Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Sonata Arctica - London Review

After a great show from Stream of Passion in Bristol the night before, it was up to the London for my second gig in a string of three. Finnish power metal veterans Sonata Arctica were the reason for the trip, who are a band I have liked for some years. They were one of the first melodic metal bands I got into when I was discovering this sort of music, so they will always hold a special place in my heart despite the fact I do not listen to them anywhere near as often as I used to. I first saw the band in 2011 in Wolverhampton, which was quite a while after I first got into them, and was impressed by their energetic live show. I also saw the band a couple of years later in Nottingham. That show was marred by bad sound issues, and was subsequently not as impressive as my first outing. I have missed their past couple of UK shows, as heading up to London from the South West us not always easy, so I jumped at the chance to see them again as part of my epic three-gig marathon. London's Shepherd's Bush Empire certainly is not the capital's best venue, with a reputation for dodgy sound. I cannot say I have ever had any issues there previously, and this evening also proved to be issue-free. It could also be seen as an upgrade for the band, who have been playing the smaller O2 Academy in Islington on their past couple of UK tours, and it was great to see a good-sized crowd for a European melodic metal band, with plenty of people on the floor and up in the balcony seats. The weather did conspire to put a dampener on proceedings however, as torrential rain hit about 45 minutes before the venue opened which soaked everyone in the queue! I have never stood in rain like it, and luckily managed to seek shelter under some scaffolding that was erected at the side of the venue! It is safe to say that everyone was relieved when the doors finally opened (about 10 mins late, something which this venue is also known for...) and we were all allowed into the dry!

Before Sonata Arctica came on, we were treated to two good support acts. Up first was Power Quest, a British power metal band who reformed earlier in the year after a three-year break with a revamped line-up and a new EP called Face the Raven. I missed part of their first song due to the slow-moving queue, but what I finally got in I was impressed with their performance from the off. New frontman Ashley Edison has a fantastic voice for this type of music, and his some extremely impressive high notes throughout their half an hour set. Both of the new songs from the EP were played, with the title track easily being the highlight of the set for me, along with some older songs which I was no familiar with. Power Quest are a band I have always been meaning to give more time to, and after this stellar performance I will certainly be exploring their back catalogue. Founding member Steve Williams' (keyboards/vocals) smiles throughout told you how happy he is with this latest incarnation of the band, and the vocal nature of the gathering crowd showed there is still a lot of love for this British band despite their hiatus.

Swedish rising stars Twilight Force are the main tour support for Sonata Arctica's European run, and they impressed from the off and kept the large crowd entertained during their hour-long set. Despite a sightly muddy live sound mix (a bit like their latest album really!) the band really impressed with good stage-craft and a set packed with catchy power metal anthems from both of their albums. The band's second album, Heroes of Mighty Magic, is only a couple of months old but it dominated the set and provided the best cuts during their set, including the overall highlight for me Flight of the Sapphire Dragon. Frontman Chrileon, who had been unwell earlier in the tour, seemed back to pretty much full strength in London and displayed his impressive vocal range throughout the challenging the setlist. Lynd (guitar) easily had the most solos of any guitarist on show this evening and channelled his inner Yngwie Malmsteen throughout the set which brought plenty of cheers from the crowd. This is a band who's star is certainly rising, and plenty in the large crowd already seemed to be fans of theirs. I suspect this is a band we shall hearing plenty about for years to come in the metal world, and this performance was worthy of all the accolades. The setlist was:

Battle of Arcane Might
Forest of Destiny
Enchanted Dragon of Wisdom
Riders of the Dawn
Flight of the Sapphire Dragon
There and Back Again
Gates of Glory
The Power of the Ancient Force
Knights of Twilight's Might

With their new album, The Ninth Hour, just over a week old, Sonata Arctica are currently out promoting this release and featured five songs from the new album in their 90 minute set in London. I had not had chance to listen to the album many times before the show, and not much of the material had really jumped out at me, so I was looking forward to hearing some of the songs live. They opened the show with the opening two numbers from the new album: Closer to an Animal and Life, both of which are good songs. The former is a strange album opener, and even stranger concert opener, but then Sonata Arctica have always been a strange band. If anyone is going to make it work then they are, and they pulled it off. Frontman Tony Kakko has one of the smoothest voices in the genre, and he crooned the mid-paced tune, before the band launched into Life which has similarities to their older sound with big keyboard leads from Henrik Klingenberg and some big double bass patterns from Tommy Portimo (drums). Old and new material sat well alongside each other throughout, and an early highlight was The Wolves Die Young from the band's previous album. This is such a melodic anthem, and saw plenty of singing from the large crowd. The old power ballad Tallulah was greeted like the old friend that it is, before another new number, Fairytale, went down pretty well. Of course, one of the biggest reactions of the evening was for FullMoon, one of the band's best known songs, and there was plenty of shredding from Elias Viljanen (guitar/vocals). The second half of the show included some more new material and some lesser-played songs. The ballad We Are What We Are, from the new album, was really well received; while the speedy Abandoned, Pleased, Brainwashed, Exploited saw a rare live outing. The main set ended with another rare outing for the 10 minute-plus The Power of One, from the fan favourite album Silence. This piece of epic progressive metal was the perfect set-closer, and the band left the stage on a high. There was of course time for a little more however, and I Have a Right was the first song in the encore section. Having seen Stream of Passion play a storming version of this the previous night in Bristol, it only made me realise how insipid the original version of this song is. It has to be one of the band's worst songs, and I really wish they would drop it from their live sets. It was the only low point in what was overall a strong set however, and they redeemed it with a closing performance of the fabulous Don't Say a Word, which saw a lot more singing from the crowd and a fantastic guitar/keyboard duel from Viljanen and Klingenberg. It does annoy me a little that the band still insist on performing the rather puerile Vodka outro, which they have been doing for years now, as the novelty of it has really worn off! The setlist was:

Closer to an Animal
The Wolves Die Young
In Black and White
Among the Shooting Stars
Abandoned, Pleased, Brainwashed, Exploited
We Are What We Are
The Power of One
I Have a Right
Don't Say a Word

Overall, this was another good gig from the Finnish power metal veterans, who prove why they are such respected names in the genre. After seeing such a poor turnout in Bristol the night before for a band with a similar fanbase, it was reassuring to see a healthy crowd at this show. The atmosphere was great throughout, and all three bands played great sets that impressed.

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