The 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 TDoG. Stones 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”).
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. The 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.
- 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. ↩
- Even if people didn’t take my recent list in the spirit it was meant. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Yes, Jordan Campbell, I know that it’s my job. ↩
- And universal acclaim to the nerd who can tell me what Nightwish song “Till Death’s Done Us Apart” is ripping off. ↩