Sonata Arctica - The Ninth HourThe Ninth Hour marks Sonata Arctica‘s fourth full length since Unia. In 2016, that means that half the band’s career is post-Unia and since that monumental album Sonata Arctica has gone through a tense relationship with its history and—if the comments on this blog are anything to go by—its fanbase. In recent years the band has reintroduced wolf shirts and their old logo, but for me it’s The Days of Grays—an album distinctly lacking both—that remains the band’s best since 2004.1 But the band has had less success since TDoGStones Grow Her Name was bad. Pariah’s Child was better, but not great. But I’m always excited when new Sonata Arctica records hit. I count the band among my favorites, and I think that Tony Kakko is a genuinely talented and unique songwriter.2 These Finns have developed a sound that is idiosyncratic, interesting, and fun. And fortunately for us all The Ninth Hour shows the band hitting their stride again.

Sonata Arctica has never been subtle and The Ninth Hour doesn’t change that. The cover art features a city in the shape of a skull, balancing society versus nature (wolf shirt!) and this theme also dominates the album. More than any previous record, The Ninth Hour is fairly thematic, focused on the issues of climate change and the human relationship to the earth. The album’s opening finds Sonata Arctica riffing on Nightwish‘s ridiculous Richard-Dawkins-reads-nonsense section from Endless Forms Most Beautiful, hitting home the conflict between society and nature.3 The upbeat and baldly political “Fairytale” drops the line “It’s cool and we’re all snowed in / Vote yes for the global warming!” while the solemn “We Are What We Are” laments coordination problems with Kakko’s most cynical chorus of all time: “We could save our world / But we are what we are / We should love our earth / But we are what we are / It takes care of our loved ones / But we are what we are!”  The album recapitulates the opening track with a heartfelt closer “On the Faultline (Closer to an Animal)” which pushes on a similar theme. Fear not, however, The Ninth Hour manages to avoid being preachy by including songs about werewolves (“Among the Shooting Stars”), the wonders of flight (“Fly, Navigate, Communicate”), and Tony Cougar Kakko’s teenage years in 1970s America (“Candle Lawns”).

Sonata Arctica 2016

But The Ninth Hour doesn’t just distinguish itself thematically. It distinguishes itself musically in a way that I have difficulty conveying.4 Sonata Arctica has become an increasingly unique blend of piano driven progressive rock and showtunes girded with a Europower frame. Put differently, if Jim Steinman had been born in Finland, Meat Loaf would have sounded like The Ninth Hour. The songs are catchy but epic and often bordering on excess. Compositions tend to swell and crest on the back end, like “White Pearl, Black Ocean II,” which builds on themes already developed on 2004’s Reckoning Night. The Ninth Hour blends Sonata Arctica‘s classic sound with Kakko’s developing style of almost conversational compositions. The second single “Life” exemplifies the ebbs and flows of Kakko’s unique style. Sonata Arctica - The Ninth HourThe song starts with Klingenberg’s misty keys supported by throbbing ’80s bass before merging into a slightly counter-intuitive pre-chorus before peaking with a life affirming chorus. The twists and turns are bolstered by unpredictable root chords in Viljanen’s rhythm guitar work, but there’s a sense that everything follows—even when the songs are almost linear.

Yet the album is littered with songs that hit me right in the sweet spot. “Life” has an addictive chorus, while “Fairytale” takes pretty obvious shots at certain distasteful political candidates (“He’ll be the superseder / The builder of the walls / The great leader / He’ll rape us all and say ‘Surprise!'”) and rocks a delicious chorus. “Till Death’s Done Us Apart” (cool English, bro) and “Rise a Night” are both surprisingly old school Sonata Arctica tracks, the latter of which features Tommy Portimo’s classic power metal metronome impression on drums. Yet while one recognizes these as Sonata Arctica songs,5 I don’t get the feeling that these guys are rehashing their earlier stuff. Rather, the band has developed a sound that’s truly their own; simultaneously poppy and wandering. As a whole this means The Ninth Hour is interesting, surprising, and thankfully free of banjo.

