Insomnium once again flexing their creative ambition on 'Anno 1696': A Q&A with Niilo Sevänen

Insomnium once again flexing their creative ambition on 'Anno 1696': A Q&A with Niilo Sevänen

- By Ramon Gonzales

Armed with a potential AOTY candidate, the Finnish practitioners of melodeath are positioned to have a career year more than two decades in.

Insomnium have been plying their trade of grandiose and spellbinding melodic death metal for over 20 years.

They’ve helped define a style of music that conjures frozen Finnish landscapes and emotional tales of pure melancholy, while also pushing the bounds of their craft with every release. No doubt was this more evident than on 2016’s Winter’s Gate, a single 40-minute conceptual song that even the members weren’t sure would be well received.

But it was, and even if follow up Heart Like a Grave was a more “straightforward” release, Insomnium still got to play with an entirely new aural palette thanks to the addition of former Sonata Arctica guitarist Jani Liimatainen. His clean vocals and guitar melodies provided ample layers for the band to add to its already well established sound.

Now, just over three years after Heart Like a Grave — with a fantastic 2021 EP Argent Moon in between for good measure — Insomnium are ready to flex their creative muscles again with their latest magnum opus, due out on February 24.

Anno 1696 is a sprawling and captivating concept album about witches, witch hunters and werewolves. Every tool in Insomnium’s musical arsenal is on display, from hard-charging melodic death metal anthems (Lilian, The Witch Hunter) to moody, mid-tempo dirges (White Christ, feat. Rotting Christ’s Sakis Tolis) and everything in between (1696, The Rapids).

The album takes place in 17th century Finland during the Torsåker witch trials, and is both a historical and supernatural look at a time when Northern Europe was drenched in superstition and bloodlust.

It’s accompanied by a short story written by bassist and vocalist Niilo Sevänen — from which the album is based— as well as a companion EP with three songs that further add to the story.

Ahead of Anno 1696’s release, KNOTFEST spoke to Sevänen about the album’s concept, having to write songs that fit the atmosphere and mood of the story, his influences as a writer and look back at 20 years of Insomnium.

Read the full conversation below. It has been lightly edited for clarity:

How are you feeling now that the album is almost here?

Sevänen - Excited, but in a good way. A bit nervous about the release shows, of course. Several new songs that we have never played live and we have to practice that and you feel a bit nervous before something like that.

We have two shows in Helsinki, Finland, both are going to be sold out. So it looks very good. It’s a good weekend. And finally people can hear the songs, we’ve been sitting on them for a half-year already. So it’s good that people can actually hear it. Just feeling excited.

What was your mindset when work on this album began? How did it morph from “we’re writing a new album” to a concept album with a companion short story and EP?

Sevänen - I think I had the kind of rough idea of the concept already around 2019. I think it was our tour… well, only big tour we did with Heart Like a Grave for certain reasons. But I already talked to the guys back then that I had this idea of this story concept set in 17th century, and they said “ok cool, let’s see what comes out of it.” But then COVID came and messed up the plans a bit.

So we did Argent Moon EP first, but we kind of never stopped composing. We just kept on writing new stuff. I finished the story, the guys read it, thought it was cool and we agreed, ‘Okay, let’s make (an) album from this story, and compose music that fits this mood and atmosphere.’

We all agreed it’s going to be quite dark, blackened, cold. In Insomnium terms at least, so I think it’s maybe closer to the style of Winter’s Gate than Heart Like a Grave.

And also for the production, we wanted to have someone who could get that kind of feeling. So we picked Mr. Jaime Gomez Arellano (Paradise Lost, Moonspell, Ghost, GGGOLDDD). He has this very organic sound. He doesn’t resample the guitars or drums, it’s the real stuff that’s recorded in the studio. Kind of 90s sound, in a way. It’s something we wanted. Not the over compressed, polished modern metal sound that many bands have. It works for some bands, but we didn’t want that.

So yeah, most of the material was really composed for this story in mind. I think you can sense it, that it’s written for this purpose.

You mentioned that the short story came first, then you wrote the music around that. The sequencing in the album works so well, each song has the perfect feeling of what needs to come next. Did you find it more challenging to compose songs that had to fit in a certain space, or easier since you had the roadmap of where the music needed to go?

Sevänen - I think we all kind of easily went into that right atmosphere mode. So most of the demos we did, they all kind of sounded like, ‘Okay, this will fit the story.’ Some songs, the demos we left out because we felt maybe for the next album, but it doesn’t sound like this album now. So there are some good demos that just didn’t sound like this story.

I can’t talk on behalf of all the guys, but I think it was a road map so maybe it was a bit easier. But in the end, in the studio, when we realized we have 11 songs and 76 minutes of music or something, then we had to bite a little bit that, okay, which songs are going to be on the actual album version and which then are going to be on the three-song EP? It was a tough decision because I think all the songs are good.

So these three songs on the EP, they’re not just “bonus” material. I think they’re equally good stuff, and some of my favorite songs are on the EP. It wasn’t an easy choice, and we had a lot of material.

Speaking of composing this album similar to the way you did Winter’s Gate : When that album came out you said how nervous you were for its release because Insomnium had never done anything like that before, and you didn’t know how it was going to be received.

Do you think that after having that experience and having an album like that, that kind of prepared you for a big concept album with several companion pieces?

