Friday, November 23, 2012

Wintersun - Time I (2012)

As the dust settles, and the invariable weight of many an opinion ring resonantly in the rear-view mirror of my mind, I find a persistent, nagging curiosity towards exploring my own opinion of this phenomena entitled Time I. Both maligned and revered to astronomical proportions, what Jari Maenpaa’s long anticipated return to recorded music seems to have garnered, in the end, is a universal sense of baffled incredulity. Indeed, 3 (admittedly strong) songs and 2 intros do not feel like whatever I myself was waiting for, and for all their splendorous trappings, I can’t help but feel dissatisfaction. I understand that this is just the proposed half of Wintersun’s epic return, but when the other half is not in hand, that sentiment rings hollow. After all, I have only what is in front of me to experience, and while there is certainly a plethora of quality and uniqueness to this pittance of epic bombast, it is still, at length, a pittance.

To begin, yes, I am among the many rabid supporters of the original self-titled Wintersun, and continue to hold it aloft as a king among princes in the melodic metal spheres. It is, in point of fact, one of my favorite records of all time, a sentiment many of you share, and an equal number of you seem to disdain more than a banquet of liver and AIDS. So, this heightened sense of expectation, bordering on pure, unrestrained exhilaration, at finally obtaining another window into Jari’s fantastical musical universe, can be counted as prime influence for Time I coming up a bit short. Unlike many, however, I let the album sink in across both myriad repetitions and a suitably lengthy period of time, before setting my opinion in outraged or rabidly slobbering stone. Part of the trouble with critiquing music, I find, is that one tends to make up their mind hastily in order to put thoughts to pen, and then allow this cursory, surface perspective to forever dominate their thought process concerning the music in question. So, I took my time here, allowing my opinion to breathe and fluctuate, as the way I perceive something in an immediate sense is much different than the viewpoint gained by repeated exposures. And so I must, with finality, state that I do certainly like Time I, but with the caveat that it is also something of a disappointment, as it just does not feel complete.

To Jari and company’s credit, the material here truly is majestic. Some sections more than others, given, but the plateau of quality is universally high, and in terms of pure musicality, the word ‘masterpiece’ isn’t too far-fetched, particularly for Sons of Winter and Stars, which approaches a near-classical beauty for much of its almost 14 minute running time. The titular closer Time is close behind, and though I’m not as intensely drawn to the bloated middle track, Land of Snow and Sorrow, it’s certainly nothing painful. The general focus on Time I is far more synthetic (read: symphonic) here than we’ve come to expect of the band, with seemingly limitless layers of interweaving keyboard lines making up the lion’s share of any given melody. This is one of the reasons this supposedly took 8 years to develop, and it must be stated, it is indeed quite grand. The guitars do not do nearly as many cool tricks and solos as on the original record, but the compositional focus here is pretty different overall. There’s not a lot of immediate hooking or punchy gratification, as there’s a monstrously inflated sense of bombast that encompasses every corner of this audible world.

It’s still Wintersun, of course, utilizing a potent and delicious mix of melodic blackened aggression and vibrant wintry aesthetics, somewhere between black and power metal in overall feeling, but more unique than that in delivery. When combined with Jari’s strong growls and soulful warrior cleans, these forces work wonderfully together, and use the founding styles we all know so well to branch off into some very compelling new territory, experimenting with a lot of interlocking and flowing Japanese melodies, among others, strung together with a generally strong sense of narrative structure, lending true meaning to the term epic. While a record made up entirely of vast compositional vistas is not in and of itself a negative or positive, I felt that the album could have used some more diversity, perhaps in the form of some shorter, slicker numbers to balance it out. The lyrics and song titles are also interchangeable and rather meaningless, but the vague tropes of ice and snow and warriors and sorrow are just the level of cheese I expect out of the group, so I wouldn’t call it so much an issue as an innate trapping. It’s Wintersun, after all, in all its glory, and the things you either love or hate about them are generally magnified here.

