REVIEW: SONATA ARCTICA – “The Ninth Hour”
The land of 1000 lakes has churned out an abundance of melodic metal bands over the past thirty years. It would be very difficult in the modern metal climate to find a fan who was not at least a fan of one Finnish band – whether that be Children of Bodom, Insomnium, Nightwish, or even Stratovarius. But included in that crop is also Sonata Arctica, a band that is often revered as being one of the better contemporary power/symphonic metal bands there is. Given such a storied career to this point, it almost seems hard to believe that they are about to release their ninth album ‘The Ninth Hour’.
The Ninth Hour travels its journey over 11 tracks, and from the very first minute you are treated to a synth-laden welcoming invitation in the form of ‘Closer to an Animal’. This sets a tonal mood for the beginning third of the album which relies on synth, guitars and pure power to bring something that sounds completely unique given the current power and symphonic metal landscape. The remaining two thirds of the album is an alternation between this style of power/symphonic metal and the slower, more quietly attuned ballads that most power. Musically, this album is quite damn brilliant and maybe that is where the focus for the band was this time around. Tracks like ‘Rise A Night’ and ‘Life’ really shine through with their faster tempo’s suitably managed to create an ambient, yet uplifting atmosphere. On the flip-side, a track like ‘Fly, Navigate, Communicate’ felt very flat and bland to begin with, until about the mid-way point where the band kicked into gear and the song sort of took a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde approach and it seemed like the first half was written by somebody completely different.
The Track placement on the album seems very well thought out, as there are a number of songs those chains together to create a very vivid landscape for the album. The initial transition from ‘Closer to an Animal’ to ‘Life’ is one such example with its very up-tempo and revivifying nature imbuing listeners with a sense of purpose, but this in general is reflective of the greater musical power of the album. Tracks like ‘Fairytale’ and ‘Till Death’s Done us Apart’ stand out as clear cut winners on the album with their powerful musical composition, vocal delivery and guitar work. While on the flip-side ballad tracks ‘Candle Lawns’ and ‘Among The Shooting Stars’ take a very introspective and self-searching tone that heightens the emotional connection that many will have with these tracks. Given that the band does excel at a few different styles of songs, the careful placement of their ballads in the track listing is beautiful as it treats fans to a pretty rounded and ‘complete’ album.
Probably my biggest issue overall is that it seems like vocalist Tony Kakko doesn’t take any major risks on this offering. I’m not here to say that he has to, or that he should, but when you are on your ninth album most of the time you don’t want to give the impression that you are just ‘going through the motions’, and the easiest way to do that is to take risks. Quite often I found myself looking for that massive power that I know his voice is capable of, but found it being absent on most occasions. It’s such a shame when the lyrical themes are so strong on many songs that they would have benefited from having some further power behind their delivery. One thing that deserves a special mention from this album is the guitar work of Elias Viljanen. On several tracks the man lays down blistering solo after blistering solo that just embody not only the power and symphonic metal genres, but melodic metal genres in general. Several times I found myself completely dumbfounded by what he had conjured up, and it really speaks volumes when you have fans waiting in anticipation for that moment where they can just listen to a brilliant guitarist unleash.
I thoroughly enjoyed this album, and it hits a lot of marks that most albums in the ‘symphonic/power’ genre miss these days. With that being said, I still found that it missed an integral piece that would have propelled it from being a ‘good’ album to a ‘great’ album. There are a lot of good songs on here but nothing that really gripped me as being revolutionary which made the album a little underwhelming in places, while redeeming it in others. I’m not by any stretch of the imagination saying that this is a terrible album, because those comments couldn’t be further from the truth – but I do think that more could be done to expand on this sound given the current crop of power and symphonic metal bands.
Is this a good album? Sure it is, but to those that aren’t already fans, the album doesn’t do a whole lot to draw and engage them in. While composed and written beautifully, with sublime guitar passages included, it feels like most of the songs just ‘plot the course’ and don’t really channel massive effort and power that might engage new fans. This is definitely one for the fans, but for anyone else that’s interested in ridiculous guitar solos, or brilliant musical composition, this is one for you to check out!