From The Land of the Ice and Snow: An Evening with Insomnium, Barren Earth, Wolfheart, and Dr. Ville Friman

Insomnium is one of Finland’s prominent melodic death metal acts, whose tracks often incorporate aspects of doom metal, progressive metal, and black metal. This winter, Insomnium is on the road with supporting acts Barren Earth and Wolfheart, to play their latest album: 2016’s Winter’s Gate. Prior to the show, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Ville Friman, who, along with being a lecturer in Evolutionary Biology, is a guitarist in Insomnium, which gave me some serious street cred with my mother, as indicated by this photo of our conversation:

Yes, Mom: your child who plays D&D, and rereads 'The Lord of The Rings' every Christmas is finally cool! Ville was a good sport for taking the photo with me!
Yes, Mom: your child who plays D&D, and rereads ‘The Lord of The Rings’ every Christmas is finally cool! Ville was a good sport for taking the photo with me! I was originally going to put just the photo here- but I think that this is much funnier.

The transcript of the interview is below[1], with my questions and comments in bold, followed by a review of the gig.

This question is interesting because your band has both an outsider and insider perspective on it: Markus (Vanhala) participated in the Modern Heavy Metal Conference in 2015. So, the question is: What do you think about metal music studies or the cross over between metal and academia?

I think it’s an interesting topic to study. It could be any type of music, but heavy metal is probably quite peculiar in a way. People, like the fans, are very dedicated, and then you have the bands, that are kind of global in a sense. You have bands from every populated continent, and it’s cool, so why not? I mean, it’s the same thing as academia and whatever form of culture. Why not? If you can study what you love, and what you do as a hobby, why not do it?

How do you feel about subcategories in Metal Music?

I guess one thing is from the marketing point of view- so, if you have some kind category where you can put the band you can use that to sell or describe it to people. People can kind of get an idea what the band sounds like. While, of course, people are mixing styles so often, so it’s becoming hard to categorize bands- for example, being in death metal or being in black metal. Many bands do a mixture of both styles. I guess the main thing is that you can market that, and that you can also describe your music to people who might be interested in your style of music.

I think it’s an asset, and I think it helps me if I go to the record store…it helps put you in the right ballpark, but everyone should make their own impressions, based on listening to bands.

Onto ‘Winter’s Gate’- which is masterful! I remember talking about how excited I was for this album when I was in Helsinki in June/July- and you didn’t disappoint! One thing I love too, since I study gender in metal, is that by just listening to Winter’s Gate[2], you do not know the gender of the protagonists. You know that the protagonist is a Viking, but you do not know whether or not that Viking is male or female. On Winters Gate, you have some feminine representation- the ocean as a monstrous mother, a devourer and killer, but who also protectively holds the dead in her womb- it’s a place of rest-as well as a divine ‘she’, who watches the protagonist, looking into their soul, who the protagonist calls out to in times of distress, and who fears for their death. Who is the woman the protagonist is calling out to? What inspired you to have such a variety of representations of the feminine on this album?

Niilo would be the right person to answer this question, but I think that my interpretation would be that maybe the representation of the feminine might come from angels, or Scandinavian Culture, like Mother Earth. You always had female and male figures, in these ancient religions and stories. I think it comes naturally that you have both sexes represented: so, it is not only a story told by men, but it’s told by both (men and women). And I think that, similar to males, females played evil and good roles as well. It could be that it comes naturally, because it comes through that background, the stories. So that kind of seeps through Niilos writing as well.

Winter’s Gate has a variety of themes- but three of the major ones seem to be battle, self-reflection, and perseverance through the winter cold. These themes are very Finnish to me! Also the idea of combining a book and a long song-it reminds me of the Kalevala. What were the main inspirations behind this concept album, and were any culturally Finnish?

I think probably, as writer, you are inspired by many things, from your childhood and throughout your adulthood. I think that for Niilo, he was inspired by the Kalevala more indirectly, through Amorphis, and that kind of popularized Kalevala in rock music in Finland. I think that Niilo is a big fan of Tolkien, and I think that will always come through in these epic stories and battles. Tolkien has a lot of the self-reflection and I think that the perseverance through the winter cold is something we describe as sisu, which is when you just have to persevere through hard conditions and hard times. So, I think that they are natural themes for us. And we’ve had those in our previous works as well.

I personally don’t think of this album as one huge song, there is a lot going on here and the experience of listening to it makes the cold of the snow nearly tangible, and so that you can almost smell the sea. The song is broken up into vignettes, or chapters of a book. Do you have a favourite section or part of Winter’s Gate? Why?

