Thursday, 10 November 2016

Sonata Arctica's 'The Ninth Hour' - Album Review

While traditional power metal seems to be on the decline somewhat, Finland's Sonata Arctica are a band that always manages to stay relevant. Since forming in 1995, the band have created a diverse catalogue complete with finely-crafted melodic metal songs and experimentation. Granted not all of their experiments have paid off, but they are a band that deliver the goods more often than not. Sonata Arctica were never content to stick to the rigid power metal formula, and it could be argued that their last 'true' power metal album was 2004's Reckoning Night. While all of the band's subsequent albums have contained songs that hark back to their original sound, they have also explored other avenues. They are a band that are now hard to pigeon hole, but if I had to label them I would call them simply 'melodic metal'. While they have a slight progressive bent, which gives the band their distinctive quirky sound, their songs are always focused on strong melodies. Singer, and main songwriter, Tony Kakko has definitely become one of metal's most distinct composers. His playful melodies and strange lyrical style define the band's sound, and is the thing that makes Sonata Arctica who they are despite a few different musicians passing through their ranks during their history. While the band's recent discography has been fairly solid, Sonata Arctica have not released a truly classic album since 2009's The Days of Grays. The band's last album, 2014's Pariah's Child (which I reviewed here), was an album that started off really strongly, but tailed off toward the end. Overall however, it turned out to be a solidly enjoyable album that could probably do with a bit of a reappraisal. The band's new album The Ninth Hour, which is unsurprisingly the band's ninth album, is very similar in sound and structure to Pariah's Child. Once again, the first half of the album contains many of the best songs and it does tail off towards the end. That being said, there are still plenty of interesting moments here, and Kakko has written some of his most progressive songs yet for this album. There is a song here that could easily be a contender for my favourite Sonata Arctica song for a good number of years too! As with the last album, bass guitarist Pasi Kauppinen also acts as the band's producer. His results on this album are stunning, and this is easily the best-sounding Sonata Arctica album yet with extreme sonic clarity and instrument separation. This album is also fairly heavy on the atmospheric side of the band's sound. Fewer songs than normal feature in-your-face guitar riffs or shredded solos, which gives the album a unique feel.

The Ninth Hour starts off in relatively restrained style with the quirky opening number Closer to an Animal. It is a mid-paced rocker, with buckets of groove courtesy of Kauppinen and drummer Tommy Portimo, and some of Kakko's strangest lyrics yet. This is a song that is quintessentially Sonata Arctica, and is the sort of song that only they could pull off. The drumming here dominates, wit h Portimo's vast variety of mid-paced beats giving the song real character. The melodies here are subtle, often backed up by ringing keyboard notes, and the vocals are fairly subdued. I did not like this song much on first listen, but it has improved immensely on repeated viewings, and shows the band's originality and songwriting prowess. Life is more typical of the band's earlier sound, but mixed with some of the floaty-ness of Closer to an Animal. Elias Viljanen's guitar leads in the intro are extremely uplifting, before the keyboard-heavy verse takes over and Kakko's croon is utilised. His vocals throughout this album are somewhat less bombastic and expressive than usual, which suits the album's mood, but he does let rip in the song's chorus which is the first moment on this album to really crank up the power. There is a traditional power metal instrumental mid-section here, with Viljanen and keyboardist Henrik Klingenberg both having chances to shine. The melodies throughout this song are sublime however, and this is the song I was talking about that could well be my favourite of their's for a number of years. Fairytale is heavier, opening with gothic keyboards and a crunching guitar riff that would not sound out of place on a Nightwish album. After the previous two songs, this songs comes along like a freight train and really hits the spot. Klingenberg's keyboards are all over this too, with a lengthy lead section before the vocals kick in, and huge orchestral arrangements throughout. This song has a real Reckoning Night vibe to it, with a gritty chorus and a chugging energy. Portimo's drums never let up the pace throughout, with some precise double bass drumming that is the song's rock. There is another excellent duel solo section too, and this is a song that ought to appeal to fans of the band's older sound. We Are What We Are is the album's first true ballad, and it is a great one! The low whistle skills of Troy Donockley (Iona; Nightwish) are featured here, particularly in the folky intro section. Donockley seems to be the go-to man now for folky additions to metal albums - he is extremely in demand (I hope however he still finds time to make his customary appearance on the upcoming Mostly Autumn album Sight of Day!). This is a real lighters-in-the-air moment, and easily the album's best ballad. While the chorus is pretty repetitive, it still works well and really get itself stuck in your head. Till Death's Done Us Apart is another somewhat strange song with some really 'out there' lyrics and a big mix of styles. Heavy, almost thrashy, metal sections are mixed with piano-driven vocal sections that have almost a Broadway feel to them. The song is playful and somewhat progressive, and actually ends up working very well. It is probably Kakko's best vocal performance on the album too, mixing his trademark soaring melodic style with a more laid-back lounge style to great effect.

