[11 October 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
You can’t blame Sonata Arctica for mixing things up these days. After all, by 2004 the popular Finnish power metal band had four albums behind them and had clearly taken their lively, highly melodic formula as far as it could possibly go, and even then, despite there being absolutely no shortage of brilliant songs, things had started to become awfully repetitive at times. After all, when you write and record loads of songs that come perilously close to being little more than thinly veiled metal interpretations of Eurotrance or Scandinavian schlager (propulsive tempos, Slavic melodies, huge pop choruses, melodramatic lyrics, key change in the final minute) it can wear thin after a while, even despite the enormous hooks of songs like “San Sebastian (Revisited)”, “Black Sheep”, or “8th Commandment”.
Of course, the decision to tinker with the formula that made you famous is an enormous risk, especially in metal, where ultra-devoted fans have a habit of clinging to a band’s older material a lot more than their recent output, and to no one’s surprise, the more even-keeled, brooding, borderline progressive strains of 2007’s Unia made it a polarizing record. Never mind that it was their most consistent album in years, not to mention by far their most mature and refined work to date; without those incessant, fast songs, it already had a strike against it in the minds of many who hadn’t even heard the album yet. And to this day, when the band plays just a couple Unia tracks live, the message board grumbling starts anew.
On their sixth album, The Days of Grays, Sonata Arctica continue to stubbornly (and credibly) attempt to forge a new career path, but this time around, they toss out a bone or two for the folks who continue to clamor for another “Fullmoon” or “Victoria’s Secret”. In fact, “Flag in the Ground” is their best track since 2004’s ingenious epic “Don’t Say a Word” because it sees the quintet dusting off the old template, and while it’s undoubtedly lacking in originality (the lyrics a less poetic version of the Pogues’ “Thousands Are Sailing”), it’s still as comfortable as an old shoe, smooth-voiced singer/keyboardist Tony Kakko in fine form, its Celtic-tinged chorus propelled by Tommy Portimo’s lively drumming. Similarly, the mid-paced “The Last Amazing Grays” places strong emphasis on the pop elements of the band’s sappier early fare, the band pulling it off effortlessly, Kakko’s hooks and performance rosy-hued but tasteful, the lavish synths playing an even more significant role than usual, Elias Viljanen’s guitar reduced to a strictly rhythm part.
However, this album is all about the more adventurous fare, something the band try to make clear at the very start, as The Days of Grays kicks off with the heavy-handed instrumental “Everything Turns to Gray” and the garish, eight-minute “Deathaura”. The latter is a befuddling but strangely compelling, Blind Guardian-esque exercise in symphonic metal excess, during which Kakko duets with the sweet-voiced Johanna Kurkala as the song careens away wildly. Miraculously, the wheels don’t quite fall off, and mercifully, the rest of the album quickly regains its focus. “The Dead Skin” makes tremendous use of lush, layered vocal harmonies before engaging in a shockingly aggressive breakdown midway though, while the darkly tinged “Zeroes” is the angriest we’ve ever heard Kakko, his lyrics politically driven, his blunt approach not unlike that of System of a Down’s Serj Tankian.
Kakko has always been at his best when showing off his knack for big, sweeping melodies, and it’s when those hooks and arrangements take over that the album truly settles into a nice groove. “Juliet” is adorned in gorgeous string synths and cascading, classically inspired piano, “Breathing” is a stereotypical but very effective power ballad, and “As if the World Wasn’t Ending” is tastefully adorned with harpsichord and a reprised performance by Kurkala. The Days of Grays is another consistent effort by Sonata Arctica, the sound of a veteran band who know how to broaden their sound without completely betraying their fanbase. The songs might not be as immediate as they were ten years ago, but as the band are starting to prove, the newer albums are becoming considerably more rewarding each time out.