[20 May 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In the summer of 2004, I couldn’t stop playing two Finnish metal tunes: Nightwish’s goth-infused pop gem “Nemo”, and Sonata Arctica’s rousing, bombastic “Don’t Say a Word”. Both bands encapsulated European melodic metal at its most pop-oriented; sumptuous vocal melodies taking precedence over riffs, underscored by tasteful, sweeping keyboards, but Sonata Arctica was especially ambitious.
“Don’t Say a Word” had it all in less than six minutes: storytelling, narration, a solo duel between guitar and keyboard, a sense of grandiosity, layer upon layer of vocal harmonies, and a wicked vocal hook courtesy singer/songwriter Tony Kakko. While the rest of the band channeled such power metal progenitors as Helloween, Blind Guardian, Stratovarius, and Dream Theater, Kakko’s chorus, despite being one of the absurdly wordiest pop choruses in recent memory (“Mother always said ‘My son, do the noble thing…’ / You have to finish what you started, no matter what / Now, sit, watch and learn… / ‘It’s not how long you live, but what your morals say’ / Cannot keep your part of the deal / So don’t say a word”), the vocal hook was so strong, it refused to be overwhelmed by the ambitious lyrics. It was (what am I saying? It still is) a song that packs so much in such a brief time, that it demands repeat listens, the band displaying a knack for both melody and power that contemporary American melodic metal acts just can’t seem to grasp.
Over the last decade, Finland especially has become a leading exporter of melodic metal and hard rock, ranging from such listener-friendly fare as Sonata Arctica and Nightwish, to the more adventurous Amorphis and Stratovarius, to the thrilling folk metal of Korpiklaani and Finntroll, to the fun pop-rock of Lordi and Lullacry, to the slick goth-pop of H.I.M. and the Rasmus. I bring this fact to the attention of the friendly Kakko during an April telephone conversation, who gives me his theory. “I think it’s because the melodies there are kind of sad, often beautiful, in a way,” he says. “And we are this sad, Slavic country, and the culture is from that side, so the most popular music in Finland is generally kind of sad. So it’s kind of easy for us to make this sad, beautiful music, and then when you apply the whole metal thing, you have that melodic metal sound. There are many different musical cultures layered in Finland, but metal is a really big thing at the moment.”
Kakko is in New York City doing promotional work for Unia, Sonata Arctica’s fifth studio album. Formed in 1996, the band displayed extraordinary skill at relentlessly contagious power metal from day one, and over the last eight years have amassed a very impressive back catalogue, highlighted by such gems as “Fullmoon”, “8th Commandment”, “Black Sheep”, “San Sebastian”, “Victoria’s Secret”, and “The Cage”, with 2004’s Reckoning Night selling especially well in Europe and Japan and topping the charts in their home country. While Kakko says it wasn’t his intention, 2006’s live CD/DVD For the Sake of Revenge seems like the closing of that particular chapter in Sonata Arctica’s career, for Unia is a serious departure from the four previous records, not to mention its boldest release yet.
Dew-Scented, Incinerate (Nuclear Blast) Rating: 6 The ever-enjoyable German thrashmeisters have made their rather straightforward formula last for seven albums now, but while it’s hard to find fault in an album so tightly and relentlessly performed (“Perdition for All” features a searing solo duel between Annihilator’s Jeff Waters and Firewind’s Gus G.), Incinerate begins to lose steam midway through before redeeming itself with the superb, mid-tempo chugger “Retain the Scars”.
Dødheimsgard, Supervillain Outcast (The End) Rating: 8 Completed, shelved, and then re-recorded, the first album in eight years by the Norwegian eccentrics starts off innocuously enough with the blistering blackened death of “Vendetta Assassin”, but after that, we’re taken for one hell of a wild, hour-long ride, assaulted by every influence imaginable. Most impressive are the band’s excursions into industrial groove, most notably the tremendous “Apocalypticism” and the ‘80s goth-infused “All Is Not Self”.
Irepress, Samus Octology (Translation Loss) Rating: 7 Fitting neatly between Pelican and Cult of Luna, this instrumental five-piece from Boston neatly combines aggressive post-metal with dreamy, shoegaze-inspired drones. The band’s debut album doesn’t offer anything new, but it’s never short of moments of beauty, both shimmering and crushing, especially the multifaceted concluding opus “Nonografistole Adendum (Trampled to Death by Love)”.