My big complaint about this album is that it really just sounds like shit. It’s a balanced mix; professional, with new bassist Pasi Kauppinen shockingly audible. But I just have a hell of a time with the tones and production values these guys choose. Everything here sounds like it was recorded in 2003; loud, crunchy, with overly wet, tinkling keys and drums that go a-clickity-click. It’s hard to say what these guys would sound like if they were produced well, but “White Pearl, Black Oceans II” is a track with lush sounds that would have sounded amazing with fuller range and different production choices. It would be powerful if it sounded Turisas2013 or Stand up and Fight rather than the canned power metal sounds. But instead, everything is crushed to hell and sterile. The guitar tone sounds like someone’s using Crate (*shudders*), and the bass might be audible, but that’s its only distinguishing characteristic.

So after that little diatribe about the sound, you should trust me when I say that The Ninth Hour is the band’s best since The Days of Grays. The material is deceptively sticky, and while I know others haven’t fallen for it, I really have. In spite of my frustrations with how the album sounds, I’ve continued coming around and enjoying the weird and fun and, at times, solemn and heavy songwriting. I suspect at this point that I’m kind of alone in this, but for whatever reason Sonata Arctica continues to produce records that hit home for me. Hook these guys up with Jens Bogren or, even better, Steven Wilson and maybe they’d finally live up to their potential as a progressive metal act. But until then, I’ll keep listening to The Ninth Hour.


Rating: Good!
DR: 6 | Media Reviewed: V1 mp3
Label: Nuclear Blast
Websites: sonataarctica.info | facebook.com/sonataarctica
Out Worldwide: October 7th, 2016

Show 5 footnotes

  1. Interestingly enough, this actually fits the classic comment written in reference to Opeth‘s Heritage. The first experimental record is the one that hurts. The second one is the one that’s good.
  2. Even if people didn’t take my recent list in the spirit it was meant.
  3. Am I the only person who hears this as deeply ironic? It could be me, but I almost wonder if they’re not making fun of Nightwish.
  4. Yes, Jordan Campbell, I know that it’s my job.
  5. And universal acclaim to the nerd who can tell me what Nightwish song “Till Death’s Done Us Apart” is ripping off.

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  • El_Cuervo

    I’m reminded why I decided to write for AMG when I read actual AMG reviews like these. Find more time you fool!

    • André Snyde Lopes

      I know, right? I can’t believe we’ve been subjected to your reviews for all this time instead!

      • Shots fired!

      • El_Cuervo

        rip me

        • Diego Molero

          For what is worth, you’re my favorite reviewer of this site, and I’m not kidding! HMG is a close second (ok, maybe I’m kidding with that).

      • Siege Bantayan

        Brutal!

  • sir_c
    • Martin Knap

      this is definitely something Tony Kakko would wear…

  • Please someone comment that band picture! Is he like flying over the rest of the band?

    • Eldritch Elitist

      Catch the new Toni Kakko float this year at the Maci’s Thanksgiving Day Parade!

    • sir_c

      just don’t do burritos after curry

    • Juan Manuel Pinto Guerra

      That picture is begging for an Unicorn impalement.

    • jetblindracos

      Their posing looks like a skull.

    • Nag Dammit

      He’s taken to shitting out new band members. More cost effective that way.

    • Innit Bartender

      It’s more like the rest of the band is checking his b-side… All kinds of wrong….

  • Eldritch Elitist

    I recently marathoned all of Sonata’s post-Reckoning Night albums, and I hate to say it but I’ve just never been a huge fan of Days of Grays. There’s some really great songs there, but I feel that Unia is the better overall package. Yeah, I said it, fight me nerds!

    Anyway, fantastic review as always, and I can’t wait to listen to this / hear the new songs live in December. I do want to point out one thing though: the final song is actually subtitled “Closure to an Animal”. I know this because when I first read the track list I had to do a double take, followed by a spit take.

    • Stephen Fitzpatrick

      Yeah, that is some clever bookending right there.

  • SelfIndulgence

    “solemn and heavy songwriting”
    If there is one thing they have mastered this is it for me. Their song writing skills always impress me, but their production and (sometimes) lyrics can turn me off.
    Steven Wilson would also be my first pick to produce them. He has a talent for merging into the bands he works with while not becoming a DR whore in the process. The results would be amazing.
    Great review. Thanks, I’ll be checking this out.