Among the Shooting Stars is another ballad, but this one is less interesting than We Are What We Are. By this point in the album, most of the best songs have come and gone which gives this second half a bit of a half-baked feel at times. The slow crunch of the guitar drives the song, but this only serves to sound a bit monotonous. Parts of the song do shine, such as when Kakko opens his voice up a bit and sings to a strong orchestral backing during the chorus, but the rest of the song is a bit of a let down. Rise a Night has a very old-school feel. This is a fast power metal song, with some great old-school keyboard sounds and a great display in power metal drumming from Portimo. This is a song that has clearly come from their recent tour where they played their 1999 debut album Ecliptica in full, as it certainly harks back to those days but with a modern sound. It is not as good as their earlier efforts at this sound, but it is still a strong song with a lengthy guitar solo and a blood-rising pace that is rarely seen on a Sonata Arctica album these days. Those who say that they can no longer play power metal should listen to this song and be transported back to the early 2000s again! Fly, Navigate, Communicate is another strange song, but one that has grown on me a lot since first hearing it. There are some great fast sections here, but also some more progressive sections are present that showcase Kakko's modern writing style. It also a showcase for his diverse vocal style. It is a hard song to describe, so just listen to it and make up your own mind - I like it! Candle Lawns is another ballad, and this is the middle of the three. It is not as good as We Are What We Are, but it is better than Among the Shooting Stars with lots of excellent piano melodies from Klingenberg and a lengthy guitar solo. This is a very stereotypical power metal ballad, with quite a lot of drama in the vocal delivery and a large orchestral backing. Despite this familiarity, it is a strong song and one that is sure to give people a warm, fuzzy feeling when they hear it. White Pearl, Black Oceans - Part II: By the Grace of the Ocean, a sequel to the song on Reckoning Night, is over ten minutes in length but it is a song that never really seems to go anywhere. Sonata Arctica have never really made a success of the longer progressive 'epic' and this song does little to stop the rot. It feels like lots of bits of other songs pieced together with little natural flow, and I am not sure exactly what this has to do with the original song. There is a great shredded guitar solo about of a third of the way in however, and this leads into a fluid and extremely melodic keyboard solo, which is easily the highlight of the song. Sonata Arctica are much better when they stick to a more concise songwriting style, as is demonstrated elsewhere on this album. On the Faultline (Closure to an Animal) is a bit of an atmospheric re-working of the album's opening song, and works well to close the album and bookend the material here. It is different enough to make it stand as it's own song, but also has enough familiarity to act as the album's perfect coda. Overall, The Ninth Hour is a strong album from Sonata Arctica that sums up their modern sound perfectly and showcases their quirky songwriting style. The first half is certainly better than the second, but there is enough here to keep me listening on a fairly regular basis and I imagine this is an album that will only continue to sound better with each listen.

The album was released on 7th October 2016 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Life.

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