Kekal, The Habit of Fire (Open Grave) Rating: 7 Where to begin with this oddity? The Indonesian band’s sixth album combines black metal, noise rock, progressive rock, and jazz fusion, and is as compelling as it is bizarre. The 70-minute CD is like flipping randomly between radio stations playing Rush, King Crimson, Ulver, and the Mars Volta, yet there’s a cohesiveness that keeps everything from imploding, highlighted by the remarkable, 15-minute “Escapism”. Truly one of a kind.
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, In Glorious Times (The End) Rating: 7 Not much has changed in SGM’s highly eclectic sound, featuring five flamboyant multi-instrumentalists; they run rampant across every musical genre imaginable, but unlike other like-minded bands that overplay the eccentric card, there’s approachability to SGM’s music that many of its peers lack. The secret: the gorgeous voice of Carla Kihlstedt, who lends such lofty music with a welcome sense of humanity amidst all the madness.
“[Unia] means ‘dreams’ in Finnish,” explains Kakko. “I had many ideas for a title during the last three years. People could get double meanings from it and understand it the wrong way, so it had to be changed a bit. But a problem with that was that some of the art for the booklet was ready already, and it had to be something that would fit in this ‘dream’ thing. The original title was also about dreams; how they are something we want to have in our lives…if it all would end now, what would the ideal situation be like? So Unia was the best idea I came up with. And it’s simple; it makes people think a bit.”
Lyrically dream-oriented, and musically dreamy, the Sonata Arctica we hear on Unia is a far cry from the band we heard on such early albums as Ecliptica and Silence. Often criticized by skeptics for following Stratovarius’s lead too closely, the band’s sudden turn toward the unpredictable will be jarring to most longtime fans, but like recent releases by Blind Guardian and Therion, both of which successfully managed to streamline their sound without compromising the music, Unia tones down on the histrionics, yet gets more and more brave as the hour-long album goes on.
“Unia is bigger, better produced, more ambitious, more theatrical, more complex, more layered,” explains Kakko. “We’ve tuned down the tempo a bit. The speed of the album is slower. What you lose in speed, you gain in other things. We’re not in a place where we would like to create another Ecliptica, for example. It was blinding speed. We need to do something different for the moment, and see where it takes us.
“We recorded in many different studios. Tico Tico studio [in Kakko’s hometown of Kemi], another studio in Henrik’s hometown of Kokkola, and we used many different home studios. I recorded all the vocals at my home, and also the keyboards as well. It’s nice to be able to walk to the refrigerator whenever you feel like it,” he says, laughing. “Or if I feel like I can sing in the middle of the night, I can do that, I can sing whenever I feel like it, that’s the good part. If I come up with a good idea, I can make it.”
Along with writing all the songs and recording both the lead vocals and keyboards, Kakko produced the new album, which is loaded with little touches that enhance the organic feel of Unia. “[‘Good Enough Is Good Enough’], the last song on the album, has real strings. Then we have a guy who plays all kinds of weird instruments, different types of acoustic guitars, bouzouki, all these exotic stringed instruments, we use those on the album as well. You can hear them at the end of ‘The Harvest’. For the rest of the songs I used sampled symphonic orchestras—it sounds really fucking good, I just love that.”
“Fly With the Black Swan” goes all-out for its five-minute duration, from an inexplicable slide guitar fill to heavily layered vocal harmonies that might remind some of Blind Guardian’s A Night at the Opera. “It makes me smile every time I hear it,” says Kakko. “At the moment it’s my favorite song on the album. I still feel that I can find something new out of it, although I know every note and every sound. It’s weird, really, because I’ve been working on that song for months and months, so I should be bored by it already. So that’s a good sign. I hope people get the same thing out of it.
“I’m a vocal harmony junkie,” he continues, admitting, “but I don’t like singing lead vocals very much. My dream job in a band would be playing keyboards and backing vocals. It’s like adding icing to a cake, the layering of the vocals, I get such a great feeling from that. That’s why there are so many layers in our music. The more, the better. I’m a huge Queen fan. The first cassette I ever bought was Queen’s Live Magic, it was the first band to have a great impact on me. I was maybe ten, 12, and that hit me big time.”
The eclectic nature of the arrangements permeates Unia, but one of its finest moments features one of the band’s more subtle departures. “For the Sake of Revenge”, along with being slower and darker than usual, is dominated by a buzzing synth line that overwhelms Marko Pasikoski’s bass; coupled with Kakko’s uncharacteristically reserved vocal tone, it bears a strong resemblance to Depeche Mode more than any metal band. Bringing musical influences from bands metal fans wouldn’t normally listen to is important to Kakko.