  • André Snyde Lopes

    But is there anything here for the pre-Reckoning Night guys such as myself? Or anything more cringe-worthy than Shitload o’Money? Because if not, then it’s an easy skip for me.

    • Alex Ruiz

      Try “Fairytale”, “Rise A Night”, “Candle Lawns” or “Fly, Navigate, Communicate”. “Fairytale” sounds like a combination of Winterheart’s Guild’s “Silver Tongue” and the instrumentals of “Reckoning Night”. “Rise A Night” sounds like what Sonata should’ve sounded like if they just continued with their formula after Reckoning. “Candle Lawns” has that “Tallulah”-esque sound. I can’t pinpoint what “Fly, Navigate, Communicate” other than describing it as everything they’ve even done up to this point, but when you hear Tony and his high notes, you’re gonna wish he sounded like that always; like per say, Vintage Tony. From what I heard so far from this album, I would say I listened with no expectations with a sense of disappointment, but ended up quite pleased. I think you would enjoy it too.

  • Athan

    “The Days of Grays” is not lacking wolves.

    1. There is one howling wolf carved on the mountain under “SONATA”.
    2. The song “The Last Amazing Grays” is about wolves.

  • EntombeD

    for a band that sounds like plastic on the records, their live show is awesome and they play way heavier.

    • SelfIndulgence

      I always thought this would be the case. I haven’t seen them live, but they sound like a great band being held back by production.

      • Juan Manuel Pinto Guerra

        No band is allowed to use the “held back by production” excuse after their second album.

        • Henriette Gaston

          SelfIndulgence is not a member of Sonata Arctica.

  • Stefunal

    I’m one of the few people who enjoys post-Unia Sonata far more than the first couple of albums. I mean, I love Ecliptica and Silence, but WG and RN never quite did it for me.

    • Gene Kodadek

      I’m with you for the most part, although I think RN is fucking brilliant. But WG? Overrated. For me the holy trinity of SA is Unia, TDOG, and RN.

  • Jason

    “Might as well jump!” JUMP!

  • Oscar Albretsen

    New Opeth released today. Any estimate on when it’s gonna get reviewed?

    • A few days.

      • Dagoth_RAC

        While we are on the subject of missing reviews … will the new Hannes Grossmann get a review? Or were you not sent a review copy and this will be another TYMHM?

  • Danny

    I guess this makes me officially excited for this record then! Its good to hear that there are no obviously terrible creative choices worth pointing out (production aside), because that was what really sunk Stones Grow and Pariah’s Child for me. There was good material there, but stuff like Shitload of Money, Don’t Be Mean, Love, and the awful yammering drenched all over X Marks the Spot made those records really hard to listen to front-to-back. It just seemed like Tony and co. were writing really good material with really cool ideas, but had nobody willing to enlighten them about how the power metal banjo was a godawful idea, or that the last thing Pariah’s best Ecliptica-styled power metal rager needed was lyrics ripped from Springsteen’s Born to Run.
    Closer to an Animal is good, though maybe a bit too close to Unia territory in terms of the songwriting, and Life is really endearing in that signature Sonata way. If the rest of the record holds up to those two it will be their best record since Days of Greys for sure.

    • Zadion

      I hated Don’t Be Mean at first, but it grew on me over time. Cheesy as sweaty balls to be sure, but it’s a Tallulah-tier ballad. Love, on the other hand, is objective shit and maybe the worst song Tony has ever written. Fuck that song.

      • Danny

        I could see Don’t Be Mean as maybe being a grower, but I never had the patience to listen to that record enough to find out for myself. I don’t think Love is that awful EXCEPT for its chorus, which is totally the worst thing Tony has ever written. And as the highlight of the Tallulah-ballad is the chorus, that pretty much wrecks the song right there

  • I object to the overall positivity of this review. I’m filing an official protest letter to Dana.

    • jetblindracos

      Seeing the end of your short reign?

      • Sic semper tyrannis.

        • jetblindracos

          et tu brute?

