In 2009, a young Canadian woman who was big into SONATA ARCTICA moved to Finland and was blessed with a glorious new release shortly after: “The Days of Greys.” With such a fabulous album to greet me into this country, it goes without saying that I was on the edge of my seat for whatever the band would release next. When the artwork and title for “Stones Grow Her Name” were teased, it only enhanced my enthusiasm, as the poetic title and classical fantasy-beautiful artwork only further led me to believe that this album would be the best release of the year. Yet when May 18th, 2012, came around, the album was not quite the masterpiece I was expecting. Was I too hyped up from the previous release, or is it still a lukewarm addition to their discography? Today, we’ll explore this very question, as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of this release!
Can we please take a moment to appreciate how lovely this album art is? The lighter color scheme was a pleasant change from the dark, ambient, wolf-obsessed covers of the past, and I would argue that it is one of their prettiest album covers, up there with “Ninth Hour“ – neither of which have reputations as being fantastic albums on the whole. However, we promised to explore this album with a fresh perspective, so let’s not judge this book by its cover.
The album opens up with “Only the Broken Hearts (Make You Beautiful),” which begins with electric guitars and keyboards, not off to a terrible start, even if the rhythm section is a little laggy per what we’re used to from Tommy Portimo. Tony Kakko‘s opening notes are also nothing to turn one’s nose up at. SONATA ARCTICA‘s albums have often started on a similar note with upbeat bangers like “Blinded No More” and “Misplaced,” so this track does fit in fairly well, following in the footsteps of “Unia” with a hint of progginess in there in small bits and pieces.
The album then gets weird pretty much instantly with “Shitload of Money,” which you likely either love for its bizarreness and silliness, or you hate for being so… weird? It opens on a more rock ‘n’ roll riff and has a very strange vocal sound, which conflicts with the rocking vibe, which in turn conflicts with the rather traditional power metal piano sound… it’s simply a strange concoction and it’s easy to see why it’s so polarizing. It’s as if the band thought that “prog” meant “try everything,” and try a bit of everything they certainly did.
“Losing My Insanity” feels a bit more like a classic SONATA ARCTICA, though there’s something missing in the rhythm section, which feels like a precursor to the band’s current unfortunate situation. The touch of grit in Tony Kakko‘s vocals is pretty decent and there is some strong guitarwork, but there’s just… something missing. “Somewhere Close to You” has a bit of the traditional SONATA drama to it, actually fitting in decently with some of the material off the previous album, but again fails to have any sort of hook or stand-out part that lures the listener in.
I fully confess that I actually liked “I Have a Right” when it was released as a single, initially. While it was musically simplistic for the band, the message stood stronger than the music. However, it took repeated live renditions to sour my taste towards the song, as it became drier and drier the more it was heard in contrast with the rest of the band’s material. Furthermore, the more it began replacing legitimately good songs in the setlist, the more unbearable it became. On a re-listen, it does have small moments, like the pianos in the verses, which work well… it’s truly the blandness of the melody in the chorus that really sinks the track.
“Alone in Heaven” was always one of the songs that I did have a soft spot for on this album, as it came at a time when I was falling out of my Christian brainwashing, and began to think about what kind of place heaven was if it didn’t include my atheist friends. This poignant insight was quite meaningful when it came to pushing me out of a toxic place over time, so the song still holds a special place in my heart thanks to this. Nowadays, this track still stands out as one of the catchier songs on the album, but perhaps stands out simply because it has such interesting lyrics (when many of the other tracks don’t).
“The Day” begins on a pretty decent piano melody that gets dressed up pretty well by the rest of the band, but then the song loses everything of interest as it enters the verses, when a simple rhythm and repetitive keyboards take over as placeholders while Tony Kakko sings a pretty standard melody. The song seems to have blown its load early, as everything of interest happens in the first minute or so. However, if the album was beginning to drag on, “Cinderblox” certainly changes things up, with its ample use of banjo. To this day, I can’t really tell if I love or hate this song, but the banjo is just campy enough that perhaps I do have a secret fondness for the sheer audacity they had to whip out a banjo out of nowhere, and then put it to good use while they were at it, even if the little hoedown at the end is weird as absolute fuck. It’s just cheeky enough to work.
The album slows down significantly with “Don’t Be Mean,” which is kind of an awful song name and the keyboard sound is rather badly buzzy in the mix, which is a shame as it’s the only thing accompanying Tony for the first verse. The mix balances out once the other instruments join in at least. As a ballad, the song manages to not be too cringey, but likewise also fails to make a strong impression, perhaps again because of the too-straightforward lyrics. It almost feels as though the listener can hear when Tony was feeling as though he had something to say versus when he didn’t, as some tracks can be beautifully poetic, while others are overly simplistic. The ballad does benefit from a nice violin part, overall making it a generally inoffensive piece.
The album then begins its wind-down with the next two “Wildfire” installments, “One with the Mountain” and “Wildfire, Town, Population: 0” respectively. The former gets off to an interesting start, as it seems like the fiddle and banjo are having a jam session during a thunderstorm as someone creepy approaches and things slow down. The song then takes a strangely heavy turn with bashing drums and chugging guitars, making for a surprisingly decent SONATA ARCTICA epic as it gets going, feeling familiar and warm, yet not so much so that it feels lackluster. In fact, this is one of the better songs on the album, maintaining a strong degree of catchiness despite an odd synthwave moment that feels a little out of place. The album then winds up on a punchy note with the fast-paced finale, which maintains a classic power metal rhythm and has some nice piano lines, as well as a few strong grunts from Tony Kakko, taking some dramatic twists and turns, but doesn’t tell the most clear story, despite the environmental message. Nevertheless, it is still one of the more interesting tracks… not that it has a lot of competition, closing the album on a decent note.
If “Stones Grow Her Name” took a strange turn, it may have something to do with the inclusion of a variety of unusual sounds, such as trumpet, saxophone, and banjo on a few tracks, as well as the uncertainty of direction for the band, as they tried to slow things down a little. While there are a few genuinely decent songs on the album, it feels like the band took their newfound progressive sound and went a little hogwild trying to figure themselves out with it. Some tracks have too much going on, while others are too simple and end up being dull, resulting in an overall unbalanced album that has too many peaks and valleys within the songs themselves. The band seems to have struggled with their identity since about 2010, unsure of whether they want to go weird and progressive, or play it safe with slower melodic songs. Unfortunately, three albums later, the band seem no more clear on who they want to be these days, but it’s hard to deny the fun in looking back and seeing how things have progressed with a fresh palate. Here’s hoping they figure out what really inspires them and makes them tick for their next release.
- Only the Broken Hearts (Make You Beautiful)
- Shitload of Money
- Losing My Insanity
- Somewhere Close to You
- I Have a Right
- Alone in Heaven
- The Day
- Don’t Be Mean
- Wildfire, pt: II – One with the Mountain
- Wildfire, pt: III – Wildfire, Town, Population: 0
- Tony Kakko – vocals, additional keyboards
- Elias Viljanen – guitars
- Marko Paasikoski – bass
- Henrik Klingenberg – keyboards
- Tommy Portimo – drums
Nuclear Blast Records