Review Summary: No hook, no sinker, no line: a surprisingly catchy and delightfully quirky album.
While it's true that dichotomous thinking can be limiting, a reasonable heuristic when examining power metal is to look at the genre on a continuum. For example, on a scale of DragonForce or Magica to Blind Guardian and Iced Earth, you could slide Sonata Arctica anywhere along the spectrum depending on the record you select. Ecliptica
might hover closer to Helloween on this imaginary power metal spectrum than it would HammerFall, whereas The Days of Grays
and Stones Grow Her Name
are less Stratovarius and more Skylark. In other words, these Finns are a polarizing outfit: they oscillate to-and-fro between the continuum's two halves across their discography and never quite fall at an exact midpoint on the distribution.
With Pariah's Child
, Sonata Arctica recorded and produced the album as a band with little outside interference or direction, a first since 2004's Reckoning Night
. Armed with a new bassist (Pasi Kauppinen, who also helped mix the record), the quintet has teased through various album trailers and press interviews that Pariah's Child
is a return to their metal roots after the head-scratcher that was Stones Grow Her Name
. Experimenting and branching out from the triplet-heavy power metal archetype was certainly their right, but it yielded potentially unintended consequences: a mismanagement of expectations being most significant. Children of Bodom fans experienced similar dissonance with Blooddrunk
, I'm sure, but what can listeners expect from Sonata Arctica's eighth studio album? Was frontman Tony Kakko blowing smoke, or is Pariah's Child
truly a return to form as he has alleged? Where does this record fall on the imaginary power metal continuum?
In short: Pariah's Child
is a pleasant surprise. Overall, it is not a particularly speedy record, but the songwriting is expertly crafted, allowing the transitions between sections to sound beautifully organic. The clean and clear guitars, harmonized and uplifting vocals, resplendent keyboards, and thoroughly melodic hooks that can border on overly saccharine sweet (as Sonata Arctica are wont to do at times throughout their history) are all here to wonderful effect, and yes, the expected power metal cheese is similarly present in full force. Also of note is the return of the wolf motif - the band's "totem animal", which appears on at least one song on all their albums save for the much-maligned Stones
- examples include "Fullmoon" and "Ain't Your Fairytale" - a harbinger signaling that the band would be revisiting its power metal origins and integrating it into their contemporary sound.
Album opener "The Wolves Die Young" is the most discernible embodiment of the reinvigorated Sonata Arctica sound. While one of Pariah's Child
's faster songs and sporting a more traditional songwriting structure, the chorus is sublimely majestic, and Kakko's trademark fluctuating vocals are splendidly varied between the verses and choruses. Kauppinen's bass is also pushed higher in the mix - his brief triplet-run preceding the opening verse is so simple but effective - and Henrik Klingenberg's keyboards adroitly supplement the vocals and guitars while simultaneously adding an intricate layer of atmosphere. Drummer Tommy Portimo excels on Jörg Michael/Lou Reed tribute "Running Lights" and album highlight "'X' Marks the Spot", but does an admirable job at maintaining Pariah's Child
's pulse, even in its slower passages, and guitarist Elias Viljanen has some catchy leads in "The Wolves Die Young", "Cloud Factory", and the rollicking "Half a Marathon Man".
Although some songs tend to blur into one another ("Love" is harmless, but has an air of 'heard-it-before' and the first half of "Take One Breath" fails to captivate in a substantial way, although the latter half is fabulously Scandi-Shakespearean), Pariah's Child
has several songs that are immediately identifiable due to their unique composition or songwriting flair. Songs like "Blood" and "What Did You Do in the War, Dad?" are darker, more somber, and consequently cut against the grain compared to other songs, but Kakko's storytelling in "What Did You Do in the War, Dad?" is hauntingly emotive, chronicling a conversation between father and son ("What did you do in the war, Dad? / (Tell me!) / Why can't you smile when the children sing?" . . . "War isn't me / I am the war / Don't you force me to live the nightmare again / Please don't beg me") over eerie, not-very-power-metal-like keyboards.
With those exceptions in mind, the record is delightfully quirky, although there is a curious amount of outright goofiness that might not be effective to new or casual listeners. For example, the band's oddball humor is prominently displayed in "'X' Marks the Spot" - the opening narration is undeniably cheesy, yet impressively alluring, and the bridge's entertaining preacher call-and-answer section with the choir is equal parts comical and eccentric. On other albums, these ideas would be definite flops, but Sonata Arctica accomplish it in a seemingly carefree way. The same can be said about the whimsical "Cloud Factory", whose opening chorus lines of "There is a factory clouds are made in / They make 'em big and blue" will confuse seasoned meteorologists and impressionable young children everywhere, while "There's no hook, no sinker, no line, and you will never leave the cloud factory" is a bit nutty. The circus-like atmosphere returns with Kakko's jester-like, "Hey! Isn't it fun at the end of the day when everyone looks like me, swallowing pints of stale apathy!" is entrancingly idiosyncratic.
Again, the lyrics can be somewhat hackneyed and won't answer any existential questions about the universe you may have, but what I take away most from the record is how much fun it sounds like the band had during recording. Live, songs like "Cloud Factory" and "'X' Marks the Spot" will be surefire setlist staples, and the 10-minute Queen-meets-Therion closer "Larger Than Life" is an ambitious undertaking - sounding like it could belong in a Tim Burton film - and is largely successful despite a lull or two. I can visualize several of these songs translating seamlessly in concert, but more importantly, Pariah's Child
is easily Sonata Arctica's best album in over a decade (even if it's an obvious assertion, it needs to go on record!). The songwriting is much improved, cleverly constructed, and doesn't rely on gimmicks to be successful, thanks to Kauppinen's engineering. Further, the wolf motif brings a sense of comfort and normalcy back to the band's music, and the melodies and harmonies have incredible staying power long after listening, and the charismatic Tony Kakko sounds better than ever with his distinct range. This is definitely not an album to introduce listeners to power metal; however, it is strongly encouraged listening to reorient listeners back to Sonata Arctica and prove that rumors of the band's demise were indeed greatly exaggerated.
I know where I'd rank this album on my imaginary power metal continuum, anyway. It's a beautiful day.
"'X' Marks the Spot"
"What Did You Do in the War, Dad?"
"Larger Than Life"