Music Review: Wintersun – The Forest Seasons

Posted: August 2, 2017 in Uncategorized

(It isn’t my intention to make music reviews a feature on this site, but this is way, way too long to stick into a review at a retail page, and so here it lands, in among the soup of shaving and archery and the occasional hoisting of heavy objects.)

Edit: There are some factual inaccuracies in this review. I stand by the spirit of them, but please also read This Correction to get the full story.

When approaching the prospect of creating a piece of art, there are many different ways to go about it. For art, music in specific, that attempts to cater to a “popular” aesthetic, one of the primary target points has always been to be instantly relatable.

There is a magic to a piece of music that, upon first hearing it, almost feels like you’ve always known it. Rather than discovering the piece, it’s almost as if you’re simply being reminded of it. After listening once or twice, most people can hum along to the melody and probably sing along to the chorus. Simplicity and graceful economy are their watch-words. Rock and Roll and other popular musical forms try for this. Short songs, good beats, sensible chord changes, and not too many of those. Nothing that requires a recalibration of your sensor array.

Wintersun…doesn’t write music that way. At all.

They are, if anything, all about extreme, almost absurd detail. Sometimes, you can have been listening to their albums for years, and still be hearing little details you hadn’t noticed. They are obviously influenced by classical music, and want to imbue their music with the complexity, grandeur, and reward for the careful listener.

In light of this, rushing to judgement with a new Wintersun record is, in the end, a tactical blunder. I had some preliminary thoughts after the first few listens. A good half of those thoughts have proven to be ill-considered already. I’ve listened to The Forest Seasons a good fifteen times or so times now, and I’m still getting to grips with it, still learning a lot of things. I’m not changing my mind about it, but I’m beginning to ask better questions, and come to more refined answers.

1) Expectations, Controversy, and Crowdfunding:
A great deal of time has gone by since Wintersun first came along. Their first and eponymous album was and still remains one of the most staggering works of guitar savagery and epic metal to be committed to a recording medium. Don’t agree? Fight me. Seriously. Like with fists. As with other artists who hit a grand slam home run on their first at-bat, this created a problem. A big one. If the album had been good, interesting, and largely ignored, Jari probably would have gone back with Ensiferum and recorded with them, doing the awesome work he put in on their first two records. With Wintersun the album being what it was, though…how you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after that?

So, the daunting and terrifying task of trying to improve upon a record that may have gone as far in that direction as Jari could go. What could he do? Sure, he could have put together another clinic on sweep picking and shredded our faces off. Many bands live by doing the same thing, catching the same lightning in the same bottle again and again. It’s not a bad way to go. Fans will shout, “Gimme more ‘o that!” all day.

Jari…wasn’t going to do that. He wanted MORE. Because how could anything but more do? Thus, it took him very close to forever to put out Time I. I won’t lie. I was a little disappointed at first. Not bummed, but Time I was a whole different kettle of fish. The density of the mix was such that much of the guitar and drum wizardry was very hard to pick out. Much of the complexity rejected a good understanding of the full picture. You had to TRY. Not just once. For a while. Like many of my favorite things, it rewarded effort and dedication. I have but few complaints, after these years have gone by. The primary one? It’s just too damned short. If you strip out some of the orchestral intros and outros, you’re looking at only about 30 minutes of actual metal. Oh, what epic metal it is, but having waited 8 years for it…dang.

Here we are, 5 years removed from Time I, and the promised second half of that album is still only a rumor and a legend. Money issues. Studio fights. Writer’s block. Insufficient recording space, gear, time, and so forth. Acrimonious words and bellyaching. Some fans gave up on Jari and his perfectionist ways.

Enter the interim goal. The do-able album. The crow bar that might get Wintersun somewhat back into the good graces of both its studio and its fans. A thing called “The Forest Seasons”. As has become somewhat common in today’s world, it came to us via a crowdfunding effort, which would correspond with the studio selling physical media. It would allow both parties to make money, and to cater to different “levels” of fans.

You may have some vauge idea of which level I’m at. Yeah. That one. The one that sees me write an absurdly long review, when I don’t make it a habit to review music, movies, or books. The one who named his parakeet Jari. So, there’s that. Bias, let me tip my hat to you now.

