Winterborn isn't particularly original, but the songwriting is strong and the riffs are a nice combination of heavy and catchy.
Wolfheart began as a solo project from Finnish musician Tuomas Saukkonen, who has spent time in a half-dozen other metal bands including Black Sun Aeon, Dawn of Solace, and Before the Dawn. Wolfheart has since expanded into a full band with Saukkonen focusing on guitar and vocals and that lineup has an album due later in 2015. But first, Spinefarm Records has re-released Winterborn, Wolfheart’s 2013 debut, to what one assumes is a much larger audience.
The album opens with a folky, minor key acoustic guitar riff, which metal listeners will instantly peg as the sort of music that will soon be subsumed by a crushing distorted guitar riff. In an interesting little twist, Saukkonen layers a pair of other guitars on top of the original riff to briefly play a bit of harmonized lead guitar. But then, sure enough, right on cue, “The Hunt” kicks in with the drums and distorted guitars at the 45-second mark. At least the initial heavy riffs are musically similar to the original riff, giving the song some thematic unity. Saukkonen’s harsh vocals are in fine form here, and he’s a savvy enough songwriter to keep at least one melodic guitar line going throughout the bulk of the song. It gives the track a center beyond the chugging riffs and unintelligible growls.
That particular technique serves Saukkonen well throughout Winterborn. Even a hard-charging song like “Strength and Valor”, which plows along pretty effectively on blast beats and rhythmic riffs for large chunks, manages to throw in enough simple guitar melody to keep the song from becoming a four-minute slog. “Ghost of Karelia” may be the heaviest track on the record, a song that opens with 15 seconds of drums and guitars played so fast it’s difficult to discern individual notes. It’s a track that works as the exception to Saukkonen’s melodic tactic because he trades it for a very effective tempo contrast that allows his even-lower-than-usual growls to take center stage when the song drops to crawling speed.
Elsewhere, Saukkonen embraces a wider range of instruments, opening “Routa, pt. 2” with strings and keeping those strings going even after the guitars and drums come in. The song also manages to work in acoustic guitars and slightly bluesy guitar solos that could’ve come out of an ‘80s power ballad. At seven and a half minutes, “Routa, pt. 2” is a particularly strong track that sounds like a thoughtfully arranged piece of music that manages to balance powerful, heavy riffs with melody. It’s an album highlight that’s joined by the record’s other seven and a half minute song, “Chasm”, which is similarly effective in its arrangement. “Chasm” opens with and leans heavily on an acoustic guitar riff, which is later complemented by a second, more menacing acoustic riff. Later, Saukkonen goes for a full-on guitar hero solo and then fades it into one of the album’s best laser beam distorted riffs. Wolfheart is first and foremost a heavy act, but in his best moments, Saukkonen expertly uses acoustic sections to make his heavy passages hit even harder. The extended outro to “Chasm” leans on a strong, catchy riff, and enhances it with subtle guitar harmonies. As the record’s other triumph, one has to wonder if long form songwriting is what Saukkonen should really be focusing his energy on here.
Since Saukkonen doesn’t ever attempt to sing cleanly, Winterborn’s one fully quiet song, “Isolation”, is an instrumental. It combines chilly keyboards, lonely violin, and sparse acoustic guitar picking to great effect, eventually bringing in what sounds like a full string quartet to fill out the arrangement. As the penultimate song on the album, it nicely sets up the widescreen closer “Into the Wild.” Besides opening with a strong riff, the middle of the song finds the return of “so fast you can barely hear the notes” playing, which works extremely well for brief passages but would wear thin quickly otherwise. Saukkonen finds a nice big riff and uses it well for another extended outro to finish the album off.
Winterborn isn’t the kind of album that will appeal to metal neophytes. But discerning metal fans will find a lot to like here, as Saukkonen has a strong command of the style. His songwriting isn’t particularly original, but it’s solid and often borders on fun. There are a lot of cool arrangements here and plenty of appealingly heavy riffs that make the album an entertaining listen from top to bottom.