The High Points: Destruction Preventer, Replica, My Land
The Low Points: Unopened, Kingdom for a Heart, 8th Commandment
The Verdict: Basically a Stradivarius ripoff, but with better songs.
The Rating: 7/10
Sonata Arctica started off like so many other Finish metal bands in the 90s… with blatant, fawning Stradivarius worship. Power metal tropes abound on the band’s first effort; speedy songs driven by double-kick blast beats, prominent keyboards carrying saccharine-sweet melodies, huge choruses, and virtuosic solos traded off between the guitars and keys. This could easily be another forgettable album full of cliches.
Except for the songs. Singer/songwriter/mad genius Tony Kakko makes his debut in a genre rife with bands that all sound the same making albums full of songs that all sound the same and kicks it square in the ass. Opener Blank File sets the tone for the whole thing, ripping your face off at a breakneck tempo and hitting us with a prescient message about the loss of privacy in a networked age. There’s plenty more speedy goodness on tap here; most notably in Picturing the Past and fan favorite Full Moon. The latter track starts out slow with piano accompaniment before taking off with a full-on Iron Maiden Gallop (TM) and bizarro lyrics about a werewolf who kills his girlfriend. It’s weird, but it works and it’s become the band’s signature tune. It’s also the very first SA wolf song… with one exception there’s been one on every album.
All this is very nice, but this album really hits it’s stride with the slow-to-midtempo stuff. My Land is a huge standout, rocking hard at a medium tempo. It features a somber melody and some neat little arrangement twists that keep you riveted the whole time. Replica is a simply stunning ballad even if I’m not sure what the fuck it’s about (it could be literal or a metaphor for a lot of things). It can come off as a bit generic, but the melodies kill. Also check out Letter to Dana, an oddball ode to abandonment in 6/8 time.
The album saves the best for last with the stunning Destruction Preventer. It comes in haunting, mostly just a choir (synthesized I think) with a little motif underneath it before peeling the skin off your ass with a brutal onslaught of riffology. It cooks along for awhile as a standard although exceptionally well-written power metal song until after the third chorus, at which point it breaks down to half time and the chaos ensues; a mish-mash of musical ideas tied together so seamlessly you hardly notice the transition from one to the next. It’s Kakko’s first stab at progressive metal, and an exciting sign of what would take several more albums to come to fruition.
It doesn’t always work so well, however. 8th Comandment starts out exciting with a brutal guitar riff before settling into predictable power metal mediocrity, and Kingdom for a Heart just comes off as too syrupy sweet despite some really promising melodies. Unopened is a track I’ve heard hundreds of times and can’t tell you a thing about.
The instrumental virtuosity you expect from a power metal record is mostly provided courtesy of guitarist Jani Liimatainen (no, I can’t pronounce it either). Keyboards are provided by the aforementioned Mr. Kakko, who was serving as both vocalist and keyboardist at the time. The keyboard tracks are beautiful, melodic, and well-written, but the solos lack the speed usually expected on a release of this kind. I don’t see it as a negative at all, but the band chose to get a separate keyboard player for the tour and subsequent album. Bassist Janne Kivilahti, who was a last-minute recruit, does a serviceable job but is pretty buried in the mix. Drummer Tommy Portimo plays well but at this stage of his career his beat choice was very predictable, which drags the whole thing down a notch. Kakko sings great, although he makes the common rookie mistake of writing stuff in keys he wouldn’t be able to consistently pull off live.
The record is also kind of hit and miss production-wise. It’s well balanced (except for the bass guitar) but thin sounding, and everything has a bit of a plastic quality. I suspect the problem is partly that what we have here is actually demos that were not intended for release, and also in part that the band itself handled the production but lacked the experience to do it properly. The tempos are a bit uneven at times as well.
You can’t mention this album anymore without talking about Ecliptica Revisited, a re-recording of the entire album with the present lineup that occurred in 2014. It’s tough to talk about, especially given the very large question of why the actual fuck the band would want to do such a thing. Long story very short… the production is better, the vocal arranging is better, Kakko sings better (and more in his range; some of these songs are in significantly lower keys compared to the original versions), and the playing is tighter and more refined. It’s also missing the balls-out exuberance and innocence of the original, making it loser in the balance. For the seasoned fan it’s an interesting listen, but noobs should get the original and hear the music as it was originally intended.
Overall what we have here is Stradivarius with a better singer and better songs. There’s a copycat sort of feel to a lot of it which is mostly negated by Kakko’s incredible ability to crank out a catchy melody. His lyricism is a bit more hit and miss; he has great ideas but English as a second language is a problem in places. As a whole the record works,and it carries a powerful exuberance few albums can match. More than anything else this is an insanely fun record, even if some parts of it fall short of brilliance. Highly recommended.