    • I object to the overall positivity of this music (or at least the embedded track). ;)

  • Zadion

    While I agree with the overall sentiment, Stones Grow Her Name is without question the superior album to Pariah’s Child. Yes, SGHN is *bad*, and it sure as fuck is a catastrophic disappointment coming off the tremendous momentum SA had built to that point and cemented with T-Dog (one of the greatest albums of all time; fight me on it). But it’s also ridiculously catchy and, despite (or maybe because of) its bizarre cacophony of what-the-fuckery, has kept me coming back so many times since it entered my Wall of Shame back in 2012 that I should commit sudoku from the shame alone, and I like the banjo. Contrast with Pariah’s Child, which is just very, very banal and has produced no desire to listen to it whatsoever.

    That mini-diatribe aside, I’ve been waiting on this review to pre-order it and I’m sold. After the last two, I feared I could no longer be hype for a Sonata Arctica album. I was wrong. The two singles released so far are amazing and reminded me why SA has earned its place as my second most played artist overall. Based on the context of the review, I wager it would be a “Very good!” or even a “Great!” if it didn’t sound so shitty, which means it will probably be one of my favorite records of the year. T-Dog 2.0 hype?

    • [not a Dr]

      Commit sudoku? Get some help! Join a support group or something.

      • Hulksteraus

        The numbers don’t stack up…

    • Dave Frischknecht

      I agree with your assessment of Stones. I didn’t really like it when it first came out, but the album has since grown on me.

  • The embedded track is great from a musical/melodic standpoint, but collaborating with The Wiggles for lyrics was never going to work.

  • Juan Manuel Pinto Guerra

    I have known about Sonata Arctica FOREVER yet I have NEVER listened to them. Am I missing out on something good? Any recommendations on a Sonata Arctica primer?

    • I personally like Winterheart’s Guild and Reckoning Night best, then Unia.

    • Darren

      Personally, Reckoning Night is where it’s at for me. A good transition between the early Stratovarius clone years and their newer progressive leanings. Don’t Say a Word is a belter, and songs like Misplaced and Ain’t Your Fairytale hit the speedy catchy sweet spot. The only song I don’t like is Blinded No More, which is a total plodfest.

      • Juan Manuel Pinto Guerra

        That “Stratovarius clone” description you used pretty much is why I hadn’t bothered checking out Sonata Arctica. Stratovarius is OK to me, but I don’t like them enough to care for clones.

        • Levly

          Well I would take exception with the “Stratovarius clone” label, because even though the Strato influence is indeed strong on their first two records, Sonata is simply a much better band, with better musicians, better writing skills and better melodic sense. In short, the disciple far surpassed the master from the get go. So don’t let it stop you from discovering one of the best Metal band in the world :).

          • Darren

            I agree – though I’m not sure it’s the majority opinion, I think SA took the Strato template and made it better.

        • Matthew Godby

          I also don’t care for Stratovarius, but I adore pre-Days Of Grays Sonata Arctica due to the uncharacteristically-interesting song-writing for its genre.

          It’s consistently exciting and beautiful without feeling “dorky” and loaded with technical prowess without being the kind of band that shoves that technical prowess in your face. Instead, Kakko utilizes the talent available to him in an exceedingly-tasteful way.

          Again, that’s before Days of Grays, which is an alright album but started getting a little too “out there” for me.

    • Danny

      The first four are where its at. If you want pure speedy-poppy goodness, start with Silence and Ecliptica. If you like a more diverse platter with some progressive tendencies, Reckoning Night is pretty solid (Darren is right, Blinded No More is garbage, but otherwise really solid record with a couple absolute classic jams) . And if you really like prog, Unia and Days of Greys would probably be up your alley, though they tend to be fairly unpopular with a fan base which misses the speed and melody of their early work

      • MattyG

        100% agree except about Blinded No More being garbage lol. It’s true that it’s one of their weaker tracks, but the only garbage track on the first four albums is Draw Me, imho.

      • Viraaja

        Unia is in my top 10 metal albums of all time, still blows me away that the fanbase wasn’t crazy over it.

