Review Summary: An average performance from a good band will leave their fanbase disappointed.
Sonata Arctica – The Days of Grays
Sonata Arctica must be Finland’s most heartbroken metal band. Lead singer Tony Kakko has on several occasions written lyrics that deal with relationships that are broken, diseased, or screwed up in any way at all; this ranges from simple breakup songs such as “Tallulah” and “Shamandalie”, but recently they’ve also dealt with stalkers (the whole Caleb/Don’t Say a Word/The End of this Chapter deal), as well as things like Victoria’s Secret (no, that song is not about underwear) and White Pearl, Black Oceans (about a couple where the woman dies in a boat crash). I don’t know what inspires Mr Kakko to write all this really depressing stuff, considering he’s apparently been with his wife since forever, but it’s true. Sonata Arctica clearly like breaking hearts.
It figures with their music, too. Sonata Arctica are one of those power metal bands that are clearly Finnish, as saccharine as they come, use high-pitched clean vocals, rely on heavy double bass work (and mercifully skip the dungeons and dragons shtick so many of these bands assume). Well, it used to be like this, until the band released Unia, which did away with the power metal influence completely and focused more on a more orchestrated progressive metal approach (not dissimilar to a Dream Theater meets Nightwish cross). This alienated a part of the fanbase (the ones that still think Stratovarius are a classic metal band) and drew in a part of the metalheads that were looking for something different. Well, Sonata’s first single would have you think the glory days of Winterhearts’ Guild are back; Flag in the Ground would have fit squarely next to the Cage or Abandoned.
It also figures the rest of the album is like a weaker version of Unia. You know the new deal; lots of Queenish vocal lines, orchestrations out of the wazoo (Deathaura sounds like it could have been on the last Nightwish album), and arrangements that don’t seem to make any sense. The catch: most of the time, they actually don’t end up making much sense in hindsight. Where Unia’s incomprehensibility was backed up with a certain amount of skill that led the album to grow on the listener, there is nothing here that actually grows on the listener; after Flag in the Ground, apart from the silly ballad “Breathing”, the album sinks into a desperately tepid one-tempo mode where everything blends together, and not even Tony’s attempts at gruffer vocals save the album from its monotony. It sounds like a Nightwish with better vocals, but minus the gems that Tuomas Holopainen produces; where is this band’s Amaranth on this album? The band seems not to want to go back to the old days, and write more straightforward material, but the new work seems to delve into nothing that stands out either; it is as if the band has lost the creativity to write a catchy melody when they’re not backing it up with old-school power metal.
This band used to be extremely competent, and most important of all be charming despite their inadequacies (hilarious English, hackneyed lyrics), and they used to be able to write songs too. But in the meanwhile, as the band has tried to progress (and succeeded admirably with Unia), this album is a step back. It falls in the no man’s land between their early and later work. Not even the brilliant Hans Zimmer-esque opening song saves it from being average material played by excellent musicians. This is not to mention the stupid filler song at the end (it’s the same song as the first one, but one and a half minutes longer and with vocals. Next time, just put the full version on it and don’t bother with this. Write a good song instead). The inadequate charm has worn off as the band has seriously tried to be mature, and this makes their latest screw-up all but unforgivable as this band actually got it right.
I don’t know what the band were thinking with this one, because this album would really have benefited from some more time polishing the arrangements and thinking up some memorable music. No power metal album should lack the immediacy to pass you by, and there’s just not enough amazing wizardry to satisfy the guitar geeks in most. For the first time in their lives, Sonata Arctica have created an album that is paint-by-numbers in quality. I hope order is restored on the next album because this release gives fans nothing, except another two-year wait for more than a good single. There should be something more on a Sonata Arctica album than a good single. And from a band that has proven their skill in the past, this is a disappointing release.