Sunday, December 5, 2010

Test your Metal

After having encountered Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills" on Rock Band, both my girls had asked on a number of occasions, "why don't we own this song?"  A reasonable question, really, and as I did not have a reasonable answer, I took it upon myself to pick up their 'best of' album, Somewhere Back In Time the next time I was at HMV and found it in the 2 for $20 rack.

Strangely, I never gave much thought to Iron Maiden in high school when their breakout album Number of the Beast came out.  It was years afterwards that someone pointed out the dubious logic of judging a band by the quality of the people in high school who wore their t-shirts, something you thought I would have learned after Led Zeppelin, but there you go.  Island Mike pointed out that not only did lead singer Bruce Dickinson bring some seriously operatic vocal chops to the scene, but not a lot of dummies or sell outs would record a thirteen minute musical adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner".  The album also opens with bits of Churchill's speech about the Battle of Britain as a lead in to "Aces High", which certainly appeals to me as a history buff.

Maiden has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years due largely to their reputation for epic live shows, but is also gaining a new generation of younger fans through their concert DVDs like Rock In Rio or the more recent Flight 666.  With much of their back catalogue unavailable, they put together Somewhere Back in Time as a sort of primer of the band's older material, including both live and studio material, and placing it in the order you could expect to see them in at a concert.  It's pretty savvy, and a great collection with all the lyrics to the songs and some good liner notes to boot; I highly recommend it.

A little later in the week, I had this album in the CD player along with Led Zeppelin and Dragonforce, and mentioned to the girls that these groups were all considered to be heavy metal bands, even though they didn't sound very much alike.  I don't suppose that metal is any different any other form of musical categorization: Louis Armstong, Miles Davis, and Michael Buble are all jazz musicians; Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and Jack White are all regarded to be rock musicians.  At the end of the day, these labels shouldn't be proscriptive, they are just a handy form of shorthand, to help lead you to similar sounds from different players.  With heavy metal now believed to encompass over a dozen different sub-genres (including power metal, speed metal, black metal and death metal), two people can call themselves metal fans and not enjoy the same music.  They aren't too unlike Christians in that regard, I suppose, eh?

I'm too big a fan of old-timey musical concepts like harmony and melody to be a supporter of  the darker end of the metal spectrum.  My tastes lean more toward power metal bands like Rhapsody of Fire, and their symphonic and folky sound, but the technical virtuosity of Herman Li and Sam Totman in Dragonforce has a lot of appeal to me as well.  The fact that they both use talented vocalists as opposed to screamers and populate their lyrics with fantasy themes is just icing on the cake.

At the Dragonforce show I attended two years ago, Pete and I both took note of a number of people wearing t-shirts of a band called Sonata Arctica, and both commented on the coolness of their logo.  I didn't give them much more thought until about a week ago when their album Reckoning Night showed up in the 'check it out' bin at the library.  Since I did indeed want to check them out, I, uh... checked it out.

On the first listen, I have to say nothing really leapt out at me, and I said as much to Fenya.  On the second and third go-around, a couple of tracks began to distinguish themselves on the chorus, and after that there were definitely discernible head motions of a rhythmic nature going on.

Sonata Arctica is five piece band: drums, bass, guitar, vocals and keyboards.  I love the peanut butter counterpoint between crunchy guitars and creamy keyboard, so this is a good fit for me.  Overall, I would describe their sound as the bastard offspring of Dragonforce and Trans Siberian Orchestra as raised by vikings, but if you enjoy Iron Maiden, the Scorpions or even Queen or Rush, I figure the odds of you liking Sonata Arctica are at least 50/50.

Having enjoyed Reckoning Night as much as I did, the next step was to get another couple of albums from the library to see if the first taste was a fluke or an aberration.  One of these, For the Sake of Revenge, is a 2006 live album and DVD recorded in Tokyo, with a good sampling of music from their first four albums.

Make no mistake, these guys are not Muse or Iron Maiden; they are a 'working class' metal band from Finland and do not bring a lot of extreme production values to the table.  Their patter is also a little stilted, but hey, they are a bunch of Finns speaking English in Japan, so kudos just for being understood, I say.  It is certainly evident that they are well-loved in the land of the Rising Sun; hands stay up for most of the concert, and the crowd sings along for a good part of the show.  We've played the concert all the way through twice now, and it is really good stuff.  Sonata Arctica lack the commitment to fantasy of Rhapsody of Fire and are nowhere near as proficient as Dragonforce, but lead singer Tony Kakko has a tremendous range, and his voice is clear and powerful.  He is also casual and friendly between songs, while keyboardist Henrik Klingenberg comes off as little creepy and pretentious, but no less talented.  Some of my favourite tracks are the slower but still powerful ones like "Shamandalie" and "White Pearl, Black Oceans", which feature prominent synthesizer or piano parts.

And yeah, if I am going to sing along with your chorus, it's nice if it has a sentiment I share, even if it isn't too deep, like my current favourite, "Don't Say a Word":

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... don't say a word
Fenya and Glory have already made me promise to take them to see the band if they return to Edmonton at an all ages venue; they were last here in 2009, so I hope they don't wait too long to return.  In the meantime, I'm hoping a few of their tracks turn up for Rock Band; I think they would be a lot of fun to play.


  1. Is it just me, or does this song have a 'Chris de Burgh' sound to it?


  2. I was leaning more towards Gowan honestly, but I think I know what you mean.

  3. I think it's the most 'de Burghy' from 23s to 33s. Elsewhere too probably, but that's the spot where it struck me. I wonder if "Don't Pay the Ferryman" will sync up with it.