The war of seasons gets convoluted.
It goes without saying that the name Sonata Arctica is an iconic brand within the power metal realm. They were a major factor in the 2nd wave that covered much of Europe in the late 90s, and marked one of the biggest selling examples of a generational successor from the original progenitors in Helloween and Stratovarius. Admittedly, vocalist and chief songwriter Tony Kakko attributed the band’s pivot towards the power metal style to an epiphany he experienced while listening to the latter’s consequential 1997 opus Visions, eventually spawning 4 highly competent examples of Finnish speed and melodic splendor that stand as among the finest examples of said scene in action. However, at some point in the mid-2000s the band’s stylistic direction became extremely muddled with the release of Unia, alienating a substantial contingent of this outfit’s early fan base, and leading to the departure of guitarist and co-founder Jani Liimatainen, who was arguably as critical a factor in Sonata Arctica’s signature sound as Kakko himself.
The subsequent decade has seen this band going through a sort of identity crisis as they’ve seemed to flail around in a murky middle ground between their Stratovarius-influenced early years and a quirky, quasi-progressive brand of AOR that is along somewhat similar lines to Masterplan’s mid-2000s sound, but without the memorable hooks. It isn’t so much a loss of competency on the part of any of the musicians involved, but more so a general loss of direction that has replaced a working and accessible songwriting formula with something that meanders between being convoluted and occasionally even lifeless. It is in this sad context that their 10th studio LP “Talviyö” is par for the course, being somewhat more energetic and less awkward than “Stones Grow Her Name” or the previous stylistic flop “The Ninth Hour”, but ultimately failing to close the deal and resurrect even a glimmer of the greatness that was “Silence” or “Winterheart’s Guild”.
From the very onset of the opening song, an impression of a fragmented musical experience where the verses ramble and the choruses meander ensues. Then again, for its jarring transitional point following the intro and generally coasting, semi-speed metal flow, “Message From The Sun” proves to be one of the more easy to follow offerings, showing some degree of nostalgia for the more mid-paced fair that one might have heard on “Reckoning Night” and having a clear sense of progression. Somewhat similar highlight moments occur on the moderately rocking “Whirlwind” and the slow, melancholy groove of “Storm The Armada”, though they are heavily hampered by anti-climactic vocal display out of Kakko (who seems very reluctant to exploit his higher range at all) and a royally thin and dinky sounding rhythm guitar tone that is routinely overpowered by the bass and keyboards. Truth be told, bassist Pasi Kauppinen is the only instrumentalist involved in this album who isn’t just going through the motions and has several standout moments on the aforementioned songs and a few others.
For all the occasional silver linings to be observed and the album’s lofty conceptual story, the overall picture painted by this album is hopelessly obscured by its dragging tempo and sub-par ideas diluting the few good ones. Coasting clunkers such as “Who Failed The Most” and meandering half-ballads such as “Demon’s Cage” and “The Raven Still Flies With You” just go in one ear and out the other, and manage to cram notes upon notes into durations in excess of 7 minutes without managing to hit a meaningful cadence point. The full on balladry of the closing song “The Garden” manages to sink into outright drudgery, ending a middling affair on a decidedly low not with its stagnant to the point of being comical acoustic guitar droning and indistinct vocal melody. Truth be told, this album’s biggest highlight and closer glance into a better time period is the instrumental guitar and keyboard fest “Ismo’s Got Good Reactors”, which has a nice Celtic flavor to its melodic content and a good driving feel that again channels some of the stronger moments of “Reckoning Night”.
Given that this band still enjoys heavy audience engagement and has maintained a long term relationship with Nuclear Blast Records, it’s evidently clear that somebody is buying these albums, though the reason behind it bears little relation to the one that originally put this band on the map 20 years ago. In a way, one could assert that Sonata Arctica has become the Def Leppard of power metal, having made a complete break with their older ways in a manner similar to a space shuttle dispensing its SRB rockets; though in this band’s case they haven’t gotten to the point of completely eliminating their earlier material from their touring set list. Anyone who was hoping against hope for a return to the good old days would do well to pass on this, and arguably even those who would otherwise gravitate towards a slowed down version of power metal along the lines of what became big in the mid-2000s will find this album wanting in almost every department. The story may be elaborate and loaded with twists and turns, but the plot has been lost and likely will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
Released by: Nuclear Blast Records
Released Date: September 13th, 2019
Genre: Power Metal
- Tommy Portimo / Drums
- Tony Kakko / Lead vocals
- Henrik Klingenberg / Keytar, backing vocals
- Elias Viljanen / Guitars, backing vocals
- Pasi Kauppinen / Bass, backing vocals
1. Message From The Sun
4. Storm The Armada
5. The Last Of The Lambs
6. Who Failed The Most
7. Ismo’s Got Good Reactors
8. Demon’s Cage
9. A Little Less Understanding
10. The Raven Still Flies
11. The Garden
Finland’s iconic millennial power metal prognosticators of permafrost and poignant storytelling continues to struggle in their post-Unia quagmire as the decade draws to a close, offering up a middling, occasionally intricate yet mostly directionless ode to winter