Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Weird and Wonderful Return to Form - Sonata Arctica's The Ninth Hour, Reviewed

The favourite sons of Kemi, Finland, Sonata Arctica are kind of an odd band, even by the standards of power metal. Defying categorization and reflecting different facets over the years, they started out sounding a lot like their inspiration, fellow Finns Stratovarius. They then moved to a speedy, thrashier sound, then tentatively explored something more progressive in 2004's Reckoning Night before fully committing to thematic explorations driven by keyboards and cinematic sounds with 2007's Unia.

Sonata Arctica are one of my favourite bands, so I am glad they are willing to change, evolve and explore, but the truth is, I found the last couple of albums fairly disappointing; Stones Grow Her Name (2012) was just not very enjoyable and barely got any repeat plays beyond the excellent (if poppy) "I Have A Right", while 2014's Pariah's Child was more familiar in some ways but still felt pedestrian. Neither album had the energy, drive or catchiness that marked their earlier efforts, and I began to wonder if my favourite record, The Days of Grays (2009), would go down as the last great Sonata Arctica release.

I needn't have worried.

The Ninth Hour, released last month, reminds me a lot of Reckoning Night, the first album I heard from the band. SA's ninth studio album is full of ripping metallic anthems and powerful piano driven ballads alike.

I'm not sure if the title refers to this being their ninth album, or a reference to the hour of his crucifixion in which Christ called out, asking why God had forsaken him. It is even more thematic than Reckoning Night, with a lot of songs dealing with the crude way we treat our planet, and yet it never devolves into an environmentalist screed. Instead, there is a hint of cynicism but more a tragic acknowledgment of our species cognitive dissonance at the heart of "We Are What We Are":

We could save our world, but we are what we are
We should love our Earth, but we are what we are
It takes care of our loved ones
But we are what we are…

Something that continues in "Fairytale":

It’s cold and we’re all snowed in
Vote yes for the global warming
Reaping the things the poor are sowing
What then are the polls showing?

Who’ll be the superseder,
The builder of the walls; a great leader
He’ll rape us all and say surprise….
and everything is fine.

(Sidebar: I dunno when he wrote this, but if he didn't base it on Trump intentionally, he may be precognitive.)

The variety of song subjects are still there though, with a tragic love song in "'Til Love's Done Us Apart", another werewolf tale in "Under the Shooting Stars", and best of all (for me anyways) is a full-on heaping serving of optimistic positivism in "Life".

"Life" is the second single for The Ninth Hour, and it is so cheesy it should come with cubes of French bread for dipping, but I emphatically don't care. Look at these lyrics:

Life is better alive
It is a dumb thing to say,
But the fact won’t wane away
Sing with someone today
When your team makes a game winning goal,
Get ready to sing

With a friend who’s right beside you

Not since Opus' "Live is Life" has there been such a blunt but truthful tribute to the wonder and glory of not being dead. It embraces its cheeriness (and cheesiness) with giddy glee, and draws the listener in with a soaring, sing-along chorus full of actual la-la-las that I would love to hear live. (And they are in town on Nov. 26, so it is not out of the question!) The way I see it, regular metal has drama, death metal has psychodrama, but power metal has melodrama, so there is something for everybody, right?

Tony Kakko is one of my favourite male vocalists and a fine songwriter to boot, despite his occasional struggles with English prepositions and such (I can hardly fault the guy, since I don't know two words in Finnish.). Listening to him wail on the opening track and croon softly on the closer are a real treat, and he balances style and power majestically through this album.

Instrumental variation permeates The Ninth Hour too. Troy Donckley of Nightwish provides his trademark mournful pipes on "We Are What We Are", while the metronomic double bass drums of Tommy Portimo keep up the tempo on "Closer to an Animal". Blistering guitarwork by Elis Viljanen that has the sense and taste to fade into the background at will and solid basswork by Pasi Kaupinnen in his second outing with SA give the album its melodic backbone and power metal pedigree, but piano and soft bass take centre stage in "On The Faultline (Closure to an Animal)". The review by Angry Metal Guy has the right of it, I think: "...if Jim Steinman had been born in Finland, Meat Loaf would have sounded like The Ninth Hour."

All in all, I am having so much fun with the album on repeat that I have almost forgotten the trepidation that gripped me when I ordered the album unheard. Sonata Arctica is back in their sweet spot, with their strongest offering since The Days of Grays.

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