In some of my previous reviews I mentioned I don’t mind the bands that always stay in their chosen genre and don’t add a considerable amount of variety to the music they put out. This is still true, and moreover, I stand by the idea musicians should do whatever their souls aspire to. Thus, I also can’t help but love cases when the band constantly evolves, grows and progresses with each album, making it sound so different yet so distinctively recognizable style-wise every time, especially if the music itself is right up my alley. When you’ve achieved a success on the metal scene, to start doing all those little and, actually, not-so-little experiments requires a certain boldness. Perhaps this somehow led to my obsession with Sonata Arctica for nearly a decade now, which only grew stronger with those years.
Sonata Arctica is a well-known Finnish band, which a lot of people tend to label as power metal one. While this was accurate back in the days, the exact genre these guys are performing in is hard to pinpoint now. The band was founded in 1995, and since then underwent two name changes, finally deciding at their current name in 1999. Only two people from those times stayed with the band until these days. One of them is the never changing vocalist and frontman Tony Kakko, who also played keyboards in various time periods of Sonata Arctica existence, and more importantly, he’s a creative force behind the band these days, writing and composing all the material. The other is Tommy Portimo, who’s doing those cool things on drums for nineteen years already. Those two are backed up with Henrik Klingenberg on main keyboards, keytars, backing vocals and whatnot, Elias Viljanen on the electric guitar and the most recent addition, Pasi Kauppinen on bass.
Leaving demos aside, the band made its impressive debut with Ecliptica, a stunning power metal record with catchy melodies and fast solos all over the place. The songwriting was tremendously impressive all around, so a lot of songs from their first album are still relatively highly regarded by fans. The follow-up, Silence, retained the style, and it was a tiny bit more mature and tight. Still, I feel like it lacked originality and had some clearly noticeable lows, especially in ballad department. Winterheart’s Guild, the third album by Sonata Arctica, on the other hand, featured magnificent ballads and conveyed the perfect atmosphere of confidence and calmness. The next act, called Reckoning Night, went in two directions simultaneously, offering the good old fast tracks along with the adventurous ones with an evident progressive touch over them. The band strayed away from the power metal more and more at that time, and some fans started to worry about it.
And they had every right to, because Unia, the fifth SA effort, was if not a complete turnaround and massacre (in a good way!) of everything they’ve resembled until then, but definitely a groundbreaking record for the band. The songs became intricate, complex and multilayered, the album wasn’t meant for impatient listeners, but was extremely rewarding for those who managed to get into it. While Unia had that magical, halfway happy, halfway aggressive mood, The Days of Grays was depressive, bleak, and guess what? Gray. The darkest Sonata Arctica album to this point, yet so brilliantly executed. Only a small taste of old power metal with a huge amount of prog and melodic elements with various vocal effects and screams probably attracted as much fans as alienated. Next we’ve got Stones Grow Her Name, which was yet again another significant change of direction, consisting of mostly mid-paced hard rock songs with constantly repeated choruses. This album, in my opinion, wasn’t exactly living up to the greatness of their previous run of perfect three records, so when the band announced their next offer, Pariah’s Child, will be a return back to the roots in some way, I was intrigued, for it was quite a bold statement.
So, how had this turned out? First of all, this back-to-the-roots hype wasn’t true in the slightest. Sure, the album takes a few pages from the band’s huge discography, and even some oldschool vibes are present, but it doesn’t have the definitive features of anything they’ve done before. It has its unique wintery atmosphere with a stroke of happiness, a strong pronounced presence of sonorous keyboard sounds; the approach is varied from song to song, from metal to weird ballads and hard rock numbers; and there are a few surprises and new elements awaiting the listener down the road. The composition is strong, the writing mostly feels concise, and you won’t find so called “filler tracks” here except maybe one; each song serves its purpose and as a whole they form a beautiful image, so masterfully captured in the artwork.
