PRELISTENING: Sonata Arctica – Clear Cold Beyond @ The Riff, Helsinki

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For about a decade, Finnish metal act SONATA ARCTICA have veered away from the fast and furious power metal compositions, they once were so known for. However, with the announcement of their eleventh studio album, “Clear Cold Beyond,” set for release on March 8th, 2024, via Atomic Fire Records, the power metal maestros assured fans a return to their roots. While the first singles hinted that that just so might be the case, skeptics questioned whether these were the only fast-paced power metal offerings on the entire record. We were invited to the band’s prelistening event for Finnish press on January 12th, 2024, to find out for you, so allow us to share our first impressions of this highly anticipated album and to see whether the band delivered what they had promised us. 

We kicked off the listening event with a speech by the band, they warmly welcomed us and gave a brief overview of what we were to be served with, and then it was time for somebody to hit play. The album started with the lead single for this release, “First In Line.” Positioned as the opening song, it almost functions as a statement boldly proclaiming, “We’re back in full fury.” This lightning-fast power metal song serves as a great opener to the album; we’re off to a good start – albeit with a song we were already familiar with.

Moving on to the next track, we ventured into uncharted territories with “California.” The tempo went up a little, shifting smoothly into second gear. The song boasted an interesting bridge and was complemented by stellar guitar and keyboard solos. Towards the conclusion, it escalated into an arena-worthy chorus, complete with a choir; an anthem we could easily picture ourselves singing along to during a live performance. The infectious lyrics, “California falls into the sea,” undoubtedly added to the charm of the song.

It may have been the atmospheric keyboard intro and the feeling that the band tried to combine their roots with their newer style, but there was something about “Shah Mat” that we instantaneously enjoyed. The song had a very heavy rhythmic section and felt a little progressive at times because it was so layered. At some point, I heard some very gritty vocals (maybe even growls) in the backing vocals, which made me want to go back instantly, which made it an absolute shame we were only allowed to listen to the album once. 

“Dark Empath” lyrically seems to be continuing the fan-favorite Caleb-saga. The track felt a little darker and more progressive compared to the rest of the album, which made sense considering its dark themes. It’s the kind of song that requires a few listens to digest. 

We were falsely lulled into believing “Cure for Everything” was a slow track, but after a few notes, it picked up a fast-paced tempo again. Focusing on the lyrics, the song felt like a motivational track with a positive attitude, which is something we may have slightly missed from SONATA ARCTICA’s previous albums. 

Admittedly, when “A Monster Only You Can’t See” was first released as a single, it didn’t do much for me at first. Still, interestingly enough, in combination with the rest of the album, it stood out to me, and it just turned out it needed a few more spins. Ever since, it’s been stuck in my head. I especially appreciate the lyrics, which really suit well with the song’s mood overall.

One of my favorite moments of the album was the juxtaposition of “Teardrops” and “Angel Defiled.” The former included neo-classical keyboards at the beginning, which offered a little bit of variety once again. Towards the end, the song eased out, but then, “Angel Defiled” started. Due to the contrasting dynamics of both songs, it suddenly felt like a very loud start to a song, which almost felt like the band was asking us whether we were still paying attention. “Angel Defiled” felt a little bit theatrical because of the lyrics and Tony Kakko’s vocal performance and his maniacal laughter somewhere in between the songs and once again towards the end. The song had a great synth solo and was overall a fun, dramatic track, that was placed brilliantly into the flow of the record. 

“The Best Things” started with a soothing piano intro. The track was less intense than its predecessor and it felt a little easier to grasp the song. The main melody line felt uplifting and it just gave me the feeling of being in a pub with friends and raising a glass on the good times you’re having with one another. We can see this song being an excellent live track, where people will celebrate a sort of togetherness and comradery.

The album gracefully concluded with the title track, “Clear Cold Beyond.” The inclusion of a title track was a noteworthy surprise. It piqued our curiosity as we couldn’t recall SONATA ARCTICA having one before – we might be wrong. The song began with a melancholic glockenspiel sound, exuding that enchanting wintry and mysterious ambiance we all adore. Overall, it harmoniously resonated with the band’s distinctive identity, showcasing Tony Kakko‘s diverse vocal range, which included some hauntingly deep tones. Serving as a slower, more dramatic piece to cap off the album, it undeniably succeeded, offering a perfect, lingering ending to this musical journey. The digipak and vinyl version of the album includes two bonus songs, “A Ballad For The Broken” and “Toy Soldiers [MARTIKA Cover],” which unfortunately, we weren’t able to listen to.

In my interview with Tony Kakko about the acoustic albums, he hinted at a return to SONATA ARCTICA‘s roots, suggesting that moody and slow songs should maybe be reserved for alternative projects and not SONATA ARCTICA. Despite this, we still wouldn’t have anticipated an album packed with mostly energetic songs. Interestingly, the few mid-paced and slower tunes exhibited more oomph than those in “Talviyö.” While the album’s overall mood was uplifting and motivational, the lyrics carried a melancholic undertone, adding a dual layer to the album’s emotional depth. Speaking of layers, the album adopts a slightly more progressive, multi-layered, and complex feel, distinguishing these songs from fan-favorites like “Victoria’s Secret” or “Full Moon.” However, this added complexity doesn’t detract from the album’s appeal; in fact, I see it as a positive thing, offering a depth that may require a bit more exploration for full appreciation. That being said, we were only allowed to listen to the album once and had to focus on writing as many notes as possible about the album to whip up this prelistening report, so while the album had its hooks and catchy moments, we simply may not have caught them all, but anyway we’re looking forward to re-discover them whenever we get the album in our hands. 

In terms of production, the band opted for Mikko Karmila, a familiar name associated with some of their earlier works, like for instance, “Ecliptica.” This deliberate choice aimed to infuse the album with an old-school ambiance, skillfully recorded and mixed with modern tools — a decision that pays off. The mix highlights every detail; Henrik Klingenberg‘s keyboards, in particular, add a tasteful spice to many songs, even though the album predominantly leans towards a guitar-oriented sound. Notably, the vocals don’t get lost in the instrumentation; the lyrics come through crystal clear upon listening to the album. Yet, at the same time, the mix isn’t overly polished and a little raw.

A bonus point is the playful approach to dynamics, largely influenced by the track order. While this interplay contributes significantly to the entire listening experience, it creates an immersive journey through the record, making it even more captivating. Altogether, “Clear Cold Beyond” is an exciting chapter in SONATA ARCTICA’s repertoire, with plenty of nostalgia-evoking moments to the band’s past but with an eye on the future. When Tony Kakko talked about keeping those dark and moody songs for a different creative outlet, it turned out to be true. Embracing their roots, “Clear Cold Beyond” is the album that not only fulfills the longstanding desire of those SONATA ARCTICA fans who have been hoping for a return to the band’s power metal origins but also will embrace newer enthusiasts, making it a unifying gem that will please both generations.

Tracklist

1. First In Line
2. California
3. Shah Mat
4. Dark Empath
5. Cure For Everything
6. A Monster Only You Can’t See
7. Teardrops
8. Angel Defiled
9. The Best Things
10. Clear Cold Beyond

Label

Atomic Fire Records

Lineup

Tony Kakko | vocals
Elias Viljanen | guitars
Pasi Kauppinen | bass
Henrik “Henkka” Klingenberg | keyboards
Tommy Portimo | drums

Links

www.sonataarctica.info
www.facebook.com/sonataarctica
www.instagram.com/sonataarcticaofficial
www.twitter.com/sonataarctica
www.youtube.com/sonataarctica
https://label.atomicfire-records.com/project/sonata-arctica/