t necessarily have to go along with something that has stopped working for me, and I believe that growth and change has to be accompanied by an ability to actually perform what you’re trying to alter yourself into.

70s prog (think Can, Camel, and Yes) has always been the underlying throughline of Opeth. Half the reason they were so loved is the dynamic shifts between a crunchy, authoritative death metal with those lighter bits of folky 70s progressive rock. The other half was that they could do both with so much skill.

Opeth’s last few albums have not only lost those dynamic shifts, dropping the death metal elements (most notably frontman Mikael Akerfeldt’s monstrous growls) and keeping a few harder-edged riffs to become just another progressive rock band.

Which is their most-overwhelming problem on Sorceress. There’s nothing really unique. It’s not necessarily a bad album, everyone is still clearly talented, and Akerfeldt’s cleans are still some of the most beautiful in metal. But there’s nothing new, nothing different. It’s largely a meandering and soulless record. No focus, no dynamics, just noodling and running through the standard sort of tracks that every other progressive rock band can write.

“Will O’ The Wisp” and “Chrysalis” come the closest to feeling like an old-school Opeth track, but even those more feel like markers of how far the band has fallen. You can hear where there might have once been some inspiration, some shift. Instead, Sorceress ends up largely a resounding yawn that will flutter off into the ether. All talent, no soul.

Grade: C-

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Insomnium – Winter’s Gate

Released by Century Media on September 23, 2016

Now this is a metal record.

I don’t know what exactly I expected when I heard Insomnium was doing a single 40-minute song for their next album. Insomnium can kind of be like Amon Amarth or AC/DC. You know what you’re gonna get, and it’s never that different from the last thing you got. I say that with all the love in the world, but they can be predictable.

And there’s plenty of standard Insomnium on here. Big, emotional riffs with big, emotional growls and tons of atmosphere, everything pitched up to 10. Winter’s Gate knows how exhausting that would be without a break, though, after all, you usually get a few different tracks and different sort of riffs on their albums.

Winter’s Gate knows that to be a single 40-minute song, you have to go dynamic. So dynamic they go. Winter’s Gate runs the gamut of modern melodic death metal, there’s shades of new and old Insomnium, as well as bands like Swallow the Sun, Omnium Gatherum, Edge of Sanity, and a heavy dose of black metal for safe measure. It finds moments for quiet restraint, moments to ride on a riff, and moments to explode and engulf in sonic violence.

This is a winter album, crafting a cold, stormy atmosphere, swirling the listener into the heart of a blizzard. It’s the kind of experience that transports you, an immense epic that anyone can admire for the sheer level of craft and heart. Plus, there’s a riff drop in Part 7 of this record that may rank as one of my favorite artistic moments of the year. It’s so good.

This is an album I have a hard time being super critical about, partially because it feels so deeply up my alley. Epic, intelligently written, and makes 40 minutes fly by like it’s nothing. An announcement by a band that I thought was capable of one thing that they may be able to do anything.

Grade: A+

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