When mentioned to a crowd, SONATA ARCTICA is liable to elicit a variety of reactions, but it’s hard to deny that they are an icon in the Finnish metal scene, regardless of your opinion. With “Pariah’s Child” (2014) already 2 years behind them and after a successful experiment with acoustic shows just this summer, it’s about time for some new material!
Bear: I had a rather unusual introduction to SONATA ARCTICA, as I first discovered them via “Reckoning Night” (2004) and then immediately went out and bought their then-newest album, “Unia” (2007). I came in at the end of their “old era” and the beginning of the new one, so those were the two albums that painted the most vivid picture of their sound for me. As such, I had a rather different image of what SA was than most – I wasn’t around for the evolution from 1999’s “Ecliptica” through to “Winterheart’s Guild” in 2003, but rather, had a mixture of the end of one style and the beginning of another. I was pretty pleased with “The Days of Grays” (2009), while I never fully got on board with “Silence” (2001) or “Stones Grow Her Name” (2012). This might explain why I wanted to like “Pariah’s Child” but honestly never really got into it – the foundation of my love for SA was not built on their earlier stuff. So when “The Ninth Hour” was announced, I was curious to see what direction these guys would take and if I would be a fan or if I would remain somewhat indifferent. What exactly does the “natural progression” from “Pariah’s Child” sound like?
Wille: The beautifully twisted “Unia“ was my introduction to SONATA ARCTICA in 2008, since it was the newest album at the time. I bought the band’s whole back catalog soon after and have continued to follow them, but “Unia” remains unsurpassed in my books. I do enjoy the early power metal releases, but like Bear, I never yearned for a return to that sound because I wasn’t around when they came out, and hence I’ve been more open to the band’s stylistic shifts. For me, “Reckoning Night” through “The Days of Grays” was SONATA ARCTICA‘s creative peak, but since then we’ve been treated to the disappointingly simplistic “Stones Grow Her Name” and the slightly mishmashed “Pariah’s Child.” That said, what sets SONATA apart from the other big names in Finnish metal is that they never make the same album twice, and that’s what makes it fun to follow them, even if the experiments don’t always turn out well. The band has been fairly tight-lipped about the musical direction of “The Ninth Hour,” so it was interesting to hear the album with no clear idea of what to expect.
1. “Closer to an Animal”
Wille: “Closer to an Animal” reminded me of “Paid in Full” on first listen, which isn’t a bad thing. However, I still find the chorus rather anticlimactic, and this lack of catchiness combined with the 5½-minute length makes the song a weird choice for single. SONATA ARCTICA‘s lead singles have often been among the weakest songs on their respective albums though, so throwing all hope away based on one song would be premature and foolish.
Bear: This isn’t the hard-hitting catchy tune that you might expect from a SONATA ARCTICA single (thinking back to “Flag in the Ground” or “Don’t Say a Word”), but I think it’s a fair parallel to the first single from “Pariah’s Child,” “The Wolves Die Young.” I suspect that this is part of that environmentalist-themed music that we were promised. While this is a nice enough song, I agree that it’s a bit overly long considering it’s not all that catchy, and it makes me miss the days of the kickass SONATA starting tracks, like “Misplaced” and “In Black and White.”
Bear: You can’t have a SONATA ARCTICA album without some rather goofy lyrics, and we already get a taste of that in “Life” with the rather blunt: “Life is better alive / It’s a dumb thing to say but the fact won’t wane away…” It’s a bit of a silly lyric but it does have a point – you get a better experience out of your existence if you actually “live” your life. On the other hand, I believe that if you have to point out the flaws in your words, you’re not saying it as well as you could be. I can actually contrast this song rather easily to “I Have a Right” – they’re both nice songs with good meanings. However, I think this song, with its catchy “lala-la” part is a far superior track both musically and lyrically, and I would be extremely happy to see it replace the former in their live shows. This earworm is going to be stuck in my head for a good long while.
Wille: I bet the Finnish fans will find the paraphrased Matti Nykänen quote in the chorus amusing… this one is much more of a single than “Closer to an Animal” and I can already imagine crowds singing along to the “lala-la” part. It’s also great to hear clean arpeggios by Elias Viljanen in the first verse, because on most non-ballad SONATA tunes lately he’s been chugging power chords or there’s been no guitar at all in the verses. I only wish the song didn’t end with a fadeout, because a proper ending would fit this kind of anthem so much better.
Wille: “Fairytale” includes a great vocal performance by Tony Kakko and some nice heaviness. In the promo bio, Kakko states that he considers the US presidential election to be, “an endless chest of unbelievable wonders.” Therefore it’s fairly clear what he’s singing about in lines such as “The chosen one may dig my grave / For the nation of brave,” though there seem to be environmental themes in the mix as well. Musically this song reminds me of some of the deeper cuts from “Winterheart’s Guild” (2003), such as “Champagne Bath” and in particular “Silver Tongue” because of the triplet rhythm. By the way, when was the last time we heard harpsichord on a SONATA ARCTICA album?