Much has been said about all the hullabaloo outlined above. I’m not going to add to it here. I backed the crowdfunding effort. It was an easy decision, because I had the money to spare. I was willing to wager about $52 on the promise that I’d get a new Wintersun album. I was not alone. The campaign raised about $500K, and smashed the funding goal multiple times over. Evidently, there were enough fans who still really wanted what Wintersun was selling. And what were they selling?

2) The Album in Concept:
The idea behind The Forest Seasons was that it was an album that Jari could accomplish with the tools, money, and time available to him, an album that, while painstakingly produced, was recorded in whatever way he could find, even in bedroom closets and at odd hours when his neighbors wouldn’t complain. It wasn’t Mr. Right (Time II), but it was Mr. Right Now.

In addition to being what he COULD do (in his vision), it was also a concept album of sorts. I say “of sorts” because I find it to be a bit more of an overarching theme than an actual concept. Essentially, Jari’s idea was that he could do a metal album that covered the same thematic ground as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Great, crazy, wonderful idea. The sort of madness we expect from Jari. Is it in any way a cover of that piece? No. No actual notes in common. Just the idea of a four-season epic metal symphony.

There are four parts. They’re each about the size of a movement in a symphony (although that’s not what The Four Seasons is…but let’s not go there.) In lyric content, I would have to say that, true to the name of the band, the idea of cold and dark and winter dominates here. Even in Spring and Summer, it’s mostly about the classic Wintersun themes. Musically, you can squint to see the seasonal elements, but only if you really want to do it.

All that said, the album hangs together thematically to me. I just feel like the seasonal element feels a little like a theme stuck onto the songs at the end, not really cooked deeply into them. Which is fine. It’s something I can let go of. Each song is its own thing. I don’t necessarily expect Wintersun to give me a bouncy jig. Jari carried some folk metal elements with him from Ensiferum, but not that many.

3) The Music:
There is more Black Metal influence here than any other Wintersun release. There is still the epic and grandiose element here, the dramatic swells and the hundred layer-deep complexity, but there is greater menace, darkness, and stretches of disquieting atmosphere.

It is clear that, with this record, it was not about the guitar wizardry. Precious little remained to prove after Wintersun’s debut in this regard, as that album is altogether loaded with terrifying solos and riffs that hit like steam hammers.

At the same time, it isn’t quite at the other end of the spectrum, like Time I, where it flirted with Power Metal at points. (Not that there is anything wrong with Power Metal, for me.)

The first track, “Awaken from the Dark Slumber” or “Spring”, begins with a segment that has a disinctly Dimmu Borgir vibe. With the haunting strings beneath a driving mid-tempo beat, some odd chord progressions that work to flirt with the edges of dissonance, and all harsh vocals, this very Symphonic Black Metal phase goes on until about 5:40 of the first song.

From there, a hint of an epic theme is initially stated, then is washed away a bit in a quiet transition phase of symphonic instrumental. From there, we go into the classic double-kick gallop and epic harmonies you would likely expect from Wintersun, building into the extended refrain, first stated with Jari’s high shriek and an underpinning of Jukka’s low death growls.

Much of the musical interest during this part is going to be created by the synth orchestra, with the guitars primarily sticking to rhythm and a few riffs. The solos, such as they are, don’t really amount to anything noteworthy, considering the technical facility of the guitarists in question. There’s certainly space, had Jari wished to implement them, for titanic solos. Perhaps, in the live versions, they might take advantage of these openings.

In the latter part of the song, a male chorus appears, and this may be the part of the record that most recalls Time I. It also recalls moments here and there of early Ensiferum.

As with earlier Wintersun, the individual notes of the bass guitar are low in the mix, and difficult to discern. Bass will often get buried in a crowded mix. The recording doesn’t feel thin, and visuals of Jukka playing make it clear that he’s throwing stuff down there, but you’d have to strip all the backing tracks away to really hear what is going on (more on this later).

Kai’s drumming is flawless, but you get the sense that on this track, he’s certainly within himself, not having to sweat or strain. Unlike the bass, he is front-and-center. Don’t get me wrong. Kai, even when he’s not going full tilt, still brings it. His fills and changes are all perfectly accurate, and the song only falls into that “double-kick lull” for a short period of time. What I mean by that is the steady, mid-tempo double beat that carries on without any variation. You’ll see this for long stretches in some bands.