It’s hard! For me, it’s one entire piece, so it’s kind of hard to break it down. I like the middle part, which is not what I composed myself. I composed most of the first part. You get more tied to your own stuff because you’re working on it for longer periods of time, and when somebody else brings something in, it feels more interesting. Markus (Vanhala) came up with the middle part, and I think that it is really cool. But for me, it was hard to break Winter’s Gate down into sections. We had to break it down to seven chapters just to have it on iTunes because they wouldn’t accept one long song. Today, I don’t even know which part of the song actually, these parts (iTunes tracks) are referring to- for me, Winter’s Gate is one whole song. But the parts I didn’t make are more interesting to me!

Have you ever thought of making ‘Winters Gate’ into a movie?

We get asked that a lot! I think, why not? But then it would be its own project, and would probably cost quite a lot of money. In an ideal world, you could definitely do something with that, with the concept and the story, but we’re probably just going to leave it there and then let’s see what happens!


Is there anything you would like to tell the egghead metalheads (term coined by Andy Brown)?

We’re nerds as well! We’re inspired and influenced by Tolkien and all the classical Star Wars. We read comics, listen to music, and watch movies all of the time. We are inspired by many things, we just put it into a different package, with our own interpretation.


______

After my interview with Ville (who is both an excellent interviewee and person), I attended the Insomnium gig at the O2 Arena in Islington. Insomnium was supported by Barren Earth, and opening act, Wolfheart. Every musician on stage was Finnish, with one exception: Barren Earth’s Jón Aldará, who is from the Faroe Islands.

Wolfheart was very technically tight, and dare I say: devastatingly heavy. Virtuosity is something had has become almost synonymous with Finnish heavy metal bands, who tend to excel at skill, technical mastery, and proficiency (Karjalainen & Sipilä, 2016, p. 221). Wolfheart brought a great energy to the stage, got the crowd hyped up, and played tracks from their new album. I had a lot of fun watching them play- and it’s not solely because I have academically published articles focusing on wolves in heavy metal music.

Barren Earth played next. Aldará oscillated between growls and melodic vocals. Barren Earth seems to focus on these contrasts. Aldará’s timbre, when he sings, is excellent. I enjoyed the instrumental composition of Barren Earth’s tracks as well. In one word, Barren Earth is powerful.

Insomnium came on stage next. I was very excited to hear Winter’s Gate live- I love this album. Insomnium did not disappoint. They were masterful. As soon as the first opening bars of Winter’s Gate began to play, the audience was rapt. There was almost a tribal feel to it, and was reminiscent to me of the oral storytelling tradition of old: it was as if we were all gathered around the fire to hear a great storyteller regale and epic or an Edda. The transition from Insomnium playing Winter’s Gate to playing other tunes from their catalogue changed the feeling of the show (in my opinion), and not in a bad way: the crowd went from a communal, almost meditative state, to absolutely exploding. I’ve never seen anything like it. Insomnium was masterful, and I highly recommend metal music fans seeing them live.

Insomnium live!
Insomnium live!

As an aside, Niilo, during one of the breaks in-between songs, said:

‘Commercial break: support Finnish metal music!’

Niilo then encouraged the audience to not only buy their merch- but the merch of all of the bands. The collaborative spirit of Finnish metal bands and the strong community of aspect of the Finnish metal scene (namely musicians and other actors supporting each other), are two of the most important tenants of the narrated ‘canon’ of Finnish metal (Karjalainen & Sipilä, 2016, p. 221). Niilo Sevänen personified this at Insomnium’s London gig.

Additionally, I have to acknowledge to the lighting person for this gig, who was amazing. The lighting was amazing for every act, but Insomnium’s lighting sticks out to me. The lighting while Insomnium played was reminiscent of many things- the northern lights, the sea, and snow.
Insomnium, Barren Earth, and Wolfheart are not a gig to be missed. They are on tour currently, and I cannot recommend seeing them more!

Nothing makes me happier than talking about Tolkien and heavy metal!
Nothing makes me happier than talking about Tolkien and heavy metal!

[1] This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
[2] The artbook version of the album includes the short story by Niilo, which is indicative of gender-but if you just listen to Winter’s Gate, you don’t know the Viking’s names, physical appearance, or gender. I appreciated this as a feminist woman who listens to metal.

Special thanks to Ville Friman for being interviewed!

Works Cited

Karjalainen, T.-M. & Sipilä, E., 2016. Tunes from the Land of the Thousand Lakes. In: A. R. Brown, K. Spracklen, K. Kahn-Harris & S. W. Niall, eds. Global Metal Music and Culture. New York: Routledge, pp. 209-224.