    • Juan Manuel Pinto Guerra

      So far, seems like Reckoning Night is the place to start…

    • Levly

      For me it would be Ecliptica (the debut) for their full-on Power Metal period, Reckoning Night for their transition period and Days of Gray for their modern period. All three are masterpieces. But actually except for Stones Grow Her Name all their records are worth a listen, and I love all of them. Silence, Winterheart’s Guild and Pariah’s Child are also highly recommended in my book.

    • Martin Knap

      try a concert DVD

      • Stephen Fitzpatrick

        That’s a good angle! I got Reckoning Night from my local library and was intrigued, then got For The Sake of Revenge (CD/DVD) and was hooked. It sort of straddles the line between the speedy/prog material too,

    • Davy Bonnevalle

      Always loved the “Silence” album, so start there and work your way towards the recent stuff. I’d recommend Weballergy, Black Sheep, San Sebastian and their #1 track for me would be “The Power of One”.

  • Midlife Chris

    Great review AMG. I feel this is an appropriate time to thank you, your crew, and all who post here for getting me back on the metal snyde. After Peter Steel passed I was pretty well jaded and was done with metal music in general. After many years of tracking down all the songs my parents listened to in the 70s and 80s, (not to mention the local am oldies station), I finally felt the need for some good ol heavy metal in my life. I stumbled across your sight one day and the rest is history. While I was listened to metal my entire childhood, you’ve introduced me to many bands and styles of music I never would have heard otherwise. Thanks for turning me on to Opeth, Wilderun, Saboton, Turisas, Steven Wilson, Carcass, Vektor, Raphsody, and Gloryhammer. Ive found that while I dont like everything you cats review, I always enjoy reading them anyway (blast beats can still be a bit much for me…until im drunk). You all rock. Thanks again. Looking forward to hearing this. Havent listened to Sonata since Unia. And I thought Blinded No More was a good tune.

  • jetblindracos

    Reminds me of Circus Maximus’ Nine not a little,a plus for me.

  • FutureBeyondSatan

    I miss my Crate stack. Nobody else does…

    • Henriette Gaston

      There’s nothing like a Voodoo.

      • Gene Kodadek

        Yeah, there’s nothing worse. I bought one once because I was going on the road on a tight budget, and it did get a decent crunch. But it was a piece of shit! The third time I got it fixed, the tech told me that amongst technicians it’s referred to as the Blue Doodoo.

        • Henriette Gaston

          lol Well, it does have a very narrow usability range, so not the best indeed.

          • Gene Kodadek

            THere’s a reason they’re so cheap used. Back on topic… I’m listening to the new record right now and liking it. Don’t know yet if it’s another Reckoning Night or Days of Grays (or Unia; I’m amongst the weird creatures who adore that album), but first impressions are favorable.

          • Henriette Gaston

            I suggest not paying too much attention to the lyrics, especially as the album progresses.

      • FutureBeyondSatan

        My Blue Voodoo window shaker. My neighbors pitched in together and bought it from me…

        • Henriette Gaston

          Tornado of Souls 24/7. They better learn to like it.

  • OraclePigWater

    Tony said he was listening to a lot of Devin Townsend sometime before this album. I wonder if that has anything to do with the direction of the songwriting this time around.

  • nunka

    I was about to mentally shrug at the prospect of another boring SA album and move on… and then you mentioned “White Pearl, Black Ocean II.” Damnit, now I have to check this out. Thanks a lot, AMG.

    • Luis Nunes

      I had the same thought, was like “why should I listen to them since everything after TDoG was… meh” then I ready “White Pearl, Black Ocean part II” and was like… ” HOLY COW, I MUST HEAR THIS SHIT NOW!”

  • Jeremy Freeman

    Still not a fan of foreign bands who pronounce Wind (Weened)…Spirit (Speerut), Fascination (Faseenaution) and so on. ;o(

    • Jakeukalane Milegum Firisse

      well, if english wans’t so damn hard to pronunce… and would have standard set of pronunciation… but it doesn’t.

      Anyway, I am glad I am not english native so I can’t be bothered by this.

      I remember when I heard a song of Blind Guardian singing in Spanish, it was the absolutely most horrible thing I have heard from them.