In truth, Time I is quite conflicting for me, particularly as a critic. I really enjoy most all of it, and from that standpoint, it should achieve a very good score. However, I must jump back to a prevailing, rather pervasive issue with this album: it does not feel like an ‘album’. For all the marks Time gets for its musical achievement, I feel that Wintersun really shot themselves in the foot here, and missed the opportunity to make a better mark on history. I understand and sympathize with the concept of staying ‘relevant’ for longer, or wanting to fit a bit over 80 minutes into your work, but as history looks back upon this, I don’t know if it will be seen as the bountiful epic it could have been. One amazing, complete album is far preferable to two strong, incomplete ones, and this is just icing on the cake of the problems caused by anticipation. To lay it bluntly: I have waited for this for eight years, and I simply do not feel satisfied with the result. It’s simply not enough. The level of content, all of it undeniably great, is still paltry, in both its running time, and the innate overall pacing. 3 epic songs, though epic they may be, are still just 3 epic songs. All of them play upon the same emotions and compositional tricks, thus feeling more like a bloated EP than a vast, adventurous masterwork of a record. Wintersun’s debut succeeded not only on the strength of its material, but on its incredible pacing, working its way towards the more grandiose material, and even then, it struck a good balance. Time I is all epic, all the time, which naturally lessens the impact this kind of material might have had if it fit into a more dynamic structural shell. For all the incredible quality of the individual tracks, Wintersun have hobbled themselves when it comes to presentation, which when it comes right down to it, is an incredibly important aspect of an album. 

I love Wintersun, and I desperately want to love Time I. In some ways, I do, as the sense of exhilaration and adventure is very profound at times, and songs are richly layered worlds that reveal more secrets with each listen. There’s a beauty here that transcends metal and delves into classical, with distinct melodies dancing around each other, swirling into magnificent patterns that are very impressive and transfixing. Only 2 of the 3 songs really fully grab me, sure, but these two are of immeasurably immaculate quality. These fantastic qualities make the problems all the more debilitating, however. Imagine as though you’ve been waiting for a bountiful feast for months, or years. You’re absolutely starving, and when the food finally comes, it’s unbelievably delicious, but they only allow you to fill your belly but a fraction of the way. Despite the inherently savory nature, you are left dissatisfied, and so it is with the new Wintersun. Making me wait 8 years for 3 songs, only 2 of which I really feel like repeating endlessly, is unbelievably irritating. Where did all the effort go, one is inclined to ask? Of an already succinct running time, does it really need such immense padding? Of the 40 minutes here, I’d say only about 25 of it really feels absolutely essential. This is 2 incredible songs, after 8 years of effort. It’s a very hard thing for me to compute, particularly as one of the Wintersun faithful. While making music is, above all, a very selfish thing (and if an artist creates not for the self, but for the opinion of others, he is not really an artist), is it wrong for a fan to expect more than this? I think not.

While perhaps time will look favorably on, well, Time more so than I expect, at this juncture it is both questionable and lacking. It’s a testament to just how incredible the existing content is that this will still receive a good score, but if Wintersun had just trimmed the fat a bit and released a full, well-rounded record, or even a double-album, I’d reckon the vaguely empty feeling I have upon completing this journey would be a whole lot warmer. Perhaps it would have been best to wait for part 2, and rate them together, but as Wintersun have seen fit to release this as a full record, by itself, that is the standard by which it shall be judged, as will its successor. I really wanted to avoid this style of review, so over-utilized in critiquing this record, but at length, it’s just so absolutely dominant in my thoughts. It feels, on a deep level, wrong to chastise a record for what it’s not, rather than what it is, and based on expectations that I, perhaps unfairly, foisted upon it. Surely, in another universe, where Wintersun put this out as an EP between albums, it likely would score much higher, and it’s oddly unsettling that circumstance colors my opinions so drastically. By all rights, I should judge this based solely on its own merits, and nothing else, but at length the dominant feeling I get from Time is one of incompletion, and so it cannot be ignored. The quality of music should theoretically never, ever be compromised by the method through which it is delivered, but Time has proven otherwise. If anything, I hope we can take this as a learning experience, as even though piecemeal content may seem like a good idea, it will inevitably corrupt the purity of the original artistic vision, and that is simply not a fair trade-off for any self-respecting artist. I still love you, Wintersun, and will still listen to sections of this miniscule album for ages to come, but please, please don’t ever do anything like this again.

7.75 / 10 - Beautifully Baffling