The Radiant Light of “Wintersun,” Bright as Ever, Shining Now for 15 Years
Within the metal paradigm, it is not unwise to be dubious of a celebrated musician parting ways with their original creative vehicle to pursue a potentially less-inspired side project or a dreaded solo album. It is especially rare to see the first offering from such a project gain widespread renown on the merit of its own strengths rather than the fame of its creator; in the case of Wintersun, though, the now iconoclastic solo endeavor of Finnish multi-instrumentalist Jari Mäenpää, what began as a journey into authentic self-expression quickly became the entity for which he would be internationally celebrated.
While Mäenpää first established himself professionally as the guitarist and lead vocalist of folk metal outfit Ensiferum, it was Wintersun’s self-titled debut that allowed the world to glimpse his utter mastery over heavy metal craft. Looking back 15 years through the immense wake of its legacy, Wintersun was far more than a humble starting point for Mäenpää’s solo career but rather the bedrock upon which his cosmic brainchild now bases its universal acclaim and legendary status, the genius prototype from which his legacy has evolved.
The well-rounded solidity of Wintersun is no accident nor stroke of luck, but rather the perfectly ripened fruit of eight years of rumination and personal evolution. Mäenpää had begun to cultivate the project’s first seeds as early as 1995, a full year before he joined Ensiferum as the outfit’s vocalist and second guitarist. Finding considerable success with the group following the 2001 release of their own self-titled album, Mäenpää originally intended to simultaneously continue performing with Ensiferum while slowly increasing attention toward manifesting the ideas that would become Wintersun.
By 2003, he had completed the eight tracks that would become his debut release and recruited session drummer Kai Hahto to track the album’s percussion; having a wealth of experience in recording by way of multi-tracking over himself, Mäenpää held no reservations about completing the entirety of Wintersun’s vocal and instrumental duties single handedly. In January 2004, however, in a twist of auspicious fate, Mäenpää was formally asked to part ways with Ensiferum when scheduling conflicts between the latter’s tour and Wintersun’s time in the studio arose with no foreseeable resolution. Though this divergence initially seemed less than ideal, it soon proved to be a major boon to Mäenpää’s personal endeavors; Ensiferum’s rapidly expanding reputation only helped to boost his now-active solo project into the international limelight, with the outfit’s initial three-track demo earning the upcoming record a contract for release by explosively prolific label Nuclear Blast.
Mäenpää’s departure from Ensiferum allowed him to shift his focus toward manifesting his most complex ideas. With hyper-meticulous commitment to virtuosic precision, he crafted his first major opus with uninterrupted creative freedom. The love and determination poured into the creation of Wintersun would become the outfit’s modus operandi, as evidenced by a staggering eight-year gap between the record and its successor Time I. Despite the chronological sparsity of his output, Wintersun’s discography is inexhaustible; each track they've released to date was crafted with masterful depth.
The group’s expectation-shattering debut saw Mäenpää stepping beyond the role of composer into the role of both auteur and performer, curating a carefully selected team of engineers and producers to fine tune the album to achieve the deepest, most authentic manifestation of his inner vision.
Wintersun's first track “Beyond the Dark Sun” begins with a gallop as an icy blaze of speedy riffs outlined by Mäenpää’s melodeath-style soloing charges forth with full intensity. Nimble arpeggios that evoke scenes of valiant triumph in a bleak and frost-encrusted landscape cascade from alpine peaks as the earth is scorched by animalistic yowls -- as the group’s name quite literally suggests, Mäenpää’s sonic explorations are founded on the dualistic turmoil between light, hope, the veneration of life, and death, despair, and inner darkness. While the stylistic approach taken on Wintersun bears significant resemblance to Ensiferum’s early material (especially on its first four tracks), the unlimited creative freedom of Mäenpää in his sole sovereignty over the project allowed for a much wider exploration of tones and timbres within expansive and malleable song structures. The brusque straightforwardness of Ensiferum’s folk metal assault is abandoned here for whimsical capriciousness and a full investment in a wider range of emotional dynamics created by much slower tempos, operatic vocals, or countless layers of starry-eyed orchestral effects.
