Sonata Arctica‘s Talviyö marks the 20-year anniversary of the release of Ecliptica. For many fans, the band’s first four albums are the real highlight of their career. But one thing that Tony Kakko and his lovable band of Finns could never do was to sit still. Instead, in 2007, they released Unia, which saw them deviating from the formula they had perfected as an upstart Europower band. Since then, they haven’t stood still. While their sound isl, at least in some ways, still rooted in Unia, each album is filled with new ideas. Sometimes they play and sometimes they don’t—I love The Ninth Hour for its weirdness-es,1 and I pretty much hate Stones Grow Her Name because of the whole country Americana thing—but one thing that you cannot accuse Sonata Arctica of is sitting still. Every album is a new adventure in melody, composition and awkward Kakkoisms. Yet this has been part of the charm. With their tenth album, Talviyö, the only question is where will they take us this time?
If Unia was about change and pulling one free from one’s rut, Talviyö is about settling into the long, dark winter of the soul—in this case, Tony’s creativity. While the former came as a surprise and has grown on me with time, Talviyö is only surprising because it carries no such spark. In fact, it is precisely the first Sonata Arctica album that has contained nothing that surprised me, inspired me or even, made me smile awkwardly. Instead, Talviyö is boringl It’s monotonous and it’s too long. And it’s boring, monotonous and long while using exactly the same sound pallet as the previous album. Some of you may recall that I described the production of The Ninth Hour as, and I quote, “sound[ing] like shit.” That’s because it did sound like shit. It was flat. The drums were dead, the keyboards were too twinkly, and it had bad guitar tone and surprisingly audible, but flat bass. And despite the album having some brilliant songs, the sound hampered its flight. Talviyö, rather than fixing these issues, has doubled down on that production quality and raised the guitar tone from “Crate Amp” to “Bad Crunch Emulation in Logic.” No good could ever comes of this.
The band is, of course, excellent. Sonata Arctica has had the same core since 2009’s The Days of Grays. Tony sings and writes, while Henrik plays keys—though it’s never been clear how much he records. Since 2009, as well, Elias Viljanen has been playing the guitars. Add to the mix human metronome Tommy Portimo and “new guy” bassist Pasi Kauppinen, and the band has a stable core that knocks out their tracks with professionalism. But aside from genuinely interesting bass work from Pasi Kauppinen (“Message from the Sun”), the album has no surprises. Instrumental track “Ismo’s Got Good Reactors” is fun, but when you realize that it contains the best riffs on the whole album and doesn’t contain any vocals, it starts to get depressing. And despite being a genius guitar player, Viljanen’s solos are rote, Henkke’s keys are the same sounds the band has been using, and Tony sounds like Tony—but even he sounds uninspired and his lyrics don’t exactly sparkle.
Unlike its predecessor, which featured some genuinely interesting moments, the songs on Talviyö are not its saving grace. Rather, the album is a bit like a ski slope (which works nicely for the winter theme). Except, it’s not a Black Diamond, it’s a kiddy incline. While the album kicks off with some up-tempo tracks featuring sustained chords, a double-kick happy classic power track (“Message from the Sun”), a good groovy classic ’80s rock feel with a catchy bridge and anthemic chorus on “Whirlwind” and “Cold,” it slopes downward as time goes on. While not actually true, it feels like each song on the album’s hour long tracklisting becomes progressively slower and less interesting, until you finally reach the dregs of the album on the embarrassing “Who Failed the Most” and the utterly forgettable, yet aggressively repetitive, “Demon’s Cage.” Each song has things that worked better on another album—the organs on “A Little Less Understanding” sounded amazing on Reckoning Night, but fall pretty flat here—and each song feels like it’s a step down in intensity until we reach the very sleepy “The Raven Still Flies with You” and “The Garden.”
If I were to diagnose this album, I would say that it is first and foremost the victim of a really bad production job. But honestly, I can’t say exactly what’s wrong. The reality is that even the best tracks on here feel like they would have been second-tier tracks on other late Sonata Arctica albums. So it seems to me like it’s just a matter of a confluence of bad things (production, songwriting, a bad case of winter flu?) that exacerbates all the negatives at once. Thus, things which might have worked on other albums—I refer specifically to “The Raven Still Flies with You,” which features some of the most adventurous writing on here, or possibly “The Last of the Lambs,” which has a Depeche Modeesque feel that stands alone well—fall flat. And in the end, when I’m listening to an album that has no tension, no real experimentation, and the dynamic range of a brick wall, I start longing for Unia II: The Re-Unia-ing. Because while I didn’t see the need for Unia at the time, Sonata Arctica is due for another reconsideration of its sound.