On to the second track, “The Forest that Weeps”, or “Summer”. Beginning with an acoustic guitar and almost Japanese synth instrumentation, it kicks into a head-nodding riff and a sparse drumline that, to some extent, lets the guitars drive the song for a few minutes. We get some harsh vocals from Jari, but he soon dusts off his clean vocals and shouting vocals to give the song some variety. Shades of Time I here, again, but with a harsher, more forthright tack. The lead rhythm riff here really carries it. In between the almost rock-like basic drums that live in the early parts of the song, Kai gives us some eccentric, asymmetrical playing behind the refrain. The big chorus shows up for a second, but tails into an instrumental bridge.

That bridge is a folk/Japanese tinged variation of the theme the guitars stated earlier in the song. A snare-drum brings us into the twin-guitar part of the show. Interestingly, it isn’t really a wailing solo, but a rather measured theme and variation segment above a nice rhythm. Maybe a little disappointing, if I’m honest. This part kind of beggs for some sweep-picking wizardry. It’s good and rhythmic, but feels a little bit like wasted time.

Orchestral bombast follows, with massed choruses and the whole ten yards. You want epic? Yeah. Here it is. In the latter part of the song, Kai does some deviously complex stuff with splitting up the beat and super-controlled double kick work. He plays both the easiest and most difficult of his material in this song, and has moments where he probably has to almost try hard. Almost.

The song fades away into the sound of the sea, and we’ve found ourselves at the half-way point in the record. Nominally, spring and summer are still pretty chilly. Because the band is named Wintersun. These dudes are from Finland. What do they know about warm weather?

Track three is entitled “Eternal Darkness” or “Autumn”. It’s the darkest and most evil song Wintersun have ever put out. I hear a good measure of Emperor in the early parts of this track. A super-distorted guitar and all kinds of evil, atmospheric stuff is going on here. They let Kai actually blastbeat on the drums for a solid stretch, and Jari’s voice is at its most aggressive.

Little by little, more typical Wintersun elements creep in atop the blastbeat, but dilute the menace of the track only just a tidbit. The blast turns to a more complex and gallop-influenced beat, with the orchestral backing tracks swirling behind it all and adding all manner of weird flourishes.

Giving us a bit of a break, an instrumental segment with a bunch of pretty sweet fills by Kai and a neat melody on the guitar ensues. Jari does an almost Shagrath-like vocal inflection here and there, giving an interesting wrinkle between his higher shrieks. More drum badassery by Kai, and some really solid guitar interplay. As this segment develops, it gives us our only real, wide-open guitar solo. It gets over too fast, but it’s something.

Another bridge, this time accomplished with the acoustic guitar and its evil arpeggio, quickly building into symphonic bombast. More Dimmu Borgir sounding stuff goes on, but is drawn inexorably back to the epic nature of the band Wintersun, with the very end of the song almost giving you that perfect fusion of what record one and two were. The whole thing ends abruptly, as if the transmission were cut, and it leaves you with a moment of highly dramtic null.

The final track, “Lonliness” or “Winter”, begins slowly and with a quiet, almost harp-like intro. You’re almost brought to mind the first orchestral theme in the Harry Potter movies. Metal happens, though. Slow and stately in pace, there’s a doom metal feel to the song. Fellow Finns, the band Swallow the Sun, would probably nod at this one and say, “Yeah, that’s cool.”

The music dies back down to what, in comparison, is fairly unadorned. Jari’s clean intro vocals are some of his most heart-felt. This clean vocal is interspersed with his harsh delivery, as the song’s metal elements surge back up behind him. This song is certainly the ballad of the group. For a wonder, Jukka’s bass is actually audible in this one, and carries a bit more of the musical load, as the drums and tempo here are such that Kai is effectively taking a breather.

The final track is certainly mostly about the vocal performance. Some tasty guitar work shows up at around minute eight, and I will say that the riff they pull out catches in my head and rattles around for days. The many-layered vocals as the song gets into its final minutes are really beautifully applied, and and the soaring clean singing Jari pulls out equals anything he has shown us on earlier recordings. This is the other version of epic that Wintersun can do, where it’s not about the speed or the riff, but about the evocative and emotional element of the song.