Bear: I haven’t quite gotten a good enough grasp on this song yet to give it a full breakdown, other than the fact that it has some pretty pointed lyrics about humanity’s current state. Musically it’s quite okay, with some prominent harpsichord lines from Henrik Klingenberg and a more straight-up power metal feel.
4. “We Are What We Are”
Bear: I really like the Uilleann pipe intro to this song, which is the first part of a few things that make this song feel like it was influenced a great deal by “Endless Forms Most Beautiful“ and Troy Donockley‘s work with NIGHTWISH (think songs like “My Walden”). This pretty, gentle song has some rather harsh words about mankind and the way we treat the world. At first you might hear it and think that, “Hey, they lied when said they weren’t preaching with their environmental message,” thanks to lines like: “We could save our world / We should love our earth / It takes care of our loved ones…” However, if you keep in mind the backing vocals, which keep repeating, “But we are what we are,” it spins an entirely different light on the meaning; instead of preaching what we should do, it becomes sad about what we don’t do. As well, that last line also got me thinking – at first I thought that, okay, of course mankind can’t live without nature and we should leave behind a viable world to take care of our children in the future, but then I realized that it also means that when people we love die, they go back to the earth. “It takes care of our loved ones.” This is one of my favorite tracks on the album.
Wille: Despite the blunt title, this ballad is very thought-provoking lyrically. It sounds like NIGHTWISH indeed, because of the aforementioned Uilleann pipes, but I also get a bit of a “Letter to Dana” vibe from the sad melody. SONATA ARCTICA‘s ballads on the last few albums have been nothing to write home about, but “We Are What We Are” is their best in years.
5. “Till Death’s Done Us Apart”
Wille: The stalker saga songs are some of my favorite SONATA ARCTICA compositions, and this chapter is no exception, as it’s definitely the best song on this album. Its theatricality and mood swings recall “Juliet,” which ties it nicely to the series. The recurring melody that’s first heard in the intro is hauntingly beautiful, while the keyboard outro is evil and creepy as hell.
Bear: There is something so specifically… “Caleb” about this song. There’s some quality to the composition of many of the songs from this series that is very present in this; among them, Tony Kakko‘s singing style, and the presence of a certain type of drama in the music, sort of like what you’d expect in a stage performance. I think it’s a nice addition to the story and it makes me want to give the whole thing a re-listen so I can hear it all in context. We suspect that this falls between “Caleb” (“Unia”) and “The End of This Chapter” (“Silence”), from when the characters were still in love… at least at the beginning.
6. “Among the Shooting Stars”
Bear: This makes me think we’ve got a new teenage romance series starting! This is a love song telling the tale of a romance between a werewolf and a human, complete with lyrics like: “Save me / If you will not save me then you need to slay me.” I do love when SONATA busts out the drama. Overall, I like the song, but I think it could’ve gone a little further on all fronts; it’s a nice song, but not an amazing one.
Wille: I’ve got mixed feelings about this one: I love the melodies and the idea of representing the werewolf’s point of view in the lyrics (at least partially), but the song ends pretty suddenly at just 4 minutes, and I feel like it could’ve been fleshed out a lot more instrumentally. There’s a lot of potential in here for sure!
7. “Rise a Night”
Wille: The harpsichord is back again, and so is the double bass drumming. “Rise a Night” is not a potential challenger for “Victoria’s Secret” or “San Sebastian,” but I’m sure the long solo duel between Klingenberg and Viljanen will make power metal fans around the world smile. Somehow this song sounds very compressed compared to the rest of the album on my headphones, but that’s probably due to the music itself not being very dynamic.
Bear: This feels immediately like a proper old-school SONATA ARCTICA power metal song, with the speedy rhythm and… I want to call it neoclassical harpsichord sound? So, for fans of that era that I mentioned that I wasn’t really a part of, you’ll probably love this song. However, I prefer my SONATA a bit more dynamic and with a bit more varied beat throughout, so this isn’t so much up my alley. Props for a decent throwback to the old days though!
8. “Fly, Navigate, Communicate”
Wille: This is a weird one – the vocal melodies are rather simple, and the synths somehow remind me of ’80s groups like TEARS FOR FEARS, but the guitars and drums are rhythmic and aggressive. Kakko‘s high note in the first chorus and the scream after the bridge are impressive, and the solos are explosive. I wasn’t sold on the simplistic chorus at first, but I dig it now. I’ve always enjoyed SONATA ARCTICA‘s experimental side, so this song is right up my alley.
