Nuclear Blast Records
Review by Rick Ossian
I never thought I would see the day when I would tire of Progressive Metal. Perhaps I am simply reaching that age when it no longer inspires me the way that it once did. However, generalizations do not become us, so let us dispense with the rhetoric and get on to what is going on with Kemi, Finland’s Sonata Arctica. They can boast of 20 years together and 11 LP’s, not counting re-issues and re-packagings. Their personnel is as follows: Tony Kakko on vocals, Elias Viljanen on guitars, Tommy Portimo on drums, Henrik Klingenberg on keyboards and Pasi Kaippinen on bass. Together they form what must be said is a rather seasoned outfit. So, how do they fall short with this, their latest release? Read on, minions, and you shall discover the answer.
I am trying to be merciful. In fact, there were several tracks that definitely mustered up some serious bobbing of the head and toes. A number of the tunes on board possessed the charm, the chug and the instrumental power of a good Progressive Metal song. Others were bogged down in the mire of big production, overpowering washes of keyboards, and a serious lack of guitar.
Closer to An Animal is, unfortunately, one of the latter. FX and atmosphere seem to be the order of the day, at least for the beginning of most of these tracks, and Closer is no exception. Their are some powerful, winning moments and elements. The vocals, for example, are operatic in the best of traditions. This is a medium-heavy number, both in delivery and tempo. A lovely, chugging rhythm featuring the piano and the guitar are the main drivers, particularly the piano. Though it is pretty and prominent, their are times when I would have preferred a blast of guitar in my face as opposed to a wash of keyboards. Towards the close a narrative vocal drowned in echo FX takes over the proceedings, which I found a bit strange but added a bit of a mystique to an otherwise lackluster tune.
Life begins its course with a nice wedge of lead guitar and angelic vocals. Again, the vocals are majestic and powerful, definitely a highlight to the proceedings. This track starts out heavy-ish, but with some severely mellow interchanges. There are lots of big instrumental and vocal passages, but this is again more of a big production than anything else. I was reminded, as is customary for these chaps, of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. It is a shame that more of the grit and grime of that lot (à la Savatage) was not in order. The guitars and the keyboards are driving again, and there is a nice guitar solo at the two-and-a-half minute mark. It is a lengthy one, but we like lengthy guitar bits, so kudos for that! This track is obviously a celebration of life of sorts, especially when one considers the overriding lyrical refrain (“Life is Better Alive”).
Fairytale is a bit longer (just over six-and-a-half mintues), and a bit better than the previous pair of tracks. There are strings and bells and whistles and the like, and things get a bit heavier, which we DEFINITELY like. There is that chugging rhythm present again as well, which we shall see develop into a regular pattern. The vocals are powerful, even regal at times. Tony has a presence about him that few Prog vocalists could compare favourably to. Keyboards abound, as per usual, and there is a triumphant bit of shredding at four minutes in. This is one of those tracks where I found my head and feet moving about a bit!
We Are Who We Are is a wee bit long on the intro, and is a mellower track than what we may be used to given the outfit we are working with. This one is in the classic storyteller mode, even a bit ballad-esque. The majesty of the vocals, even the lyrics, is obvious: “I didn’t like how the lake reflected me” struck me as particularly profound. There are bells, keys, and whistles (or flutes, rather) on board again, and we get a nice instrumental break/guitar bit at three minutes in. The overtly obvious message here, lyrically at least, was that “we should take care of our loved ones”. Grand sentiment, agreed, but isn’t it a bit tame for progressive metal?
Til Death’s Done Us Apart has a bit more spit and growl to it. It starts us off with a short intro, screaming, riffs and a driving piano. This is another of the storyteller mode, which can be a good vibe if the storyteller is a good one. This one is of a love/union gone wrong. Their is the presence of the inevitable heavy double-bass drum, and the piano work is indeed lovely. At 2:45 we get a mid-section instrumental breakdown, which is brief but powerful. The vocals are also in your face, and the big production aspect is present again. This is more of an uptempo number, with a nice piano bit at the close.
Among the Shooting Stars begins with chirping crickets, of all things. It is another ballad, in the boy-girl storyteller fashion. It can get semi-heavy at times, but is medium tempo and mellow for the most part. The chug is there, which is good, and the piano is driving AGAIN. I would have to say that this particular number is a bit mediocre for these folks.
Rise in the Night, by contrast, is a shorter, heavier number, featuring the old stand-by heavy double-bass drum attack AGAIN. It is uptempo, and the vocals are very good. They appear to have locked into a pretty tight groove on this one, and I was nodding the old noggin a bit here again. That is a good sign. Unfortunately, there is something slightly stale about the sound. Can’t quite put my finger on why – perhaps you will note the reason when you hear it. What begins as a simple guitar bit turns into some serious shredding (2:10), and the track itself moves right along, but there seems to be something holding them back…
Fly, Navigate, Communicate is another with a promising beginning, but many of the same elements featured earlier (massive double-bass drums, vocals, piano) are ever-present everywhere. A nice moment or two of shredding (three minutes in) livens things up a bit, but ultimately not enough to save this one.
Candle Lawns is another in the vein of the stately, majestic variety of tune. Pretty piano and measured drums grace what is a mid-tempo ballad arrangement. There are some dramatic moments, particularly the bluesy lead guitar bit at 2:40. I guess at this point I was just growing weary of the slow dance numbers.
White Pearl Black Oceans Part II: By the Grace of God wins points for title alone, and it is the single longest track on board. Now, normally, as you know, I would revel in a 10-minute epic magnum opus such as this, but as our fellow Tom Mead would say, it meanders on a bit. The storyteller mode is deeply set in place herein, and the piano is driving again. Strings, particularly violin, are also abounding. There is some beautiful piano work here, but keep in mind that the guitar should be here as well, and sadly, it is not. There ARE guitars, but no bash-your-head-open riffing to speak of. At about four minutes in, things DO take a turn for the better. The tempo picks us, and at about six minutes in we get some serious shredding, which is almost always a nice thing!
Our closer for the day is actually a bit of closure, as the title indicates. On the Faultline (Closure to an Animal), is another very lovely ballad, with the piano driving again. Though this is indeed a pretty arrangement, it is super mellow, and there is hardly any other instrumentation save for the piano. Tony asks us “Am I the only human here?” Sadly, at the end of this, he most likely is.
To sum up, I can think of only a couple of things to say – this particular outing for this outfit was slightly disappointing, but then I guess I am just used to them rocking out a bit more. If big productions and lush piano/vocal ballads are your thing, then perhaps this is for you. I, however, was a bit put off.
Verdict : 6/10