'Time I' - Wintersun (9/10)
Unless the time comes where post-apocalyptic music scholars are reading this and all other mention of the arduous wait associated with Wintersun's second album has been erased, I don't think it's necessary to offer a pre-amble about the ridiculous anticipation eight years of waiting have wreaked upon fans. Suffice to say, after so many delays, "Time" became rooted somewhere in between the status of legend and inside joke. Of course, with such expectations, people can be led to say rash things; initial media reports of "Time I" as one of the greatest albums of its generation appeared well-aware of the hype. I've given myself a couple of weeks now to digest it in all of its glory, and while the success of the yet-upcoming "Time II" will ultimately decide where this project rests in history, Wintersun have offered one of the most intense listening experiences of the year with this one. It certainly deserves the polarized opinions it has met, but there's depth and detail here to merit however long we waited for it. Love it or hate it, "Time" is finally here.
The first thing that really surprises on "Time I" is how much Wintersun have developed and changed as a musical outfit since the debut. Although the debut now passes me as one of the finest of its style, it was still rooted in a style and sound that would have been familiar to any fans of Jari's previous band, Ensiferum. Wintersun's direction on "Time I" may still be described with the same melodic, epic, progressive and symphonic adjectives as the debut, but everything is now larger than its ever been, to the point where it becomes difficult to fairly compare the two. Whereas "Wintersun" focused on the quality of its hooks and riffs, "Time I" is painted in terms of orchestration and atmosphere. Jari and his mates fashion a vast folk metal symphony of sorts, not in the traditional 'symphonic metal' sense, but there's not really another word that can aptly describe the complexity and subtle flourishes throughout the album. In news reports prior to the album's release, there was word that "Time" would feature hundreds of tracks at the same time, and though that was enough to raise a few eyebrows, it's readily evident in the music. Wintersun's music is still led largely by guitars, but "Time I" makes its mark by the amount of time and detail invested into the background. Cinematic orchestral flourishes match the intensity of burstfire guitar work, and frequent folk roundabouts give plenty of space for Jari to sport his arrangement skills. Even within an intrinsic 'background' element like the orchestrations, there are plenty of levels to dive into. Even to the attentive listener, "Time I" is an initially chaotic and harrowing experience.
In what I can only imagine would have been a mixer's nightmare from the ninth circle of Hell, "Time I" demands a listener's full attention. "When Time Fades Away" is a remarkably beautiful way to open the album, gradually adapting the listener to a steadily more intense and complex palette of orchestration. There's a definite East Asian motif here- certainly not something you would expect from Finland- although a minute into "Sons of Winter and Stars", the definitive Wintersun sound is at full blast. The riffs are not too fargone from what Jari was doing on the debut; they are fast, melodic, and open to techniques from many sub-genres of metal. Below these guitar riffs are what sounds like a thousand other parts, each grasping for their share of the mix. "Land of Snow and Sorrow" and the finale title track follow in the footsteps of "Sons of Winter and Stars", although each of these three are memorable in their own right. The fourth (and shortest) piece, "Darkness and Frost" is an interlude that also functions as the extended intro to the song "Time", it begins as an acoustic bridge and soon finds itself in the same sort of cinematic orchestration heard on the rest of the album."Sons..." is arguably the best offering on "Time I", although the other two 'full' pieces are not far behind. "Sons of Winter and Stars" is a perfect manifest of where Wintersun are now as a creative act, throwing everything at the listener at full force, yet still finding time to offer a beautiful acoustic break towards the end.
For all of its cerebral orchestrations, the vocal melodies here are remarkable, and may be the most accessible thing on the record. Jari's black metal rasp is still used here, but there's a certain preference for clean singing here. Whether its for an epic chorus of pagan warriors or Jari's own lead voice, Wintersun's intense style manages to make room for these vocal arrangements. As may have been evident from the overblown production, Jari seems to be a bit of a Devin Townsend fan, and "Land of Snow and Sorrow" best illustrates this, occasionally featuring guitar and vocal elements that are virtually indistinguishable from Devy himself. It's a minor disappoint to hear a genius in his own right tracing the footsteps of another genius, but Jari's vocals have a great sound of their own. As a clean singer, he sounds much more confident here than he did on the debut. Thanks in large part due to the heavy symphonic focus here, his black metal rasps now sound less fitting, although it retains his distinctive snarl.
It's almost a granted truth by this point that Wintersun's musicianship is going to be through the roof. Besides Jari Maenpaa's not-inconsiderable skill with vocals and guitar, the rest of the musicians offer remarkable performances befitting a project of this magnitude. Special commendations go to drummer Kai Hahto, whose epic and aggressive technique backs up the metric tons of orchestration. Although the production is about as good as current technologies can allow for something of this density, some performances on this album can be difficult to hear. At its most symphonic, "Time I" pushes Kai's drum recording down to the level of the background, and bassist Jukka Koskinen can be even more difficult to hear, unless you know what to look for. There are times when I feel the debut's more concise and straightforward approach would have been better, but considering the scope of the instrumentation, it's no surprise that things get just a little murky on the production end. At only forty minutes, "Time I" is certainly shorter than most albums, although this slightly shorter-than-average length works to an advantage. Particularly on the first listen, it's quite a bit to take in, and it ends before the 'epic' atmosphere draws thin.
"Time"s complexity is both its greatest strength and most inviting vulnerability. Depending on your tastes as a listener outside the context of Wintersun's debut, it's likely most who hear it will either love it or hate it. Although the depth here is virtually unsurpassed by any other album of its style, that complexity can feel overblown for its own sake. "Time I" achieves the feeling of an epic atmosphere like few albums have managed to do, but there's the sense that some of the overbearing density could have been done without. With that being said, repeated listens only make the album more and more satisfying of a trip. The initial experience is bound to be fairly disorienting, but there's so much to explore here. As I said towards the start of the review, it's going to be up to "Time II" to match the par that's been set, but there's no doubt that the sweat and blood that's evidently been spent investing in this project has paid off. Only coming years will tell if this has the same lasting appeal as its predecessor, but the music speaks for itself; Wintersun are now among the elites of their style... whatever their style might actually be.