The High Points: Wildfire II, Wildfire III, Somewhere Close to You
The Low Points: Don’t Be Mean, Cinderblox
The Verdict: Sonata has an identity crisis, with surprisingly good results.
The Rating: 7/10
This album is hated by rank and file Sonata Arctica fans. Doesn’t matter whether they’re power metal geeks who worship at the alter of Silence or fans of later, more progressive efforts like Unia… everyone has something bad to say about this platter. Sonata sells out, they say. Pop-metal, they scream! And you know what? It’s all true. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad.
It’s a silly complaint to begin with. These guys started out playing Stratovarious-wannabe power metal, which is the commercial side of heavy metal to begin with, for fuck’s sake! Pretty melodies, cut-and-paste ABA song structures, big sing-songy choruses… these are the hallmarks of the genre. Basically you write pop songs, play ’em really fast, and add extra guitars. That’s it. Sonata was one of very few bands to really transcend the limitations of the form, and eventually broke out of it altogether to explore the murkier and less commercially appealing waters of progressive metal. On this album they’re just coming home in a way, returning to the simpler song structures and more immediately catchy tunes that characterized the days of yore. They just left out the speed…
That really is the biggest difference here. Half these songs would have been right at home on Silence if they were played faster and with more double-kick blast beats. Slow these sort of songs down and you’ll come to the realization that songwriter Tony Kakko must have listened to A LOT of 80s music during his formative years. Opening track Only the Broken Hearts Make You Beautiful demonstrates this eloquently with it’s pop-rock vibe, feel-good attitude, and catchy-as-all-fuck chorus melody. A less aggressive guitar sound and I could almost picture Journey recording this song. Shitload of Money puts the band squarely in LA metal territory… kinda what Motley Crue would sound like if they weren’t terrible songwriters. This song gets some flak, but weird lyrics aside I actually like it… the breakdown-style verses and the stomper of a chorus totally work for me.
Most of the album does, actually. The songs stay simple and catchy, but a fair amount of stylistic territory is covered during the first 2/3 of the record, and most of it works. My favorite of this bunch is the brutal yet mysterious sounding Somewhere Close to You, with the nadir being hit single I Have A Right. Even the latter song I don’t really hate; it’s just not what Sonata does best and the silly spoken-word thing in the middle kind of throws me a little. Seriously, what’s with Finnish bands and spoken-word shit? Please just stop, guys.
When this album goes off the rails it knocks down the neighbor’s barn, kills all the cows, and then crashes through his bedroom while he’s fucking his wife. Cinderblox has the makings of a really strong tune; I particularly like the chorus melody. But the attempt to incorporate country influences feels awkward and contrived and basically kills the whole damn thing. Don’t be Mean… dear God. Full disclosure: I hate probably 70% of Kakko’s ballad writing. But this… what the fuck was he thinking? Or anyone in the band? I would try to be descriptive but, you know, I really shouldn’t be mean. Go listen to it and experience the horror for yourself.
The album’s crowning moments come at the very end in the one-two punch of the two new installments to the Wildfire series. Wildfire II is immediately a far more dark and brooding experience than anything we’ve heard so far on this platter, menacing us at a midtempo pace in a way that could have as easily fit on Unia. It’s also got that album’s progressive sensibilities, changing tempos, feels, and time signatures in all the right places. Wildfire III is also dark but in a more angry fashion, slamming us right out the gate with the most brutal riff on the album, followed up by Tony Kakko spitting pure vitriol into microphone. Like Wildfire II it shifts around a lot, but this time we maintain a driving forward momentum throughout most of the track. When it does give up the brutality for a breakdown section it’s drenched with an aching melancholy. Amazing, powerful stuff. The only complaint I have about either track is that the storyline only seems to dovetail fleetingly with the original powerhouse of a track that appeared on Reckoning Night… but who gives a shit; both songs are brilliant.
I have to give mention to the Japanese bonus track… Tonight I Dance Alone is a rare Sonata love ballad that actually works for me. In fact it’s pretty killer, and why Don’t Be Mean made it onto the album everyone got is utterly baffling. If they’d swapped ’em, I’d boost the rating by a point.
This is the second album to feature guitarist Elias Viljanen, and he seems to have really found his groove. This album’s predecessor was a much better record overall, but this is definitely the better guitar album. Viljanen blows our minds with sizzling riffs and lovely melodies, and also knows when to hold back and give the keys or vocals some space. He and keyboardist Henrik Klingenberg both fucking SLAY when it’s solo time; these guys are amazing. Tony Kakko has lost none of his stature as one of the most emotive vocalists in the genre. Drummer Tommy Portimo and bassist Marko Paasikoski are as always a solid and sometimes exciting rhythm section; Portimo in particular is a much more interesting drummer than he was in the band’s early days. Paasikoski is cool when you can hear him but as usual the bass is too damn low in the mix. This would be his last album with the band.
Speaking of the mix, this record has the usual Sonata Arctica polish. Everything just feels so damn finished; even if you don’t like the song you’re hearing you have to admire these guys’ attention to detail and dedication to ensuring everything is perfectly crafted. The bass is too low in the mix as usual, and the mastering is the same horrible over-compressed mess that pretty much everything has been since the turn of the century. I don’t blame the band for that.
At the end of the day this is actually one hell of a good album, but falls just a bit short of greatness. It’s funny because this is actually an exceptionally good pop-metal record, and I would happily put it side by side with Def Leppard’s Pyromania or any of the other more shining examples of that sub-genre. But it’s not really what I’m into, and certainly not what Sonata Arctica does best. It feels as if singer Tony Kakko (who writes all the songs) wasn’t quite sure what kind of band he wanted to have at this point, and this record is indicative of an identity crisis of sorts. But at the end of the day the songs are mostly very good, which makes up for a whole multitude of sins. It’s mostly enjoyable, sometimes awesome, and the last two tracks are fucking brilliant… Wildfire III is worth the price of admission by itself. This may be Sonata’s worst album, but you still should get it.