Finnish power metal titans Sonata Arctica have been dividing their fan base since the release of ‘Unia’ in 2007, when the band moved from a straight up Stratovarius-inspired power metal sound to include more progressive elements in the songwriting. A new logo was also chosen. Since then, 2009’s ‘The Days of Grays‘ and 2012’s ‘Stones Grow Her Name‘ are widely regarded as the band’s poorest material, due to a large shift in sound from their original style, and losing the catchy hooks they were known for, further distancing themselves from the fans who had been following them from the early days.
However, when Sonata Arctica announced 2014’s ‘Pariah’s Child‘, faith was restored, as leading up to the release of the album, the band expressed the intent of bringing back the older influences into their music, and even made use of their original logo. The result was a great mix of older power metal riffs and drumming, and some progressive elements thrown in, with a real sense of purpose about it.
So where does their ninth, hour-long full-length ‘The Ninth Hour‘ fit into this story? (I wonder how they came up with the title…). Well, at first glance, I am glad to see that they are sticking with the original logo on the cover art, which also includes the classic wolf, which is iconic in a lot of Sonata’s artwork. Upon listening, I was hoping this was a nod to older Sonata on the record itself.
Album opener ‘Closer to an Animal‘, was, quite frankly, a disappointment. There is no sign of fast double-bass drumming from Tommy Portimo akin to earlier Sonata Arctica, and the song comes across as fairly dull, just plodding along. Some of the vocal melodies are pretty bad, which surprises me, from one of metal’s most original and recognisable vocalists, Tony Kakko, who also sticks to his lower vocal range. The song suffers from a lack of any sort of crescendo or catchy chorus, however, I must admit, I have grown to enjoy the main keyboard melody of the track, and have been humming it to myself over the last few days! In my opinion, the song is too miserable to be the opener and doesn’t really get me excited about the rest of the record.
‘Life’, the second track, would have been a much better opener, despite it sounding as though the song stumbles into the first riff. Again, the vocals come in and they are low and dull sounding, until the chorus, where a little ‘life’ is injected and a rather catchy ‘la la la’ section comes in (which has also been in my head). A short keyboard solo from Henrik Klingenberg meets with a lead guitar from Elias Viljanen, which breaks up the song nicely, but I know they are capable of so much more.
Some slightly faster double bass kicks in to introduce ‘Fairytale‘, followed by a riff that is a little to similar to ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls‘ by Metallica, albeit a little faster. The rhythm in the verse is really cool in this track, with a very upbeat feel, and the vocals are more like the Tony Kakko I have come to love, making use of most of his vocal range. The main problem with this track, however, is it seems to go on for too long. By the end of it, I become annoyed by Tony almost yelling ‘fairytale’ at me in the choruses. I must say, however, I do like the use of keyboards on this track, an element of Sonata Arctica that has taken a back seat in recent material.
Wherever you find Sonata Arctica, you will find a ballad. They have done some fantastic ballads in the past, such as ‘Tallulah‘, ‘The Misery‘ and ‘Last Drop Falls‘, but ‘We Are What We Are‘ is a little unremarkable. Its not a bad track, but it doesn’t give me the feeling that the aforementioned songs do.
Thankfully, the pace picks up on the introduction of ‘Til Death’s Done Us Apart‘ providing a much needed change in tempo on the album. However, following a great scream from Kakko, the vocals take a turn for the worst. In an attempt to sound like a creepy circus performer, or something, Tony provides his worst recorded vocals to date. It genuinely makes me cringe. The rest of this song, however, is a real step up from the previous tracks, with a faster pace, lots of melody and a decent song structure. It does lack any kind of catchy chorus or emotion, however.
The near-ballad, ‘Among the Shooting Stars‘, simply fails to hold my attention, as I am allowed to wander off with my thoughts and not pay attention until the sudden double bass intro of ‘Rise a Night‘ kicks in, with a great guitar melody and an almost classic feel in the vocals. A nice soaring chorus with constant double bass is so refreshing to hear, but it has come very late in the album and would have served a better purpose earlier on, breaking up the monotony of the first half of the record. It even has a great dual keyboard and guitar solo, switching from one instrument to the next, and finally playing together to finish off the best solo on the album. Fans of older material need to hear this track. In my opinion, this is the direction the band should have gone after dabbling in progressive power metal for a decade.
To my surprise, another brilliant song follows, in the form of ‘Fly, Navigate, Communicate‘ with a great guitar and bass guitar-driven opening section from Elias and bass guitarist Pasi Kauppinen. The vocals are astounding on this track, as Tony finally wakes up and bursts into the lyric ‘communicate’, reaching very high notes during a brilliantly catchy chorus. As if the song couldn’t get any better, the whole band are suddenly unleashed, leading into the fastest double bass section on the album with excellent keyboard solos by Henrik and screams from Kakko, and back into that great chorus, as the song just keeps building upon itself in layers, each better than the one before it. This is the first track to truly stand out on the record so far, and it gives me faith that Sonata Arctica are still able to write gold like this in the future.
The second ballad on the album follows, which is the better of the two by far. ‘Candle Lawns‘ has beautiful vocal and piano melodies conveying genuine emotion throughout and I hope to hear this live on future tours as (one of) the chosen ballad(s). Sounds of the sea and creaking wood bring the song to a close, and introduces the track with a title that has had me intrigued: ‘White Pearl, Black Oceans Part II – “By the Grace of the Ocean” ‘. This is a sequel to the song from 2005’s ‘Reckoning Night‘, one of the bands greatest accomplishments. As an older fan, it is warming to see such a great title return over a decade later. It seems as though the band do have their fan base in mind with this record.
The 10-minute track begins as a slow, yet suspenseful passage lasting nearly half of the track length, but then you hear that iconic melody from the original ‘White Pearl, Black Oceans…‘ leading into a heavy galloping version of it. It later changes to more galloping riffs and double bass, as the song reaches a peak and breaks into a blistering guitar and keyboard solo, the likes of which I haven’t heard in a Sonata Arctica track since, well, ‘Reckoning Night’. Although, clearly, the track isn’t as good as it’s predecessor, it is still a huge track with a lot to offer and a nod to those earlier days of the band. This is where the album should have ended, but ‘On the Faultline (Closure to an Animal)‘ takes its place and ruins everyone’s experience by reminding you of that bloody melody from the first track, but this time in annoying ballad mode.
The Ninth Hour is not going to end up in many top 10 albums-of-the-year lists, but certain songs will certainly stick with me, and in a time when Sonata Arctica are seemingly so unpredictable, that’s all I can realistically ask for. I personally look forward to hearing whichever tracks from ‘The Ninth Hour’ , as well as classics, that they choose to play at their upcoming London show on Saturday 15th October 2016 at the O2 Shepard’s Bush Empire with support from Twilight Force and Power Quest.