  • narrator

    “Richard-Dawkins-reads-nonsense”. Why do you think this is nonsense?:

    “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones

    Most people are never going to die because

    They are never going to be born

    The potential people who could have been

    Here in my place but who will in fact never see

    The light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara

    Certainly those unborn ghosts include

    Greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton

    We know this because the set of possible people

    Allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set

    Of actual people. In the teeth of those stupefying

    Odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here

    We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds

    How dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior

    State from which the vast majority have never stirred?”

    • Danny

      Yeah, I normally hate spoken word sections but I thought it worked really well in Endless Forms Most Beautiful. Great writing, well spoken, and tied really nicely with the album’s concept. Song of Myself, on the other hand, that was atrocious

  • Martin Knap

    Tony Kakko’s music is kind of like his wardrobe – weird, but kind of cool, only sometimes you think “wtf” :-)

  • chitownproud85

    That embedded track is just…damn. Its awful. Band is talented, Tony has a killer voice(saw him live in Charlotte, NC, a few years back, and they slayed), but this is miserable. The chorus sounds/feels like multiple disparate parts sewn together and Tony slapped on top for the prerequisite cheese and talent. This will qualify as a “Spotify before I buy” album.

    • The lyrics of Life are the most cringe worthy I’ve heard all year. I think the music is pretty good. The lyrics pretty much make it unlistenable for me. I’m not a lyrics guy at all. I never read them and they only mean anything to me if they’re extremely good (Mountain Goats) or truly horrible (Life). I mentioned the Wiggles in another comment, which I still think is relevant, but they’re probably closer to something from a television ad for a self help organisation or something.

  • Jyri Hetta

    Great review! I gotta ask this: if you only reviewed the album without thinking about the SOUND what would the score be? I mean that you’d only think about the songwriting and musicianship. I don’t like the mix/sound either but I feel this album might be their best since Reckoning Night.

    Thanks for the review!

  • Davy Bonnevalle

    Went to see them yesterday in Holland, the drive took like 6 hours, so yeah I think they’ve won me over. :)

    Chuckled when I saw the singer though… that vibe…that cheesy innocence…, it just pours out of his veins!
    Awesome actually ;)

  • Yossi Cohen

    The high pitched synth we so love in SA albums is waaay too loud in this master… and yeah the dynamics are a bit lacking… Feels like i’m listening on a my nexus 6p’s speakers instead of my great PC speakers/headphones…

  • Thorbjørn Thaarup

    I’m sorry to say, but this album is just as bad as anything they’ve made after Reckoning Night, which wasn’t too great either. If this band hadn’t been one of the best power metal bands around in 2002, I wouldn’t even bother checking out their stuff. But now I do it, painfully, every fucking time.

  • angela taylor

    I love this album and would definitely agree that it is their best since Days of Grey. I think Tony K is so talented, I love the tone of his voice, saw them recently at the Shepherds Bush Empire, London – played quite a few tracks from the new album and they were well received by the crowd. Heard a rumour that they are playing the u.k. in March close to where I live, cannot wait. They are awesome.

  • Stephen Fitzpatrick

    Great review AMG; I’m really loving Ninth Hour too, and I’m ashamed to admit that “Life” is my favourite track so far, despite being sooo cheesy it should be served with cubes of bread for dipping. A real return to form, and my favourite since “The Days of Grays”.

    I wasn’t sure about the Nightwish reference in “‘Til Death’s Done Us Apart”, but is the chorus a bit reminiscent of “Last Ride of the Day”?

  • Ethan Feldman

    I love your reviews. In fact, your reviews are so good, that other websites blatantly copy them. http://www.metalutopia.com/sonata-arctica-the-ninth-hour-review/

  • ksya

    Just found out about the new album. Since The Days of Gray I rarely listen to SA anymore. I went to 2 concerts after Unia and they were great, but TDoG album ruined it a little. I still listen to the older albums of Unia and before and just today tried some of the newer stuff, but it lacks something catchy and powerfull. It is a mess.

    So, love the old stuff of Unia and before, don’t like the new stuff at all!