The first sound we hear from Pariah’s Child is a famous wolf growl, indicating there’s a wolf song ahead. Every Sonata Arctica record had a wolf song before, and said animal often made an appearance on the album covers; however, there were no such tracks on Stones. The band seemingly desired to rectify this, and we got The Wolves Die Young as a first single and an opener. Curiously, no real animals appear in it, instead it’s a rendering of a famous The Emperor’s New Clothes tale by H. C. Andersen, only the emperor is a queen now, and the children are called wolves. Musically, the song offers a fantastic powerful chorus, which can give previous band’s hits a run for the money; the verses are more on a progressive side and therefore somewhat wandering, though enhanced by fascinating screams placed in the right spots. While the track follows the simple and traditional songwriting technique, there are some unexpected sections, like that short, groovy bass in the beginning.
The next song, Running Lights, probably reflects the old Sonata sound as close as it gets these days. The drums make their entrance first along with the drifting cars sound, and then it all goes into a main riff driven by a double bass. I don’t recommend listening to this track with booklet in your hands, since it might get indeed confusing. The lines are scattered all over the melody and while it makes sense in retrospect, it also can be alienating on the first listen. The chorus is much more melodic and attractive, though. Note how drumming starts out on a simple beat on the first instance, then speeds up into a double bass on the second and goes all bombastic with cymbals, pace changes and nice fills for the third one. The ending is remarkably done; while basically made from the same melody, it’s slower, more mature and warming, giving the song a necessary closure as the young lovers drive away into the sunset.
Experimental nature of Sonata is evidently exposed in Take One Breath, quite interesting little piece that could be tough to digest in one go with its unusual structure. The light keyboard riff is giving way to the wild screams about how science is blasphemy, and then returns again, losing almost all the energy gathered before. An incredibly climactic part comes next, gradually building up from quiet, heartfelt storytelling to intense and even reckless singing; and the music is done flawlessly here too. At first passage it’s just keys, on the second guitar enters the picture, and on the third one Tommy adds his work to the mix. This part works so nice I don’t even want it to end; but it does, only to move again into a main riff, and the transition is a bit of letdown. Also, Tony uses a theatrical approach to his voice here, overly dramatic on the lines “pigs can fly”, and it’s not the last time we hear it on Pariah’s Child.
However interesting Take One Breath is, it’s overshadowed by the following four songs; that run, or should I say homerun is plain terrific. Cloud Factory is the first of them; a second single from the album, which can be best described as catchy to the point it becomes annoying. It has a simple structure and natural flow, and also that happy, party-like feeling, mostly thanks to energetic and cheerful chorus. There’s also folkish and even somehow creepy vibe interweaved casually into the song, when almost all the instruments go silent and clapping sounds pop in. And all the composition is amplified with backing vocals singing the main melody, apparently portraying a brigade of factory workers on their way home after a long hard day. Or at least that’s how I like to imagine it.
Blood is a centerpiece of Pariah’s Child, literally and in a figurative sense. This song has it all: a unique, pronounced atmosphere balancing somewhere between frightening, hopeful and ominous; the adventurous pace changes strengthened with superiority of every part, slow and fast; wonderful delivery from every musician; Blood is a top notch song from every angle. And moreover, it’s a true wolf song on the album, gloriously picturing those animals in all their grace and dealing with fear. It starts to roll with dark, sinister keyboard intro, and then just continues to throwing the best stuff the band has up their sleeve into the mix. Double-bass driven choruses provoking you to bang your head along; incredibly sound and smooth, fluent verses; all in this song feels so refined and polished, including the ending coming full circle and featuring the whole bunch of lines from the beginning. Blood also has more prominent guitar presence than usual and is on heavier side, which doesn’t detract anything from the importance of its contribution to the album’s mood.
Sonata Arctica sometimes tend to write peculiar sad songs, which by all means should be classified as ballads, but as they contain great amount of odd elements, it gets difficult to apply that statement to them. One example is My Dream’s But A Drop Of Fuel For A Nightmare from Unia; the second is What Did You Do In The War, Dad?, a follow up for Blood. You can even see a certain similarity in their respective titles. Hollow and tragic keys open up this one, only to be quickly outweighed by mighty UnOpened-like part; then the hollowness takes over once more, this time with heart-wrenching lyrics and haunting chanting after that. The fast part delivers this emotional blow too, and in all its weirdness and despite initial feeling it’s out of place, it fits the song like a glove. The ending must be polarizing for listeners, for the way it is put onto that melody chanted throughout the song is spine-chilling, yet the abrupt finish is sadly a bit underwhelming.