We float away from the last song on fading chimes of music and the sound of wind before all falls quiet.

4) Lyrics and Vocal Delivery:
I’m going to go against a lot of listeners here and say that there is more variation in lyrical content here than on Time I. I think that, in the main, Jari’s written some good songs here. They may be a bit chorus heavy for some people, but there is a lot of stuff going on with the different lyrics, the different dramatic places where Jari is taking us with this one.

Jari has been working on his singing. I feel certain of this. He has a larger repertoire of tonality here than on his earlier stuff, where it was just the high shriek, the clean, and the slight break-up shout. He has found a some true deathy sounds, as well as the Shagrath-style groaning vocal, for lack of a better description. I think that he pushes his standard harsh vocal to levels of menace he hadn’t done in the past, and he’s also pulled off some really heart-wrenching cleans, too.

Having Jukka (and Teemu, to a lesser extent) lend their deep bass growls to the proceedings also introduced some cool tonalities to the mix. Overall, I have no issues with the vocal performances here.

5) Production:
Many complain that the guitars are too low in the mix on this record, and that the drums and vocals are too loud. While I think that the studio mix of Time I certainly suffered from having the guitars buried too deep in the mix, I’m not sure that I totally agree with the criticism here. I think that the drums and vocals are where they need to be. The thing that is making the guitars indistinct is the presence of such large amount of synth backing tracks.

Then again, more than a few of the synths are pretty wonderful, so you have to decide what you’re looking for. If Jari wants to bury the guitar and use it as something more instinctually felt than heard, should we gainsay that choice? We certainly can, if we so choose, but again, there’s more going on here than we’ll easily be able to appreciate upon first listen. We’ll have to chase it.

I don’t think I fully appreciated the music until I listened to the instrumental version of the album, which are included with the Forest Package (the crowdfunding package).

Also, it should be said that, unlike some disks, the better your stereo is, the better this one will sound. If you’re lucky enough to have a pair of really great headphones or a pair of high resolution speakers, you’ll be able to appreciate a lot of elements of this album that would otherwise smear together like chalkmarks on a rain-soaked driveway.

Finally, if putting one of the best drummers on the planet front-and-center in the mix is a sin, I will go on record as saying that I fully endorse sin.

6) Value (CD version vs. The Forest Package)
If you chose to back the crowdfunding effort, you received what the band termed “The Forest Package.” This is an all-electronic package with no physical media, available for download at the moment of the album’s release. To my knowledge, there is no effort to replicate the package now that the crowdfunding is over. It’s possible that some or all of it will eventually find its way into some deluxe version of the album, but I don’t have any news about that. For now, you either bought in or you missed out.

Included with the package were the following perks:

1) The album itself, both in full-resolution .wav format and high quality mp3.
2) An acoustic version of “Loneliness”, the fourth track.
3) The full Forest Seasons album as an instrumental (no vocal track).
4) Isolated tracks of each of the Forest Seasons songs (two guitar tracks, bass, drums, vocal, and orchestration).
5) Re-mixes of both the first two albums.
6) The “Live at Tuska” concert from 2013.
7) A photo album and some 4K backgrounds

Provided that you have the capability to burn a disk to audio format, you can use the full .wav format to get a bit-perfect copy for playing on your audio equipment. I don’t see the lack of a material copy as a big deal, especially because it seems like it would have been unfair to Nuclear Blast to totally ace them out of the whole gamut of sales options.

The acoustic version is interesting, but I view it as more of an afterthought, really. It doesn’t add a lot of value, in my book, but is well executed, as far as it goes. I don’t envision myself listening to it that much.

Now, the instrumental version of the album…that’s a whole different story. I imagined that it might be something I’d listen to, maybe once, but I think, in this case, it’s actually a really great tool to help understand some of the musical elements. With the vocals taken off the top of the mix, a lot of the denser elements of the orchestration and the musicianship become clearer. Some of the stuff Kai is doing, particularly, becomes pretty jaw-dropping when you can hear the extent of it. Also, a lot of complexity in the synth-orchestra tracks snaps into focus. One thing you leave with is the understanding that Jari puts a lot of effort into stuff you’ll never really be able to hear. This is a feature of significant value.

