Sound — 7
Straddling the lines between power metal, melodic death metal, and black metal, Wintersun have been redefining what it means to be "epic" in metal since 2003, even though the band is only on their third studio album to date. Helmed by former Ensiferum frontman Jari Mäenpää, and also featuring guitarist Teemu Mäntysaari, bassist Jukka Koskinen, and drummer Kai Hahto, Wintersun's music is often grandiose in the same manner as some of the most excessive of '70s prog-rock albums, especially with their 2012 record "Time I", a high water mark for melodic death metal as a whole. "Time I", containing nearly two to three instrument tracks per song, was an especially ambitious project, and while the music was pretty great, it didn't seem to resonate in terms of album sales, and when it came time to do the sequel that had already been planned out (and at press time for this review, mostly completed), the band found they did not have enough money to afford the studio time or equipment to make "Time II" happen. So the band embarked on an equally ambitious crowdfunding campaign, raising more money than any other band to crowdfund an album so far, almost half a million US dollars.
But rather than give us "Time II" right out of the gate, that money was spent on a four-song concept album about the four seasons. Each track exceeds twelve minutes in length (except the acoustic bonus track, at a relatively "short" eight minutes long), and if you're already starting to get "Tales From Topographic Oceans" vibes, then depending on your opinion of that controversial Yes album, the plot is only going to thicken from here. While "Time I" offered us plenty in terms of complexity and, dare I say it, progressive metal tendencies, "The Forest Seasons" runs a touch overly long. The four tracks on offer here are often steeped in a symphonic black/death metal sound, with intense tremolo-picked chords underpinning symphonic swells and fast drum beats. Jari's harsh vocals dominate three-quarters of this record, but in the first three tracks, clean vocals do pop up from time to time. "Loneliness (Winter)", the album's closing track, is mostly sung with clean vocals, which is a welcome departure. Throughout the album, Jari's and Teemu's guitar playing is far more subdued than it was on "Time I", with solos being few and far between. Riffs are mostly confined to the "tremolo-picked minor/major chord progression" realm, with most of the melodic legwork being done by the orchestral elements. Kai and Jukka perform well, even though their work does often feel a little "phoned in".
Where this album really seems to suffer is the songwriting. With all four main tracks clocking in at over twelve minutes, one would expect a bit more progression and variety in the music, but it often feels as if these four tracks contain a minimal number of parts that simply repeat endlessly. At first, this doesn't present much of a problem, but after a while, you start to realize you're still on the first track, and you can't remember a single thing that's gone by. While there are some really good guitar melodies, particularly in the middle of the opening track "Awaken From the Dark Slumber (Spring)", the whole album just seems like a few decent ideas stretched out and milked for all they're worth. In a lot of ways, this album is reminiscent of Green Carnation's "Light of Day, Day of Darkness", but that hour-long song even managed to work without getting overly boring, though fans may look to that album as an example of a similar musical style (albeit with more clean vocals) being done correctly.
The production, as should be expected from Wintersun, is incredibly "epic". Orchestral elements dominate the mix throughout, and there doesn't seem to be a single moment that goes by on this record without some instrumental element coming in to fill all of the space. Despite this, the mix is not all that hot, and it's not physically fatiguing to listen to, though the length of the tracks compared to their lack of variety make it a bit mentally draining. A cool bonus is that "Loneliness" also features as an acoustic bonus track, and it's actually a very nice acoustic rendition, really showcasing Jari's epic clean vocal prowess well. The bonus disc also features all four album tracks and the acoustic version of "Loneliness" as instrumental versions.
Lyrics — 9
As mentioned earlier, this is a concept album revolving around the four seasons, with the setting being a forest (guys, it's right there in the title). All jokes about the obviousness of the title aside, the lyrics in this album are incredible, considering the subject matter, and a great counterpoint to many of the usual themes employed by other death metal and power metal artists. The album is a journey through the four seasons starting with "Awaken From the Dark Slumber (Spring)", which is split into two movements, "The Dark Slumber" and "The Awakening". The first movement describes the forest in the end of winter ("Beneath the murky soil/The draw of the ancient spell/Swallowing everything in the ground/And then there was no sound/Twisting the roots of life/Distorting the obscure shapes/The day was creeping into night/And then there was no light"), while the second movement echoes the spring thaw and the beginning of new life in the forest ("Creatures of the dawn/Crawling from the depths of the frozen earth/As the shadows were twisting and turning beneath the sun/The sound of the moaning beasts/Blaring through the forest/As they're roaming wild beneath the morning sun/Ride! Ride with us again!/Fight! And live as free men!/Die! And be born again!"). "The Forest that Weeps (Summer)" reflects the natural beauty and grandeur of a Finnish forest summer ("I saw the lakes that shimmer/I heard the clanging of the wild rivers/You are the voice that carries throughout the land/I felt the strength of my ancestors/As I walked through the land of the dead/You are the fire that burns forever"). As someone who lives in a very similar biome in Canada, I find these lyrics beautiful and relateable, and these are the kind of lyrics that are certainly chill-inducing for anyone who enjoys the taiga.
In "Eternal Darkness (Autumn)", we start to see things winding down in the forest ("Haunting darkness forming inside of man/Calling to return the blood of the earth/Baleful shadows gathering under the blackened sky/Reversing the evolution of the forbidden birth/Devastation of the hollow universe/Executed by wrath and absolute power/Completion of the perfect chaos/The pure destruction of stars"), and after the leaves have fallen, we finally get to the "Loneliness" of winter ("Washed away by the morning sun/Hear the howling call from the other side/And so much was left undone/The weight of the world quietly crushed the dying light/Washed away by the frozen stars/Feel the burning coldness of the falling snow/And one day when everything is gone/The trail in the snow disappears, am I finally home").
While the music is comparatively weak on "The Forest Seasons", the lyrics on this album are incredibly strong, and they're also delivered quite well by Jari Mäenpää. His harsh vocals are present on much of the album, and they're definitely the traditional Scanndinavian black/death style, and done particularly well. There's not a whole lot of variety to them, but his clear enunciation is great. His clean vocals are extremely well-done, though. At times, he sings cleanly with a bit of a growl to his voice, not entirely unlike Devin Townsend, and in the album's final track, "Loneliness", his clean vocals are the dominant force, and provide an absolutely beautiful contrast to the album's darker harsh vocals.
Overall Impression — 7
Much like the aforementioned Yes album above, Wintersun has made an album that's sure to divide people into love it/hate it camps, with its rather bloated writing and lack of any real clear musical direction. While there are some absolutely great musical ideas on display here, the album often feels like it's going on more of a tangent, plodding on with its repetitive riffs and never really stopping to do anything too different. Even when the pace changes on the album, like on "Eternal Darkness (Autumn)", the elements that have changed just seem to drag on far too long, with this song's blastbeat intro seeming to last an eternity. But what this album lacks musically, it makes up for vocally and lyrically. Had the lyrical concept and chill-inducing vocals been underlined with better musical accompaniment, Jari would have definitely made that half-million he crowdfunded for this album worth it to those who contributed.
But compared to "Time I", this can hold no candle. And it's rather disappointing that all of the money pouring in from fans went to this rather than the long-anticipated sequel to that album, considering that "Time I" was, in this reviewer's opinion, an absolutely wonderful record with a lot of the musical complexity and variety missing from this release. I don't think "The Forest Seasons" truly lives up to all the hype around it. And with so much length to the songs and so little direction, this album might be looked on in many years to come as the "Tales From Topographic Oceans" of modern metal. Here's to hoping "Time II" is worth the wait.