A strange thing happened somewhere between Sonata Arctica‘s 2012 release Stones Grow Her Name and 2014’s Pariah’s Child: Tony Kakko found his wolf shirt and his copy of Ecliptica. Neither of these things were to be expected. Since 2007’s much-maligned Unia, these Finnish masters o’ cheesemetal have been popping out records that are hard to tie back to the band’s original incarnation. In fact, the band seemed to have tired completely of the double-bass-laced melodic power metal tracks that they built their career on. Gone are the days of “The Cage,” “FullMoon,” “Wolf & Raven,” and “UnOpened,” replaced instead by progressive rock tracks that plod along and swap out the sickly sweet melodies for wandering stanzas and ill-conceived banjo tracks.
Recently, however, Kakko said that he had forgotten about the band’s “totem animal” (the wolf, people, the wolf), and that they broke out the old logo for this album because it bore a striking resemblance to the older material. There may be something to this. Pariah’s Child certainly does sport a wolf and the traditional logo, which implies a step in a more traditional direction. Hell, it’s even light blue! The implications are startling: rarely does a band return to its starting place, and rarely is it good. But if Sonata Arctica can balance between their old sound and their new sound (which, honestly, was basically what Winterhearts Guild and Reckoning Night were), they could produce some pretty great records still.
Pariah’s Child, however, is a little misleading in its coloration. While it certainly does feature plenty of double bass drums—perfectly timed and high in the mix—and songs about wolves, it’s not quite a step back towards the old, so much as it’s a slight left turn from The Days of Grays (which is not an insult, I love that record more and more). This is a nice way of saying “‘Wolf and Raven’ this ain’t.” But that’s not necessarily bad: “The Wolves Die Young” has a cool groove, a great bass intro and Kakko’s quirky harmonies and melodic structures in a way that gets the power metal nerd in me happy. “Running Lights” breaks out the “My Selene” feel (read: Stratovarius) for a run and it feels oh-so-good with its machine gun double bass, harmonized leads and unpredictable bridges.
But a modern Sonata Arctica record would actually be a bit of a loss without the band’s growing progressive identity, and there’s a few great moments like the intro of “Take One Breath”—which features a rotating 5/4-6/4 time signature—or the anthemic introduction to “Blood.” Sure, the computer voice reading of the Wikipedia entry of the definition of blood is cheesy, but the song has gumption and the track’s mid-paced Days of Grays feel really works. The record reaches its peak at “What Did You Do in the War, Dad?” actually, which continues SA‘s tradition of cheesy-as-shit titles-for-emotional-songs that totally rock my world. This track is haunting, well-constructed, and shows off what Kakko is best at: melody and drama. When this band gets melodramatic (melodidramatic? Oh shit!), they do it better than most other bands.
Unfortunately, after the mighty, interesting, and actually pretty old-school “What Did You Do in the War, Dad?” the record takes a turn for the worse. “Half a Marathon Man” is an ode to shitty ’80s rock, while “X Marks the Spot” has its moments with writing with a cool chorus, some good feel, the random preachy yank voice overs and the “C’MON DUUUDE! X MARKS THE SPOT” makes me skip it every time. “Love” is literally
the worst thing the band has ever written the second worst thing the band has ever written next to “Don’t Be Mean,” and it makes little Dana O’Hara roll in her early, heroin and porno-induced grave. But if you’ve got the patience to sit through all of that, you’re rewarded with “Larger than Life” which is an extraordinary epic, which finishes off the record on a very unique and cool footing even if the lyrics are a bit questionable and Kakko tries to do opera vocals and it just sounds silly.
So that got a bit rambly, but let’s try to tie this up nicely: Pariah’s Child is definitely better than its terrible predecessor and a step back towards what made Sonata Arctica an entertaining band; and 7 of the 10 songs are worth listening to—skip tracks 7-9—and even really enjoyable (see: “What Did You Do in the War, Dad?”). And while the mastering is bad (a clear DR5 with some songs in DR4 territory), the songwriting is really convincing and I can’t seem to get over Kakko’s quirky heavy metal vision. So if you’re fan, buy this—but remember that it’s not going to be the best thing they’ve ever done. If you’re new to the band, be aware that Angry Metal Guy’s Law of Diminishing Recordings™ is in full effect with these guys—but they’re trying and Pariah’s Child shows that there’s plenty of talent and hope left for Sonata Arctica.