Sevänen - Yeah, exactly. Winter’s Gate kind of gave us the confidence to do whatever we want. We trusted that we do our thing, we do what we feel is good, and our fans will like it. If it comes from the heart and we think, ‘this is going to be a cool thing, let’s do this,’ we don’t have to worry about the reaction of the fans so much, or what the record company will say or anything like that.

So I think we kind of bought our artistic freedom with Winter’s Gate. We can go on and try to do crazy stuff and concept albums if we want. We can pull it off.

If you were to ask 10 different Insomnium fans to rank their favorite albums, you may get 10 different lists. I think that speaks to the consistency of the band. There are no bad albums, only ones that listeners prefer for whatever reason.

But to that point, Insomnium is also a band that gets better over time with repeated listens. Does that experience hold true for you as well? How has your relationship changed your songs through the years?

Sevänen - Well, you had good points there and I also believe that we have done consistent albums all the time. All of them have come from the heart and soul. That’s kind of the only “secret” we have.

We are not trying to please anyone else. We just do the kind of stuff we want, we love ourselves. And like, if the other guys in the band are going to like the song, then probably it’s a good one and there’s a good chance that other people will like it as well. That’s kind of the only thing we think about.

Of course, when I think of our old albums, I always remember the time when they were recorded. What was going on in our lives back then, how was it in 2006 or 2002 or something like that. So, feeling very nostalgic and I can’t see them like objectively that how good the songs actually are. It’s difficult for yourself to analyze and judge your own work and your own albums.

Insomnium’s debut album came out in 2002, which is somehow 20 years ago. When you look back at this band, how do you sum up this time from just starting out to becoming veterans of melancholic, melodic death metal?

Sevänen - It’s a good question and almost every day (I) wonder where is the time going? But here we are, still going strong.

Of course, there’s been a lot of ups and downs, in the band and in everyone’s personal lives. Actually, that is 26 years old this year. We started in ’97, we were just 16-, 17-year-old kids in the same school, so it’s really a long time now. We’re now (in our) 40s. I’m the only one who has kids, but of course when you see your kids growing up you realize how old you are yourself.

We have been very lucky in many places in our career that good things have happened in the right places. We have met the right people, and the right people just happened to be at the concert where we played and we made a good impression, and we got a deal. You need some luck to get anywhere in the music industry. Even if you’re very good and you make good music and you work hard, still some bands never make it. You need a little bit of luck, so we are fortunate and we have to be very grateful for what has happened.

And our fans our super loyal. Many people have been with us 20 years already, and they’re still supporting and buying the albums, buying the shirts and coming to the shows. That’s awesome.

It’s a very big part of my life of course this band. In the beginning I didn’t think it could become a proper profession and career, that we could actually make a living with it, playing death metal. It felt unrealistic , but in the last 10 years it has been reality. I’ve been just a musician now for eight years, and doing no other jobs. It’s been a good journey so far.

There’s a short story you wrote that’s a companion piece to the album. It’s really good, and while you can listen to the album and get everything from the story that way, it really does flesh out and give more context to what you’re hearing. How long have you been writing and who are your biggest influences?

Sevänen - Writing is my other passion besides music. Before I even started playing anything I wrote stories as a kid. Of course, Tolkien was number one as a kid and all the fantasy stuff. The horror stuff came, Lovecraft and stuff like that. Many Finnish authors as well. I studied literature in the university, and read a lot of classic stuff. But of course, in the fantasy and horror and science fiction, my favorite things are there, and that’s the kind of nerdy stuff I like to write myself. Like Winter’s Gate, and this story as well.

begins as a kind of accurate, historical setting, historical story but then fantasy elements, mythical stuff starts to creep in. That’s the kind of stuff that fascinates me. I studied history also in university, so that’s my passion as well. At the moment I’m writing a long, long novel. Hopefully it gets ready within this year. I’ve been writing it since the pandemic started, so it’s a long work.

I like what you said about how it’s grounded in history and realism, then as you get through you realize there’s something supernatural going on. Those are also the stories that interest me. The X-Files is one of my favorite shows, and in a lot of those stories you know there is something else at play, even if they start normal enough.

Sevänen - Yeah, with X-Files you never were sure if there was going to be some kind of supernatural thing or not. They kept the mystery. They didn’t show too much, I think. That was one of the things that stayed interesting. They didn’t shows these aliens or monsters, or they didn’t explain everything. It was a bit vague and mysterious and it stays more interesting like that.

What do you want listeners to take away from Anno 1696?

Sevänen - I hope they give it a good listen, maybe two or three spins at least. I know it’s not the easiest music, there are quite progressive, long songs there. You might need a couple of rounds before you get into them.

Be patient, I hope it’s a rewarding journey. If someone reads the whole story, and the lyrics and listens to the album I’m sure it’s kind of (a) deep experience, or I hope it is. It’s not just “yeah, yeah, rock n’ roll, let’s drink beer, hail satan!” lyrics, it’s meant to be something deeper. Give it some time, and let’s see if you like it.

Anno 1696 is available Friday, Feb. 24th via Century Media Records. Order the album - HERE

Be sure to catch Insomnium live on their North American co-headlining trek with Enslaved starting in April. A full list of dates and cities can be found below. Get tickets - HERE

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