“There’s so much great music in the world that people can’t find because they are too restrained listening to one type of music when in fact they might like something else as well. So it’s important to open their eyes and ears to all the great things that are happening in the world. I personally listen to everything from classical to the blackest of metal; there’s a lot of good in everything, and a lot of shit in everything, so if you spend some time and effort, you can certainly enrich your life.”
The album’s two best tracks are actually polar opposites. Lead-off single “Paid in Full” is the one song that fits the Sonata mold of years past, drenched in keyboards (including a solo, which is rare on this record) and sporting a 2/4 beat that, while downshifted considerably, is what we’ve grown accustomed to from the sextet. The ambitious “My Dream’s But a Drop of Fuel for a Nightmare”, on the other hand, along with boasting the least commercially viable title for a single possible, has all the band’s sonic experiments meshing the most cohesively. The song serves as the album’s centerpiece, with Kakko’s lyrics adhering to the album’s central theme.
“I went in a local library and went through all these books about dreams, about how if all your teeth would fall out, it would mean somebody close to you is going to die, that type of thing,” he explains. “So I found all kinds of bad omens you can have in a dream and put them freely together, combining bits and pieces, and came up with the song, which talks about basically the messages that if you believe your dreams, you’re also afraid of your own shadow, which is also a part of the lyrics.”
Along with the musical familiarity of “Paid in Full”, fans will be glad to know that recurring themes from previous albums once again make an appearance. “Caleb” is the third installment of a storyline which started with “The End of This Chapter” on 2003’s Winterhearts Guild, and continued with “Don’t Say a Word” on Reckoning Night. Wolves have always been a part of Sonata Arctica’s songs and visual presentation, and “It Won’t Fade” continues the band’s tradition of having one wolf-themed song on each album. “The wolf is a weird animal that in a sense is really fascinating and scary at the same time and we need to respect it, it’s got a kind of intelligence to it,” Kakko states. “It has become our pet, our mascot, and we don’t want to get rid of it anymore. We can’t! (laughs) It makes me feel safe to have something that is on every album, and when we are making shirts or artwork, if we can’t come up with anything else, the wolf is always there. A safety animal.”
Like any other band, Sonata Arctica already have a full year’s worth of touring planned, including a trek through North America this fall, but a serious wrench has been thrown into those plans, as guitarist Jani Liimatainen has been forced to take leave from performing to serve his country, which is mandatory in Finland. “In Finland, you have to go to the army,” says Kakko. “The options are that you go through civil service, which is roughly twice the time that the army is, or you can go visit a shrink who will give you papers that say this guy isn’t fit to carry arms, but you will carry that on your papers for the rest of your life. And then there’s the jail option, which is as long as the army. Jani is at the moment kind of fighting between those options, and he definitely won’t be able to come to the US. He’s been a bit lazy in this matter because everybody else has taken care of this earlier: I did it in ‘95-‘96 after we did after the Ecliptica tour, Marko did it before he came to Sonata Arctica, and Henrik [Klingenberg, keyboardist] before he joined too. Everybody else is in clear waters that way, but Jani can’t leave the country.”
Kakko refuses to let that potentially debilitating hassle slow down the band’s mission to bring the tunes to the people, as guitarist Elias Viljanen will serve as Liimatainen’s temporary replacement for the time being. Europe and Japan remain Sonata’s strongest markets, but Kakko still has his sights on the Western hemisphere, including an inaugural stop in metal-mad Mexico, and improving on the band’s stateside success is important. “There’s a helluva lot of places to play here. Every tour gets a bit bigger and better,” he says. “It’s a huge continent with great distances between cities…it’s hard work, but you’ve got to do it if you want to make it. The first time we came here, it was really great. The second time we came to the same cities, it got even better. We can’t wait for the future.”
Kakko only hopes his fans are willing to accept the more artful Unia. The album and the single are all but guaranteed to be chart-toppers in Finland, and the potential to improve on Reckoning Night‘s worldwide sales is there, but typically, musical growth is more important than financial gain to the singer. Kakko steadfastly refuses to let his music become too predictable, and the new album is a step in the right direction. “It’s time to become more artistic and take a chance with the band,” he says. “We are not too old yet to renew ourselves, we can use our imaginations. There are so many bands that are doing the same thing again and again, and I don’t think Sonata Arctica is that band. I think when we start to repeat ourselves, it’s become just a way of making money, to pay the rent, and that’s not good. This has to be ambitious art, and we have to create something new to be able to keep the band together. That’s the most important thing.”