After such a sequence the band obviously needed to lighten the mood, and here’s when Half A Marathon Man makes its appearance. You won’t find any complex arrangements or intricate songwriting there, it’s as straightforward as it gets. A hard rock number with no breathing space and endless screams and harsh delivery from Tony, this song has its own charm, mostly due to simplicity and ability to raise a smile on listener’s face. The tune is intense, yet relaxing and exactly what was needed to interrupt that streak of serious pieces that was going on.
Unfortunately, the humorous thing gets continued with X Marks The Spot, which is a candidate for the most jarring song Sonata Arctica has ever done. The band compared it with Cinderblox from Stones, where they were fooling around with banjo and somehow ended recording the tune; and there they were apparently fooling around with a crazy preacher. This song is funny, though, to the point of sheer silliness. It has impeccable vocal melodies, but I can’t take it seriously, because the preacher is just all around the place with his rambling about rock-and-roll and stuff. It’s definitely worth noting, though, that the parts with actual music are tremendous, but the whole thing is borderline ridiculous, and the band presumably was aiming at it.
Love got an honour to be the only true ballad on Pariah’s Child, featuring only clean vocals, keyboard arrangement, clean guitar solo and fretless bass guitar playing; and I must say I’d rather had no ballad here at all. It sounds uninspired and forced, a slow song just for the sake of it, and basically it’s Don’t Be Mean all over again. The redeeming qualities are Tony’s voice and Elias’ solo, but even these are not enough to get Love on par with the spectrum of material the band managed to put out for this record.
Perhaps Love was meant as calm before the storm, but essentially turned out as calm before the calm, because Larger Than Life, an epic clocking at ten minutes, this pompous, theatrical, orchestrated piece isn’t actually a storm at all. The intense parts are present, yet they are overwhelmed by soothing verses and extremely drawn out serene instrumental breakdowns. The second longest Sonata Arctica song, this is something the band has never done before. The track narrates the young actor’s life; he’s got whatever success on scene he could ever wish for, but forgot to make a real life for himself and regretting this, he decides to finish his career and gives his role away to someone else. While the concept isn’t the most original, the music conveys it splendidly, with choir and all those orchestral parts placed in carefully picked spots. Despite being drawn out, Larger Than Life is a worthy closer for the album, even though it’s not a match for the greatness of such numbers as The Power of One or White Pearl, Black Oceans…
I’ve mentioned Pariah’s Child has a few defining features the band was obviously going for, and one of them is that theatrical approach Tony does in quite a few tunes. It can be fitting, like in Cloud Factory folk breakdown, it can be borderline irritating, like in X Marks The Spot verses, and it also can be weird but somewhat pleasing, see Larger Than Life. While we’re at it, what an impressive choir he put on just by himself! Just wow. However, when Tony sings clean, the emotion constantly dripping from his voice and it adds a fabulous flavour to such songs as Blood. There is incredible sadness and inspiration which became a trademark for Sonata, and that’s what makes their songs instantly recognizable and enjoyable. I loved those small moments it comes through; thankfully, the mix does justice to the vocals; and also to keyboards, but that’s about it. After such a punching mix in Stones, which breathed life into both guitars, this feels like a letdown. Drums are mostly falling flat and aside from solos Elias and Pasi can be only quite faintly heard in the background.
Overall, Pariah’s Child is another solid album for Finnish guys, yet another change in direction, quite humble this time and yet another polarizing effort for the fans. It’s by no means groundbreaking, it stands its ground, features decent diversity and is a definite improvement over their last output. It’s a statement like “we’re still out there with creative ideas, we’re making them work and you can expect some crazy entertaining shit from us in the future!”, and honestly, I’m down with that. I wouldn’t recommend it to a newbie who’s getting into this band, yet it’s a definite must buy for any Sonata fan.