Markus Vanhala: “Finnish melancholy for Finnish people is like normal living. It is like a Chinese restaurant for Chinese people. It is normal. We don’t have to try to make melancholic music. It just comes. It has to get out”.
Almost four years after their highly recommended ‘Heart Like A Grave’, Finnish masters of metallic melancholy Insomnium have finished a next milestone. ‘Anno 1696’ happens to be an intense concept album with historical roots about Finland and witch hunts. Musically graced with proper portions of heaviness and contemplative gloominess. We had an hour long chat with singer/bassist/historicist Niilo Sevänen and composer/guitarist Markus Vanhala who also contributes clean vocals. As always it was an amazing debonair conversation.
Vera Matthijssens Ι 1 maart 2023
This album happens to be a challenge I think, because you have made a concept album again. With ‘Winter’s Gate’ you had the ultimate thing to do in that respect, but what has driven you this time to come up with a concept again?
Markus: ‘We talked about doing this concept album during the pandemic. And then we had this conversation in early 2020 on tour, even before ‘Argent Moon’.’
Niilo: ‘I had the idea for this kind of story already in my mind for a couple of years and I thought about a concept album, but then covid-19 came, trouble came and then we made ‘Argent Moon’ EP until this idea came back to us and then we decided to go for it this time.’
Markus: ‘On the other hand it was good for this idea that we took a little bit time in between ‘Argent Moon’ and this, because ‘Argent Moon’ EP was more like mellow, a ballad like Insomnium album, so after that we wanted to do a more harsh and aggressive album and Niilo’s concept fitted perfectly for the more aggressive kind of songs and that is kind of how this album came together exactly. I don’t think this theme and the songs on ‘Argent Moon’ would have met in a good sense, you know. The story required more dark and almost black metal-ish tone that many of the songs have on this album now.
So as I understand you have been doing research for this subject for a long time?
Niilo: ‘Yes, we were planning this kind of story for several years already. We were studying and reading historical books about this era, about the witch hunting in Finland, stuff like that, so actually it was like several years before this story came ready, so it was a long process and now the timing was right. The band was ready to compose it and the story was ready and finalized. Everything came together musically.’
Markus: ‘Actually we started writing and rehearsing this genre of black metal since the early nineties.’
Niilo: ‘That is true, we have done that in advance. Of course we had some black metal ish influences on our previous albums, it has been sneaking slowly into the picture.’
What has inspired you to go back to the medieval times and witch hunting?
Niilo: ‘Well, this 17th century history has always fascinated me. It is a dark and dramatic period. There’s a lot of things happening, a lot of contrasts. There was science coming up, a kind of darkness and light. The enlightenment is rising, but still religious forces are very strong. Witch huntings were done all over Europe in the 17th century, also in Finland and Sweden at that point. There are some really dark tales and also this 1696 year in Finland, it is actually the worst demographic catastrophe in the history of Finland, since there was so much hunger that almost 30% of the Finnish population died in a couple of years, so it is really a dark phase in history.’
Markus: ‘My father said that my family tree is pretty old and it has been living from the 16th century where we are still living in dark woods. My father told me that they had some church books and almost all the family died on hunger in the 17th century.’
Niilo: ‘All of our ancestors died from hunger.’
Markus: ‘Yes, that’s been written in the church books, but Niilo’s story is not about my family. I don’t know what happened or what remained, we are actually here, but I think it was pretty common in Finland around that time.’
Finland used to be a pretty poor country at that time?
Niilo: ‘Indeed, at that time Finland was in the back of Europe very poor, a forgotten place. There was no social democracy in Scandinavia. It was a very different kind of world. Finland was a dark place.’
In addition to that environment you focus on witches. Can you tell me more about that?
Niilo: ‘Well, already when I started studying history at the university, I started reading about witch hunts in Finland. So I read some of the books back then and when I started this story, I wanted even more details on the subject and started more research on the subject. For example I stumbled upon this witch trial in Sweden where 70 women were killed in a very small village and that was when I was really shocked. That must have been the worst witch trail in whole Scandinavia.’
There was also the Sudenmorsian novel by Aino Kallas about werewolves that inspired you. What can you tell about that?
Markus: ‘It is one of the most famous Finnish novels and it is set in the 17th century.
Niilo: ‘Actually it is set in Estonia. My story is a kind of tribute to Sudenmorsian novel, trying to have the same kind of feeling in front of tragedy.’
Markus, did you also dive into these kind of stories when composing the music?
Markus: ‘Of course. I was trying to get in the role of a witch hunter, like a witch hunter would play the guitar. Really aggressively and fiercely. Of course it gave some inspiration when I read all those little details. Every time I read that story of Niilo, you get yourself in that kind of mind set. It drives you to compose better music, so I tried to serve the musical concept as good as possible with my emotions. We were working on a real soundtrack and from time to time we talked about the concept of course. Somehow black magic can be read between the lines and this is what came out of it.’
Did the free time during the pandemic help you to develop this whole concept?
