Review Summary: A great live album, avoiding most of the pitfalls that come with live recordings, but not an essential purchase by any means.
Live albums are dangerous affairs for potential buyers. They can suffer from poor production, they can suffer from containing exact replicas of the album versions and they can suffer from failing to capture that unique experience of seeing a band live in any way. On top of that they can very simply be released by greedy record labels eager to alleviate the public of their cash.
So, what happens with Sonata Arctica's live effort? Well, the fact that the album is recorded in Japan (a nation notorious for their absolute silence between sets) makes the fact there is any crowd noise at all rather surprising. That crowd puts in a pretty good showing (no Live After Death, but they make their presence known) gives some impression of how powerful Arctica must be on stage, and creates a good atmosphere on the CD.
The between song banter is brief, and witty (here's a song about underwear) when it needs to be. The final reqest for vodka, which turns into the closing number, just proves that the band don't really take themselves too seriously, even if its not actually that funny. The singing, though is as flawless as it is on record, but sound much more recognizable than the power metal vocals present on all studio albums. Performances on Replica and the peerless Don't Say a Word in particular stand out, with the former clearly heartfelt.
The rest of the band fare just as well. Somehow solos recorded in a studio don't quite have he same impact that live ones do. There is the ever present sense that the guitar/keyboard player has all the takes he needs to get it right, and can even cut and paste segments depending on his integrity. On this album however, the solos are perfect, and a real representation of the talent present.
Production wise, the album fares very well. Considering that the sound is based on extremes in pitch, whoever was in charge of recording has done a great job in retaining a mid. The extremes are huge though, with the low notes pounding out of the speakers and the high notes keeping a strong and full tone. Though in places (Don't Say a Word) the sound is a slight let down, its an extremely good effort.
But all of this would be pointless if the songs were worthless. Thankfully, the set list is pretty much a best of, with old songs such as Replica and 8th Commandment holding their place next to the newer Blinded no More and Shamandalie. The quality of most of the songs is uncontestable, with Victoria's Secret and Don't Say a Word (with its chorus doing its best to destroy everything in the room through sheer power) in particular making a case for best of their genre. The album is long, yes, but the variation between songs (they aren't all fast, they aren't all loud and they don't just rely on supersonic voals and lightning solos) maintains interest pretty well.
So, why hasn't this album been given a 5, or at least 4.5? Well, the truth is, this is more of a thing for completionists. The live versions are great, but to really experience these songs, the album versions are probably better, with these playings lending another edge to the music. Yes, it is well worth buying, but is not an essential record for Arctica fans, old or new. It is more a reference point, to compare songs of the ages and their live capabilities. In this way at least, I fear it may be guilty of being way of emptying consumers pockets more than anything else. At least its worth it in most areas.