Formed in 1996 in Kemi, Finland, again coming to you from the land of the ice and snow, are prog-metallers Sonata Arctica, featuring Tony Kakko on vocals and keyboards, Elias Viljanen on guitar, Tommy Portimo on drums, Henrik Klingenberg on keyboards and backing vocals, and Pasi Kauppinen on bass. This latest offering of their is pretty fare material, judging from the first listen. I am going back for a second listen as I type.
Opener The Wolves Die Young sports a wonderful intro, a charging statement of intent à la Trans-Siberian Orchestra (perhaps even a bit closer to Savatage, but then given their connection to T.S.O., this should come as no surprise). Keyboards abound on this track, as you will find in the bulk of what’s on offer here. It features one vocal surprise after another, and, as you shall see, there is PLENTY more of that to come throughout this album.
Running Lights features a double-time, almost thrashy intro, with a very cool lead thrown in for good measure. This is shortly followed by a heavy beat and keys and vocal ‘story-telling’, if you will. Again, this may not be the last time I mention Tony’s ability to weave a line or two. These tracks are, more than anything else, a mixture of classical motifs and heavy metal. I suppose if you’d like, you could call it progressive metal. I would hesitate to put a label on these blokes, tho — putting musical outfits into genres is all well and good, you might say, but I prefer the eclectic artist — one who can surprise me from time to time. I mean, I LOVE Dream Theater, but let’s just say prog rock/metal CAN become a bit predictable at times. Not necessarily so, here, and more’s the better for it!
Take One Breath features a lovely piano intro and sky vocal acrobatics. I’m sensing a pattern here. At about 2 minutes in we get a classical piano/violin-esque (keys) interlude, but at 3 minutes in it’s back to the rock. A lyrical line here sort of caught my attention as being slightly profound: “Slowly we become the new species of tomorrow“. Interesting, isn’t it? The title comes by way of a thematic ending with a gorgeous piano outro.
Cloud Factory starts us out with a noise FX intro, but soon develops into another vocal tour-de-force. In particular, at about the 3-minute mark, there are what I like to refer to as ‘vocal exercises’. You may wish to refer to them as acrobatics, or what have you. Be my guest, invent your own terminology, even, if you’d like! This is not a closed forum, to the best of my knowledge.
Blood is a different sort of beastie all together. About 45 seconds in, a distorted radio voice intro begins things, then an arctic thrash of sorts, driven by double-bass drumming. At 1:25 there is some more ‘vocal’ interplay of sorts, then, at 2:10, they shift the proceedings into second gear. There is talk of wolves, presumably the one on the cover of the album I really enjoyed how the vocals can, at times, overpower the rhythm machine here. There are actually also several examples of this throughout the album.
What Did You Do In the War, Dad? features a cool keyboard/slamming drums and bass intro, and is another obvious story-telling vehicle for the band, in particular the vocalist, Tony. Half A Marathon Man is also good — the heaviness kicks in at about the 1:30 mark. The strings at the end are exquisite.
X Marks the Spot is another variation on a theme, if you will. It is a for real storyteller vibe here, especially with the intro. Tenacious D comes to mind when reaching for comparisons. They (Sonata Arctica) are the pirates of the world in this comedy of rock, for lack of a better term. This does not necessarily veer into, let’s say, Psychostick territory, but there are some subtle nuances of humour here and there. There are also outright hilarious moments as well. The vocals are, as per usual, heavenly. It sounds as if tongue is firmly placed in cheek here. I could be mistaken, but my Spidey-senses were tingling, so I just HAD to mention it! This is rock and roller’s heavenly tale, and even includes a bit of rock and roll preaching (2:30). Cool vocals (aye yi yi!!), throughout, even a children’s choir. At 4:20 we find more rock and roll preaching, and just some funny stuff from beginning to end. The outro rap is interesting, to say the least.
Love is another beautiful piano/vocal, but not just for the intro this time out. It is a very pretty ballad, and it is perhaps somewhat appropriate that is the shortest track on the LP. At about a minute in, some other instrumentation is barely detectable. This is a gorgeous ballad, and they throw in some sky guitar soloing at about 2:50. I was again reminded of Trans Siberian Orchestra and/or Savatage.
Larger Than Life, the closer, definitely lives up to its name in a couple of different ways. For one thing, it is about twice as long as anything else on offer here. We are assaulted by another beautiful vocal/piano intro – with violins again, no less! Since it is as long as it is, I’m going to refer to it as the album’s ‘epic’ number, if you will. We could use grandiose, if you’d prefer (I’m getting a bit fed up with my inability to consult a thesaurus for a better word, aren’t you?). Larger has it all. There is a bit of monk style chanting at 1:30, more vocal exercises at 2:20, more story-telling at the 3-minute mark, vocals poking fun at themselves at about 3:30, and even a string section interlude at 4:30. At 5:30, we are back to the rock, but it’s sort of a chanting affair again. At six minutes in, there is a collective gathering, then more piano/vocal interplay. Simply beautiful. At the 7-minute mark, there is more of the classical motifs-meets-metal stuff, and at 7:30 the tempo picks up a notch or two. Once again, I was reminded of T.S.O. At 8:30, there is a violin/piano/vocal thing that bears re-listening, and the outro-piano/violin piece is exquisite. All in all, as I mentioned before, a tour-de-force, both vocally and musically!