Though many of the record’s songs are composed around blackened folk and melodic death metal skeletons, they venture out into unfamiliar territory to reveal unprecedented stylistic combinations. With anthemic choruses and synthesized orchestral grandeur, tracks such as “Winter Madness” and “Sleeping Stars” take on a more upbeat and harmonic demeanor, not unlike a more blackened strain of late 1990s power metal. Without straying from the nuanced ambiance of magickal wintry adventure, many of the tracks indulge in a more gothic, doom-influenced interpretation of Mäenpää’s esoteric mixture of Scandinavian extreme metal.
Through a kaleidoscope of Mäenpää’s diverse influences, the one unifying factor providing the cohesion between compositions is Mäenpää’s signature inflection, that of heroic majesty and boundlessness. Perhaps the most important moments of the album occur as Mäenpää elevates these instances of heroism to a level that transcends mere folklore, like on the thrilling “Beautiful Death” and the five-part “Starchild,” two tracks that dive headfirst into the epic narrative prog upon which Wintersun would later base their sound. Wintersun's most progressive moments contain passages that grip the center of the soul as though a direct channel were formed between the listener and Mäenpää himself. In these moments, a mesmerizing and almost psychedelic effect is achieved, suggesting yet another duality: that between the archaic, organic texture of the folk-inspired music in which Wintersun is rooted and the interstellar spiritual voyage on which Mäenpää has dared to embark.
The overarching result of this all-inclusive melting pot of concepts and motifs is a work whose thematic message functions on a multitude of levels… not all of them musical.
Integral to the thematic core of Wintersun are its lyrics, which display a dualism between tangible experience and fantastical occult themes by direct yet subtle methods. Drawing parallels between imaginative fantasy and the fragility of human mortality, Mäenpää wrote the lyrics to “Beautiful Death” and “Battle Against Time” to allegorically convey the harrowing struggle with tuberculosis that he had overcome five years prior, during which underwent surgery to remove one of his lungs. Though each of Wintersun’s tracks clearly communicates scenes of high fantasy and arcane legend, they also conceal a message of inward reflection imbued into the auditory landscape by Mäenpää’s own personal experience. Conveying this vast range of felt experience, Mäenpää’s vocal execution alternates between a scathing black metal fry and gorgeous operatic vibrato, a melodic element less prevalent in the material of Ensiferum.
Though a similar blending of dexterous melodeath-style fretwork and tonalities with the warlike chants and raucous agitation of Finnish folk metal had already been successfully put forward by predecessors Ensiferum and Amorphis, Wintersun expanded far beyond this compelling but ultimately limited combination by way of Mäenpää’s deeply eclectic taste and complete mastery over his instrument. One especially apparent influence shining in Mäenpää’s style is the neoclassical guitarwork of Yngwie Malmsteen, from whose example the blistering solos in “Beyond the Dark Sun” and “Battle Against Time” take heavy inspiration. Like the neoclassical shapes established in the work of Malmsteen, Wintersun's sound carries with it a stoic essence faithful to the sacred heart of classic heavy metal.
Unlike the somewhat stiff methodology of neoclassical exhibitionism, Wintersun is informed by and consists of elements from a wide selection of subgenres, many of which had just begun to take shape at the time of its release, including genres that Mäenpää himself had helped to pioneer. By this method, Wintersun lets one eye gaze backward into the past with humility and respect for those who laid the path and uses the other to look toward a misty future, one whose unknown mysteries infuse it with a boundless sense of wonder.
In this way, Wintersun is like an auditory ouroboros, an entity with no beginning and no end that communicates a universal message of the eternal return.
Blending together countless styles of metal into a sound that somehow transcends each of its constituent parts, Mäenpää provided the world with an individualistic interpretation of his various influences rather than choosing to simply imitate them. Wintersun’s effect on manifold subgenres since the turn of the century has carried on not just influentially, but inspirationally in its idiosyncratic singularity.
In 15 years, its impact has lost no potency; like an artifact unbound by time, the eclecticism and sheer musical authenticity of Wintersun are mystical and unforgettable.