The isolated tracks probably delve into nerding out a bit more than I have yet done, but they give you the chance, should you wish, to hear what Jukka’s doing on the bass, back there behind the wall of sound. If you’re trying to learn how to play the songs, I can see this as a big benefit. That, or you can re-mix the album in any way you see fit by throwing all the tracks into an audio mixing engine and balancing them as you prefer. Drums too loud? Too quiet? Jari has made most of your arguments irrelevant. If you want a lot more grit, a lot more “metal”, you can turn the guitars up and turn rest down a little. If you listen to the rhythm guitars in exclusion, the sound is a lot more like an old Dismember track than you might think. Wintersun, below all the intricate frosting, still has some metal going on. If you’re of the opinion that you want more of that, you can make it happen. It’s just a matter of knocking a few decibels off of the rest of the mix and punching up the guitars. Or, you can just shrug and never listen to any of it.

The remixes of the first two albums are punchy and sound good. I think that they help Time I feel a little bit less muddy at points, but I never had a problem with the first album. It was 10/10 already in my book. Adding the intro beforehand makes it a bit more cohesive with the later albums, but I don’t know if I’m a fan of it really. Almost feels like the weird additions and subtractions they do to the Star Wars movies. Just leave it alone. All in all, though, it gives you full .wav and high quality mp3 versions of both albums, so even without big differences in sound quality, it’s a perk.

Having a live version of a lot of the songs is cool. Because of the relative dearth of material, there’s not a lot of songs missing from this live set. In my listen, I don’t see major revelations about the band, but it’s good stuff. They pull it off live. I’d almost love to see them strip the songs back, using no backing tracks, but just having a keyboard player covering that ground when they play live. I think re-arranging the songs so that it’s all happening, all fluid and able to respond to the chemistry of the night, would be wicked. Whenever extensive backing tracks are at play, I feel like the band is a little hamstrung by that. They are on rails. The songs have to kind of go exactly as they did in the studio. Shrug. Maybe that’s just me. Still, a neat perk, and one that might have sold for full album price on its own.

Finally, the photos and computer backgrounds. These are neat, but they are the kind of things you would likely be able to download from a band’s website or from the record label. They are, at most, a small perk.

So…was the package worth it? To me, yes. For one, it was a vote that said that I still cared and was willing to venture some cash against the fact that Wintersun would remain solvent. I’m not saying that I haven’t gotten angry and impatient with the slowness and the excuses put forward for said lack of progress. Like most “big fans”, I wanted more, faster. That said, if you’re more of a casual fan, or not inclined to nerd out about a Wintersun record, the CD or mp3 download is probably sufficient, and a lot more economically sensible. Unless you didn’t own the first two records. That seems like a weird and hard to fathom place to be, but it’s possible that a few people who found the band recently or who recently became financially secure might have been there.

I’m sure that there was a percentage of people who were disappointed in what they got with the package, but everything was outlined, there were no mysteries other than if you’d be fully satisfied with the album itself. My feeling is that you’d have been disappointed with either method of purchase, if the album didn’t do it for you. It’s kind of a yes or no proposition. I’m not in the business of telling people what to think. I can only share my experiences with the album. No buyer’s remorse. I may well get the physical CD, just because I can, and it won’t make the difference between making the rent or not.

7) Final Thoughts:

Where does The Forest Seasons stand in the pantheon of Wintersun albums? Well, it’s a little difficult to compare any of them to any others. Each one has it’s particular thing that it shoots for.

For me, the first album is and will always be dead, solid, perfect. In extreme metal, there are a few records that just do everything right. Ask a hundred metalheads, and they’ll name a lot of names in this regard. There will be acrimonious disputes, name-calling, and possibly a fist fight. Anyone, though, who even has a dog in the fight when it comes to talking about Wintersun, will nod and say, “Yeah, that first album fricken’ ruled.” Because it did. If you’ve played a guitar, and you want to humbled, go ahead. Listen and lament. Behold the solos and tremble. More than that, they integrate perfectly into the songs, never seeming tacked-on or at odds with the musical vision. Sometimes, guys run off and basically make a perfect record by doing almost everything. Kind of like what Old Man’s Child did with “Ill-Natured Spritual Invasion.” (Which I also recommend.)

