I’ll be honest with you, my first blush with Finland’s Dark Sarah, upon receiving their promo folder had me wallowing in despair, my lamentation palpable through gritted teeth for the seemingly poor choice I had made. Wading through publicity photos with the aesthetic charm of an easel that has been beaten to death by a rainbow, reading the insufferably trite album bio that speaks of mysterious caves and split personalities and the aforementioned laughable album cover all served to shrivel my hopes that I had discovered a ziggurat filled with wondrous music. Having now listened to the album a multitude of times I can confirm that this isn’t the tire-fire I was expecting but neither will I be writing the band into my will.
First light is an astronomical term used to describe the first image taken by a telescope after it has been constructed. Typically of a lower quality due to the lack of calibration and fine adjustments, a first light image is still important in assessing the efficacy of the telescope and a gauge of what’s to come. The first light captured from The Puzzle presents a perfectly agreeable record cut liberally from the symphonic cloth of Nightwish and similar bands that paste soaring female vocals over chunky but unadventurous riffs. Funded on a crowd-sourced website, The Puzzle makes good on its film, opera and musical theater influences throughout the album’s 48-minutes. Opener “Breath,” a brief aperitif of orchestral swelling bearing a mawkish soliloquy by vocalist Heidi Parviainen sets the tone for what’s to come. “Island In The Mist,” “Ash Grove” and “Deep And Deeper” offer up the meat ‘n’ potatoes of the symphonic genre, namely mid-pace chugging by guitarists wishing they were in a heavier band and a female vocalist wishing she were the next Joan Sutherland or Kiri Te Kanawa. Rote, by-the-numbers music that is reasonably enjoyable but the sort of thing you’ve heard countless times before.
It’s when Dark Sarah gets adventurous that the music becomes engaging, lifting it from a rolling fog of ambivalence. “For The Birds” starts and ends with the trill of a flute, a uniquely penetrating ditty that has lodged itself so firmly in my head that the song now has squatter’s rights under common law. “Aquarium” brings with it a faster, more energetic pace and features Delain’s Charlotte Wessels whose combative, biting vocals contrast nicely with Parvianen’s more mellifluous tone. For me, the stand-out track on The Puzzle is “Little Men” a whimsical and outright fun number that draws from the playful pool of Diablo Swing Orchestra and Finntroll. Here Parvianen hypnotizes with her siren vocals while the guitars bombastically flash their Cheshire cat grin.
If only the whole album was so appealing. “Dance With The Dragon” is an example of a colossal misfire. I was initially overjoyed to read that former Charon vocalist JP Leppäluoto was a guest on the track but my enthusiasm soon turned to ashes hearing his talents wasted on a coquettish duet so eye-rollingly mawkish that my teeth itched just listening to it.
Pompous theatrics aside, The Puzzle’s biggest struggle is simply that it lacks impact. Too often the songs drift in-and-out of my consciousness, pleasurable in situ but utterly forgettable once the music has stopped. Tonally, Parvianen has a lovely voice but she lacks the sheer power of similar singers like Floor Jansen or Sarah Jezebel Deva who have the ability to rivet you in place and command your attention.
Maybe this doesn’t matter to you, maybe when you see the words “symphonic,” “theatrical,” and “dragons” currency leaps from your wallet for the exchange of goods and services faster than I can type this labored sentence. For the rest of us, The Puzzle offers no more than a passing fancy.
Like fairy floss — cotton candy to you northern hemispherites — the sugary and diaphanous music of Dark Sarah tantalizes the taste buds but holds no nutritional value.