Wintersun — The Forest Seasons
Before I get into the album, it should be noted that there is some degree of controversy surrounding the Wintersun project at the moment. Mastermind Jari Mäenpää has stated that in order to deliver the conceptual sequel to Time I, he will need a new recording studio costing some absurd amount of money. A crowdfunding effort was launched, raising some $450,000 towards the goal — vastly exceeding the initial $150,000 goal. This has lead to some criticism that The Forest Seasons is some manner of 'budget' release slash 'cash grab,' as Jari Mäenpää attempts to build his new studio at the fans' expense. That seems mostly a matter of personal opinion, and I have no position on the matter.
Crowd-funding issues aside, the most important thing is that we have a new Wintersun album and it didn't take another 8 years to get it — although it still took over half-a-decade. Since the release of the project's critically acclaimed self-titled debut, Wintersun have set a high watermark for fans' expectations of subsequent releases. While 2012's Time I was a strong showing, said expectations can be nearly impossible to live up to. I try not to overthink these things, and I enjoyed both prior albums and consider them effectively equal to one another.
With The Forest Seasons, the concept was to represent each season with its own song comprising this nearly hour-long album. The material doesn't really evoke any of the seasons, sonically, though the included art package and some of the narrative does make good on the theme. Kicking things off is "Awaken From The Dark Slumber (Spring)," which feels both familiar and different. Everything still sounds like Wintersun — especially during the galloping, palm-muted riffs and soaring clean vocals — but with some slight differences. Wintersun may have always been the brainchild of Jari Mäenpää, but this record feels even moreso like a solo project. The programmed drums and production aren't bad, and many of the passages feature fairly intricate programming, but they don't feel quite human — and the guitars feel a little thin in places.
Any reservations I have are rather minor, and after repeated listenings I found The Forest Seasons really growing on me. After "Awaken..." takes a few minutes to establish its groove, the track begins layering on black metal, power metal and folk influences that make Wintersun such a compelling project. By the time the clean vocals and choirs kicked in, any concerns I had about the album's quality melted away. The ensuing tracks keep the momemtum going, making the album's running time feel much shorter than 54 minutes, with only the abrupt ending to "Eternal Darkness (Autumn)" serving to break the flow.
To be honest, that did surprise me; "Eternal Darkness" just ends with no warning — it is utterly bizarre considering the attention to detail — and overall quality — in Wintersun's composition and song-writing. It is a minor gripe, but the abrupt ending — coupled with the slow-building intro to "Loneliness (Winter)" — kills the otherwise perfect pacing to the album. Each track ebbs and flows between up-tempo riffing and mid-range groove, with nothing overstaying its welcome. By the time the final notes of the closing track fade out, I find myself hoping there is still more to come.
Whether or not you consider this a "true" Wintersun album, or a Jari Mäenpää solo project, I would argue it does not really matter — The Forest Seasons is an exceptional release regardless. This album delivers the composition and audio qualities — if only a little stripped down — that I expect from Wintersun; I'm not concerned with whatever motivated this project and you probably shouldn't either. Given the the fact each track is over 12 minutes long, it is difficult to pick a specific favourite. In spite of my gripe, I think "Eternal Darkness (Autumn)," in spite of its abrupt ending, is the best encapsulation of the album.
Some production critiques aside, The Forest Seasons is still a very good album. There are lots of quality riffs, some epic verses and tasty solos spread throughout the album; if this is "phoned in," I'm just not hearing it. How this record stacks up against Wintersun and Time I isn't something we can determine right now, but it is certainly worth a listen.
Is it Time II? No; that doesn't mean that The Forest Seasons isn't an excellent collection of new Wintersun material that belongs in the same dicussion as the project's previous two albums. Simply evaluated as a metal album released in 2017, I would give The Forest Seasons high marks regardless. The mix of folk, black and power metal really works here, with moments of beautiful melody plenty of groovy riffs to complement the switches from harsh-to-clean vocals. Also, the art booklet that comes with the digital version of the album is really something to behold.
Release date: Nuclear Blast Records
Record label: July 21st, 2017.
Jari Mäenpää — music, vocals, production
- Awaken From The Dark Slumber (Spring)
- The Forest That Weeps (Summer)
- Eternal Darkness (Autumn)
- Loneliness (Winter)
Published: September 3rd, 2017