Bear: Agreed on this being a weird one. At times I like it and at other times I find it dull; seems to depend on my mood. It is at least host to probably the most impressive vocal scream I’ve ever heard Kakko whip out. I’m hoping they’ll leave this off the live set – I suspect that it’ll start dragging on the way “I Have a Right” did. In spite of the fact that the song does pick up towards the end, it isn’t one of my favorites, but I will admit that I really dig the tinkling percussion in this one and I’ll say it has the potential to grow on you.
9. “Candle Lawns”
Bear: The first time I heard “Candle Lawns,” I thought, “Holy shit, it’s “Tallulah” 2.0!” There is a serious familiarity to the opening riff that continues throughout the song and there is… please don’t hate me, but I swear there is a hint of “Sk8er Boi” by Avril Lavigne, which I’m going to go out on a limb and assume wasn’t intentional. You’ll hear what I’m talking about, I’m sure. It’s not cheesy in the way “Tallulah” was though, thanks to the sad lyrics about a man dying in a war at his best friend’s side and asking him to give his purple heart on to his son. It’s a rather lovely song as a whole – sweet, nostalgic music mixed well with melancholy lyrics without being bleak or depressing. As well, it’s kind of funny that the lyrics get more complicated as the lives of the characters do, which means they start out rather simple. Coincidence?
Wille: “Candle Lawns” is indeed the new “Tallulah,” though the story of two childhood friends is more touching than the slightly cheesy relationship drama of the latter. “I found a girl and you bought a car” is a pretty clunky line, but apart from that I have no complaints, though I think “We Are What We Are” is the stronger ballad on this album.
10. “White Pearl, Black Oceans part II: By the Grace of the Ocean”
Bear: Before I say my piece, full disclosure – I was never a part of the big “WPBO” fanclub. I like it, but I’ve never taken the time to get to know it well enough to fall in love with it. However, this new one is one of what I would call SA‘s most mature compositions to date. It’s got a good arc to it, goes full-on nightwish in the middle, and has a smooth, gentle exit that matches its smooth, gentle intro to the sound of the waves. SONATA has tried to do long epics in the past, which I have never found to be particularly successful, but now they have finally succeeded. The song is beautiful, powerful, passionate, and memorable. I really like it a lot.
Wille: Sequels to popular stories are always risky, and “Operation: Mindcrime II” (2006) by Queensrÿche is a prime example of one that should’ve been left undone. However, I thought the sequels to “Wildfire” on “Stones Grow Her Name” were among the few great songs off that album, so Kakko surely knows how to continue a story. I prefer the darker tone and the wider variety of the original “White Pearl, Black Oceans,” but the second part has got some great melodies and solos – Viljanen‘s reminds me of John Petrucci‘s [DREAM THEATER] playing. It’s also a much more successful attempt at creating an epic than last album’s lackluster “Larger than Life.” In other words: not the greatest long SONATA ARCTICA song ever, but a worthy sequel that receives my seal of approval.
11. “On the Faultline (Closure to an Animal)”
Bear: This is the second SA album to have go full-circle, with the final track being a throwback to the first song (the last, of course, being “The Days of Grays”). However, I can’t quite get into this song and neither can I place exactly what’s keeping me from liking it more than I do. It is an outro, through and through, and a decent closer to the album, but like “Rise a Night” for Wille, this song seems weirdly loud when I listen to it compared to the rest of the album.
Wille: I like how this song starts off as a ballad reprise of “Closer to an Animal,” but then goes in a different direction. There’s a drum loop, and though the full band never joins in, there are some restrained guitar chugs at the end, while Kakko keeps asking “am I the only human here?” As a stand-alone song this may not be anything special, but it adds continuity to the album.
Bear: This album feels like the bridge between the two SONATA ARCTICA eras that never was. While it is lacking in catchy hit tunes and may not catch your attention on first listen, the album feels more mature and serious than a great deal of SONATA‘s old material, while still maintaining a necessary level of fun and energy. It would’ve been nice to have a couple more heavy-hitters like “Don’t Say a Word” on here, but to be frank, it’s just nice to have a SONATA ARCTICA album again that’s easy to praise.
Wille: While a few songs don’t live up to the potential they show and “Till Death’s Done Us Apart” is the only instant classic, the album is very consistent and you can comfortably listen to it from start to finish without skipping anything. I’m relieved that nothing on it is cringe-worthy like the low points of the previous two records. For these reasons I consider “The Ninth Hour” a return to form for SONATA ARCTICA.
Written by Bear Wiseman & Wille Karttunen
- Closer to an Animal
- We Are What We Are
- Till Death’s Done Us Apart
- Among the Shooting Stars
- Rise a Night
- Fly, Navigate, Communicate
- Candle Lawns
- White Pearl, Black Oceans pt. II: By the Grace of the Ocean
- On the Faultline (Closure to an Animal)
Tony Kakko – vocals
Elias Viljanen – guitars
Pasi Kauppinen – bass
Henrik Klingenberg – keyboards
Tommy Portimo – drums
Nuclear Blast Records