I am stoked for Sonata Arctica‘s forthcoming Ninth Hour which will be here on the 14th of October from Nuclear Blast. Now I know you’re probably thinking to yourself: “self, why would AMG write an article about a band’s ‘Awkward and Unintentional Successes’ if he likes that band?” Indulge me a second. See, Sonata Arctica started out as a better version of Stratovarius that was founded with a songwriter at the helm—Tony Kakko—who’s like a weird, Finnish version of Jim Steinman. This means that the band’s sound is epic, quirky, but ultimately it can get a little… awkward. Usually the awkward is carried in the lyrics (though once a banjo ran rampant on a recording session and I’ve never quite recovered). Early on the lyrics were quite ESL (that’s English as a Second Language, for all you ESL people out there), but later on they demonstrated a heavy dose of “Maybe that was a funny idea when you were drunk, but…” (see, for example, the song called “Victoria’s Secret”).
But like Jim Steinman—though, inking fewer songs for Air Supply—Kakko and crew always make it work. So this is a list about embracing the awkward and loving it. Sure, there are some things on here that are awkward, but they’re awkwardly successful. And “Unintentional?” Well, that’s because almost any other band would not have pulled it off. What other band could ever be described as “majestically cheesy” and asked to never change?1 Just keep in mind that this list has a lot of overlap with my Top 5(ish) Sonata Arctica Songs of All Time before you flame the comment section.
And to the list!
#(ish): “Shy” – Successor EP : This falls in at number (ish) because it’s probably the song on here that I’m the least likely to call a success per se. And yet… Sure, Tony sounds like a fucking creeper (“Working late at diner City Light / I make sure you get home at night / Making sure you don’t see me / Hoping you will see me…”), but the chorus is gold and the heartfelt guitar solo? Oh man. The lyrics are awe-inspiring in their terribleness (“I would any day die for you / *whispers* I write on paper.. and erase away…”) and this was very early in their career, so the weird Finnish lack of prepositions didn’t help them any (“Sometimes I’m wondering why you look me and you blink your eye… / You can’t be acting like my Dana / *whispers* Can you?”). But I actually come back to “Shy” more than I do to a lot of the songs from Ecliptica (“Replica” blech). Enjoy the lyric video. Kakko’s a kreeper.
#5: “FullMoon” Ecliptica : This drops in at number five because it’s probably less awkward than a little charming/bizarre. While the lyrics to “FullMoon” are in line with “Shy” in terms of awkward ESL constructions (“Find a barn which to sleep in…”), the thing that always killed me about this song is the chorus. It’s a great chorus, catchy, fun, and reminiscent of old-fashioned pop music. But it’s the fact that I can envision women in go-go boots and polka dotted dresses singing the chorus (“run away, run away, run away”) while jazz handing and smiling wide for the cameras that has always made this song seem a little out of place. This isn’t really a bad thing. The songs that stand out from SA‘s early material, generally speaking, is very much of the same character. The cut’n’paste europower tracks that the band came to eschew are often the things that I have trouble going back to with their material. It’s a shame that they’ve grown so sick of this song that they refuse to play it live these days, because I’m sure they have adoring fans who would gladly dress up to sing the backing vocals for them.
#4: “Don’t Be Mean” – Stones Grow Her Name : This lyric video is a gem, by the way. A fine exemplar of YouTube’s best equivalent to the quality and culture of fanfic. Regardless, “Don’t Be Mean” is a song that I genuinely laughed at the first time I heard it. Foregoing subtlety for just sticking his nose in the direct and awkward phrase in English is something that Tony Kakko has made an art of, but “Don’t Be Mean” really was about as un-subtle as such things come. Maybe it was the increased exposure due to the lulz garnered from listening to it, but crazily enough, it’s one of the few songs that I come back to on Kakko and company’s foray into bluegrass infused progressive metal. It’s a satisfying, if very silly, song. It also serves a dual function of being good to sing when you’re having a conversation with your partner and need to break the tension.
#3: “What Did You Do in the War, Dad?” – Pariah’s Child : This song is where I started getting the idea for this list in the first place. This song totally moves me; the bridge and pre-chorus are truly haunting, the structure is beautifully constructed and the content is emotionally evocative. The chorus (“Why can’t you smile when the children sing? / Did the wages of war cut your soaring wings?”) cheeses me out, though. Oh god, man. Really? The end-rhyme is hokey and the imagery of children singing is just so… Sonata Arctica; missing the subtlety train by about a mile. And yet Kakko’s writing frames the whole thing in such a way that I keep coming back and listening. It may have even ended up on a year-end list…
#2: “The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Real Puppet” – Reckoning Night : This album may still be my favorite Sonata Arctica record. It balances between the old power sound and the new proggy tendencies they were developing. And the album’s crowning glory? “The Boy Who Wanted to Be A Real Puppet.” At first I thought this was a mixed up Pinocchio reference, but I did not understand the depth. Actually, it’s the opposite [Hey, that’s my line! – Žižek]. The story is about a boy who wants to be a puppet—which in this story is totally, on deep listens, an allegory for a fucking rock star who must play “FullMoon” every night for the rest of his life!
Yeah, that’s right: this is Tony Kakko’s “Being a Rock Star Sucks” song. And it may be—if I do say so myself—the very finest of this genre. Take that, Rush! Tony Kakko isn’t just not a “long-awaited friend,” he’s a puppet! Take that, Adrian Smith, Kakko isn’t just going to “cry” and throw his hands “to the sky” because his tour is long, oh no! He’s dangling from strings and can’t cry because he’s made of wood! In fact, given the relative size of Sonata Arctica as compared to the aforementioned bands, the track ends with what would seem rather overblown lyrics: “The show, the glitter and all the fame I’d give away for a life / Some things can end with a word, they say, this only ends with a sharp knife! (KNIFE!)” Don’t do it, Tony!
#1: “Letter to Dana” – Ecliptica, : Back in the day when web radio was an actual thing that actual people listened to, I heard the cheesiest power ballad I’d heard since “When the Children Cry” and I died inside. Then I downloaded the song on AudioGalaxy and listened to it again and again and again. Then I ran out to my local CD store and ordered the album. Days later I received Silence to review from Al Kikuras and a Sonata Arctica fan was born.
“Letter to Dana” may be the perfect ballad. It is big, cheesy, gaudy, and ESL. And it’s about a man who is waiting around in his little home town for his Dana O’Hara to come home while she’s off ignoring her family, posing nude in a “filthy magazine,” and generally being morally indigent. And as this song slopes along, you kind of start to feel for this symbol of patriarchal repression and provincial conservatism. He’s losing everything and Ms. Dana O’Hara is out living life and ignoring her moralizing past—even though her father so kindly forgave her for her nudity on his death bed! Regardless, the song is amazing; it’s got an epic bridge, a fantastic chorus and excellent guitar work. It’s so overblown that it’s perfect. It may be kind of awkward, but it’s mostly a success. And what a success these guys have been.
So what’s The Ninth Hour have in store for us? Only time will tell…