Sunday, 27 April 2014

Sonata Arctica's 'Pariah's Child' - Album Review

Sonata Arctica have always been one of the more inventive and interesting power metal bands out there. Not content to continuously plough the same furrow, frontman Tony Kakko and his band have always strived to reinvent their sound and keep things fresh from album to album. Of course, this has earnt them praise and criticism in almost equal measure. Those who appreciate the more progressive element of their sound have found much to like throughout the band's impressive catalogue; whereas the flat-earthist end of the metal community generally struggle with anything released after 2004's Reckoning Night. I would consider myself as a member of the former category and have found plenty of enjoyment out of Sonata Arctica's music over the years. The only album that I struggle with is 2007's Unia, and even that has a few good songs on it. This brings us to Pariah's Child, the band's eighth studio album. In some respects, it is a return to their older sound. Certain moments definitely do sound like Reckoning Night and the preceding albums; but bother moments continue down the more progressive and experimental path of their more recent work. Some songs here are downright wacky and have a brand of humour that only Sonata Arctica can produce. This is also their first album since 2001's Silence to not feature bassist Marko Paasikoski who left the band amicably last year. He has been replaced by Pasi Kauppinen who also produced the album. On that note, the production here is top notch. It is big and lush, and compliments the complex song arrangements perfectly. The mix is perfectly balanced, giving each instrument a chance to shine when necessary and never sounding claustrophobic and hard on the ears. I know that it is a cliché, but this album really is a summation of their career and sound so far. It might not be their best album, but it is certainly faithful to their sound evolution and shows that sometimes you have to look back to move forward. I like the way that the band has paid tribute to their old image and sound on the album's cover. The return of the wolf to the band's imagery was a conscious decision to bring back something from their past, as was using their old logo again. I just hope that this was done for the right reasons, and not done to pander to the section of their crowd that only like the 'old stuff'.

The album gets off to a good start with the melodic The Wolves Die Young which definitely harks back to the Reckoning Night days with it's big keyboards and signature vocal harmonies from Kakko. There is even a short bass solo from Kauppinen towards the beginning which was a nice way for the band to introduce their new bassist. Drummer Tommy Portimo alternates between double-bass drum patterns and more groove-influenced drumming to keep the pace and rhythms interesting. The chorus is trademark Sonata Arctica and full of singable melodies. Running Lights definitely has a more modern vibe. The motorcycle sound at the start of the song, along with Portimo's fast drumming sets the tone and Elias Viljanen's guitar leads really cut through and force melodies on you. The verses are driven by a very fast bass riff which is something new of the band. The bass guitar has never been used prominently in the band's sound before and it is nice to see Kauppinen expanding the instrument's role since joining the band. The song mixes faster, heavier sections with epic, almost soundscape choruses to excellent effect, and Viljanen's speedy guitar solo is the icing on the cake. The more modern sound is expanded further on Take One Breath. The guitars have a certain crunch to them that is atypical of Sonata Arctica's sound but the melodies that Kakko has created are definitely right out of the top drawer. The song really races by before you have really had a chance to understand exactly what you have heard, but repeated listens reveal it to be a real gem. Cloud Factory is probably the exact opposite, as it only takes one listen for this song to get seriously stuck in your head. The chorus is one of the catchiest things that I have heard this year, with it's seriously poppy overtones. I would imagine this song will become a live staple for the band, and it is melodically up there with anything else they have ever written. Blood is one of the more experimental songs on the album. Slightly strange spoken word sections mix well with Kakko's sung vocals, and the crunch returns to the guitars. Certain riffs have a very big Dio vibe about them, and the very fast, epic chorus soars above the rest of the song. Henrik Klingenberg's keyboards play a big role in this song. Piano sections and more broad soundscapes mix well to create an excellent song.

What Did You Do in the War, Dad? is another odd song, but it turns out to be another winner. It seems quite muted in tone despite being quite upbeat in places, it is an odd combination that somehow works. I really like the piano that runs throughout the verses, and the constant changes in pace are slightly jarring, but again they work oddly well. It is a song that is hard to be described, go and listen to it yourself and see if you enjoy it! Half a Marathon Man starts off with some gently flute and slow drums while the sound builds up around it. You would be probably be expecting a ballad, but soon enough a nice, fat bassline comes in and a really retro rocker starts off. Hammond organ is all over this song, and more Dio-like riffing drives it. There is a keyboard riff after the chorus that really sounds like something from a classic Deep Purple album. This is such a fun song that seems to pay tribute to lots of great bands from the past. The chorus also has a very 1980s AOR vibe about it, with lots of excellent backing vocals to make Kakko's voice sound huge. The end of the song is strange though. A slightly ominous atmospheric section closes out the song, but it still works. X Marks the Spot is probably the only song on the album that I really do not like. A really cheesy narrator keeps butting in, and all in all it just seems very silly. Now, silly can be a good thing, but it does not really work here and ends up just being a little embarrassing. I am guessing that this will be a love or hate kind of song, and I am verging towards hate! Love is better. It is the only thing on the album that counts as a ballad, and gets off to a good start with some lovely piano work from Klingenberg. He is probably one of the best pianists in metal, and his work on the band's ballads always pleases me. It is no Tallulah or Shamandalie (the latter of which is probably my favourite Sonata Arctica song) but it is really enjoyable and heartfelt. Viljanen gets the chance to show off with a nice slow, melodic solo. The album comes to an end with the ten minute epic Larger Than Life. Again, I am not really sure what I think about this song. Certain sections of it are excellent, and the chorus really stands out; but other parts seem to not be as well realised. I really like the fact that Kakko uses lots of his impressive vocal range throughout the song though. He has a very strong low voice, as well as his usual higher tone, and both are used to good affect here. It is another song that is hard to review, as people will take different things away from it. Overall, this album is a success for the band however, despite a couple of not-so-good moments being present. Most of the songs here are very strong, but it is a shame that the album tails off towards the end. The first five songs are all stone-cold Sonata Arctica classics, and with that they should be proud!

The album was released on 31st March 2014 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for The Wolves Die Young.

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