Time I sacrificed the purity of purpose of the first record for an overarching dream of being as epic as humanly possible with the instruments involved. It mostly succeeds. The material that is included is, after one takes the time to decode it and let it really begin to make sense, pretty damn amazing. To my way of thinking, the Sonic Pump studio-live version of the whole album is better than the released album in every useful measure, and really shows a bit more of what Jari was hoping to do. Watch that whole “concert”, and you are almost shocked into silence. It helps you understand a lot about the music that wasn’t clear upon just listening. Jari shot for the stars and almost did all he hoped for (my thinking). The downside?

Time I is just too damn short. Also, I feel like, lyrically, the album is a little short on ideas and themes. The stuff that is there is glorius, but it feels like there is some connective tissue missing, as if it is the beginning of a tale we have not yet heard all the way through. Because, let’s face it, that’s what it is. Time II was supposed to be out in 2013. Maybe that’s not Time I’s fault, but that’s how it is. The density of the mix, too, leaves a lot of the “real” instrumentation so buried that it’s hard to tell what’s going on (something that has also become an issue with Forest Seasons). It takes a lot of listens and a really revealing stereo to get down beneath the surface and understand the bones and gristle of this disk. These concerns leave it as a 9/10. Still amazing, but not perfect.

That brings us, at last, to The Forest Seasons. I won’t kid you. It’s not a perfect album, either. It has a lot going for it, but it has some strikes against it, too. One of the primary strikes against is that…well, it’s a Wintersun album, and the bar is set very high. We know what is possible. We want to have our faces melted and our hearts frozen, then set on fire, then flown into the gray, frigid sky in the talons of an eagle. On every track. It’s a tall order. Mere joy is not enough. We demand euphoria.

The Good:

1) It’s Wintersun. It does a lot of the Wintersun things. There are glorious choruses, beautiful themes, superb musicianship, etc.
2) There is more outright darkness, more menace, than on anything they’ve released yet. There are a few parts of this record that are, for all intents and purposes, Symphonic Black Metal. This could also be a bad, if you’re reaching from Folk/Power Metal, and previous Wintersun was about as harsh as you were ready for.
3) This disk is of a reasonable running time, and feels fairly complete in itself. Some have said the songs feel over-inflated, but brevity is not necessarily what you listen to Wintersun for. No one would ever accuse them of playing Grindcore.

The Bad:

1) The mix hides a lot of the good work done with rhythm guitar, which is actually doing some fairly gnarly stuff beneath there. Feels a little like a cheat, but that was the direction that the production went.
2) Simply too few solos. These are long songs, and I like all of them. That said, there are a few glaring places that just scream, “Put the big sweep-picking badassery here,” but instead leave us with an area of the songs that feels a little like we’re waiting for something to happen. I don’t know why Jari elected to play it so conservative here, but we just don’t get that frantic payoff that you might expect. I’m not talking about turning the record into a self-indulgent vehicle for guitar masturbation, but with two players who are so damn good, it feels almost counterintuitive to have much of what they’re doing hidden, and restrict the more audible material to a lot of harmony playing that either one of them could do while windsurfing. Just sayin’.
3) The concept album kinda falls flat. If they simply hadn’t said anything about it, and left us to decide what to make of the songs, I’d have been happier.

So, the verdict? I’d probably call it 8.5/10, verging on 9/10. My big hope is that they can use the momentum of this album, the money they garnered, and the ensuing concert season they’re embarking upon to get another record out in the near future. It may be far too much to ask, but the wise course for them would be to shoot for another album within 18 months, even if it’s another crowdfunded effort that ISN’T Time II (provided that the quality is good, and they can find adequate material to entice another round of such investment).

The big dream, of course, is Time II. We know they have songs. We know that the ones they’ve played live have the type of brutal shredding that we want. They just need to record those bad boys and let us have our happiness. Or grimness, or whatever.

End of the road? Still a Wintersun fan. Still one of the faithful. Still glad that there’s more to listen to. Still hungry for more.

Cheers, and happy devil-horns.

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