Markus: ‘Yes! In between there was a lot of time to compose the music, I think we pretty much worked through the whole pandemic. We did some live streams, we did the ‘Argent Moon’ EP, we loved to concentrate on our new concept. That is how we went through the pandemic. It was worth doing and focusing on a positive outlet. It was a way to stay sane through the pandemic years. Keep yourself busy can be a remedy. It was a big part of our lives before the pandemic and then when the travelling ended, there was this vacuum you had to deal with. I was almost doing office work hours: waking up, getting morning coffee, going to the home studio; trying to do something and that is how I lived for one and a half year: office metal, but that really helped us and kept the sanity. And now, when looking back, I am not writing music, because I have written too much music for the past two years. I need a break (chuckles). Now it is time to play some live shows.’
Indeed, I agree, but you could do that recently with Moonspell, because you could fill in for My Dying Bride on The Ultima Ratio Tour, isn’t it?
Niilo: ‘Yes, we did that tour on short notice, because My Dying Bride had cancelled and we were asked to join. The decision was made two months before the tour, something like that. So it was the first Insomnium tour after the pandemic and it went really well and it was really nice to be on the road again.’
Markus: ‘I had to stay home, I wasn’t on that tour. I extended my pandemic leave. I asked Nick Cordle singing and playing guitar on the tour because my mother was very ill and I had to stay home and then my mom died, so I was really devastated. That’s the way it goes or that’s the way it should go. Yet it sucks. When it happens it is really painful and you cannot make yourself free from it. It is natural, I know. It happens to every one, but it was a harsh time. I had hoped to come back after the pandemic, but this is what happened first.’
I see a return of guitarist Ville Freeman, also in the video for the song ‘Lilian’?
Markus: ‘Yes, that is Ville’s song. Ville and Jani did something for the album as well, so all the guys are making the music, we don’t want to be the exclusive composers. It just happens naturally. It is always team work.’
Niilo: ‘Yet Markus made most of the songs this time and we added things.’
You invited Sakis Tolis from Rotting Christ in the song ‘White Christ’ which turned out great. What can you tell about that?
Markus: ‘When I wrote this song, I realized that at first place that song, it was highly inspired by Rotting Christ. I love the previous Rotting Christ albums and I kind of had that feeling on that song. We did not know if Sakis would be available, but it became reality and that is great. A great honour to have that old Greek legend. I was listening to Rotting Christ already in the nineties and it was really great to have him on the album. It is epic.’
Indeed, because it seems like the North and the South are united in this song…
Markus: ‘But it is quite different from ‘Lilian’ which is going to be the next video.’
Another guest appearance is Johanna Kurkela, the wife form Nightwish maestro in ‘Godforsaken’…
Nillo: ‘Yes, Johanna Kurkela is a very well known singer in Finland. Even before Nightwish and Aura she was known for her own solo work in Finland. We wanted a female voice for that song, kind of ethnic and Sami like. She made it even better than we had planned, it became much better with her contribution.’
Markus: ‘This is the first time ever that Insomnium used female vocals.’
Okay, it is nice, but don’t do it too much…
Markus: ‘I agree. It especially fits this kind of song. It is a small part, this kind of Sami speaking, like I said. Eerie, it is not kind of Nightwish. No, no. That is definitely not our kind of cup of tea but this thing was a special thing and I really like it. It is kind of deep. We succeeded on what we were after and Johanna’s voice is out of this world.’
We can see this album as the soundtrack of Finnish melancholy once again. In addition to the harsh parts, that remains very important, isn’t it?
Niilo: ‘Yes, that is the Insomnium sound and trademark and it is very melancholic and there are sombre acoustic moments and then there is black metal-ish stuff and everything in between. All contrasts in music.’
Markus: Finnish melancholy for Finnish people is like normal living. It is like a Chinese restaurant for Chinese people. It is normal. We don’t have to try to make melancholic music. It just comes. It has to get out.’
Niilo, Is this a local story or is it spread over whole Finland?
Niilo: ‘The witch hunts? We actually do not specify the location in Finland. It tells it is a couple of days from my house, so it is in the middle of Finland where it happens, but it remains quite untitled, unnamed, this village where it happened.
The video for ‘Lilian’ is out now. Do you have other plans for videos?
Niilo: ‘There will be a kind of trilogy for the videos, so they will all be connected to the storyline. ‘White Christ’ will be the next one’.
What about the EP with bonus tracks that you will release on the special edition?
Niilo: ‘They are all new songs and they are part of the same story. We recorded all the songs and eight of them are the basic album and then three are kind of bonus things. They are kind of cut or how you call it, but they are on this artbook version of the album. I am sure you can hear them later.’
Markus: ‘We just had too much to put on one album and we did not want to throw away anything we liked. So we decided to record all the stuff we had and that’s a nice ending to the story.’
Are there plans to go on tour in the near future?
Niilo: ‘Well, we have an album release show in Finland first and then let us see. We haven’t released any news yet, but for sure there will be tours coming.’
What about the artwork? Did you work with the same artist or is it a different one?
Niilo: ‘Sami Makkonen is a Finnish guy, mainly known for comic book illustrations. I found him because he did this national epic Kalevala comic book illustrations and it was really cool. I sent him a message: ‘Would you be interested in doing this kind of work for us?’ and that is how I found him. He is a very talented guy. He did a lot of comics in the USA, for the year’s publishers, for the horror comics and his style really fits the mood of the story, really dark, dark stuff.’
Did you both guys watch any interesting series or movies in the past years?
Niilo: ‘Yes, we have been watching many series in recent years, indeed.’
Markus: ‘I just watched Dahmer, about a serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. I liked watching Ricky Gervais’s ‘After Life’ which was like a black comedy, also a good one if you like that kind of black humour. ‘The Sandman’ was very good too. I have been watching Netflix that much that I don’t remember anything anymore. All the series I have been watching in the past three years are all lost in my memory. I have always been a huge collector of vinyl’s, everywhere I always hunt for second hand vinyl, but usually I never had time to listen to these vinyl’s. Now I got two years to focus on my vinyl collection, so that was a nice thing during this break. In the long run I think it is a good investment, because vinyl prices are booming and remember, old cars are rising as well (chuckles). In the end I am an investor, unexpected. I never knew I was. Some seventies vinyl prices on Discogs are really insane. Some people pay a lot of money for the vinyl.’
What about the prices of energy in Finland, because in Europe they are over the top now?
Markus: ‘Well, Finland is a neighbour country of Russia, so most of the energy used to come from Russia, so Finland has been really hit by the price of energy. We pay a lot more now, for the gas and for the electricity. So I have burned a lot of wood lately at my home. We have a nice fire place to warm up the house so far. Although I feel guilty, stealing all the wood from the forest for the fire place. We go back to Stone Age. But in Finland we have wood to burn in the woods and fish in the lakes.’
I know you have the green Corvette, the old timer we talked about earlier…
Markus: ‘Yes, but it is in winter’s sleep, because it is a really bad winter now, so it is in the garage now. My green corvette and your Opel Kadett are made by General Motors. It was from old Ford and it is the same factory as Chevrolet, my green corvette. The new cars won’t last for long, but we still drive with old cars, so we can go on.
Did you do many trips with the car?
Markus: ‘Oh yeah the whole Summer. I have been on the road always. In fact, a year ago I bought another, so I have two eighties Chevrolet’s now. So I am making double the trips, because I have to drive two cars in Summer. The smell of gasoline makes me happy, it comforts my downside. People might think it is stupid, but I think it is my meditation.’
Why did you do the mix with the guy who’s living in the UK: Jaime Gomez Arellano at Orgone Studios?
Niilo: ‘He is actually from Colombia, a real Latino.’
Markus: ‘Well, we wanted a different guy, a different perspective not everyone is using at the moment. He has done a pretty cool job for bands like Paradise Lost and Sólstafir and Moonspell. He is an upcoming genius, so we decided to give it a chance and Jaime really delivered what we were aiming for. The guy came from Colombia and he finally did some magic with the knobs in the studio, I think the album sounds pretty good. It is not sounding like any other metal album at the moment.’
That is important…
Markus: ‘Jaime was more into that natural sound. Jaime really catches the sound of the moment and uses it. As the instruments sounds while we are recording them. It was one of the highlights of this record, having Gomez to do this. In the seventies, eighties and nineties, they used the actual recordings and not re-digitalize everything in the mix, So this album has been done in a more old school way.’
I once was there for a listening session with Vltimas…
Markus: ‘Oh yeah, he told me a few stories about David Vincent and these were the highlights of his life. He was really happy about that. That is a really great album, that first Vltimas album. It is one of the few extreme metal albums I have been enjoying a lot.’
Why did you go to the Fascination Street Studios in the end for the mastering?
Markus: Tony Lindgren did the mastering. He did the previous Omnium Gatherum album and I was really impressed by his mastering skills and he is the master of mastering.’
Niilo: ‘Master of the universe.’
Which songs would you like to play live?
Niilo: ‘Of course we have to play the video songs. That’s where we start.’
Markus: ‘I really like the big closing song ‘The Rapids’, because it is a bit different from what Insomnium usually sounds. I think all the songs will fit in a live situation. We are going to try them all and let’s see which ones are going to stick in the live set for longer.’
Niilo: ‘We have tried out every song live from former albums as well, I think that keeps things interesting for the band. You can change songs in the set list and make it more challenging to play every night.’
Markus: ‘The album has been ready since June. The album is actually already old for us, so before the release it is yesterday’s news for us. That’s the way it is. Composing the new songs and rehearsing the new songs, that is usually the time when you would already want to play these songs live, when you have some gigs and playing old songs is usually boring and annoying. Usually that is the time when you are most hungry about the new songs. Yet we finally want to share our newest efforts to the fans and the world and we are looking forward to the response and the live shows.’