Sonata Arctica: Pariah’s Child and the Reality of Expectations
I wonder if every new Sonata Arctica release shouldn’t come with a warning sticker on the front. I’m not quite sure exactly what the wording of the message would be, but it’d have to get its point across succinctly since there would be an obvious character limit. Perhaps we can impose some self-made restrictions upon ourselves to keep it short and sweet —- a twitter style 140 character limit then? Yeah we’ll go with that. Perhaps by the time I arrive at the conclusion of this review we’ll have a message for that sticker that does the job. But why the need for a warning sticker at all…? Its because post-2007 Sonata Arctica have the misfortune of being saddled with the weight of rather grand expectations, and perhaps because as fans we see our expectations through the 20/20 vision of hindsight.
If you enjoy Sonata Arctica’s music, you do so despite the occasionally cringe or giggle inducing lyric, the often clunky song titles, and Tony Kakko’s uniquely melodramatic worldview. You’re drawn in for the same reason everyone gets drawn in —- through Kakko’s ABBA-esque sense of melodicism, his knack for pop songcraft, and his ability to cut through typical metal bravado and interject a little pathos through emotionally transparent storytelling. When you listen to a classic like “Tallulah”, a shimmering ballad from their glory era, your heartstrings swell from the honeyed melodies and gorgeously layered backing vocals, regardless of the lyric “I see you walking hand in hand /With long haired drummer of the band”. You don’t view Kakko’s heavily Finn-accented English as a drawback, but rather part of his charm as a charismatic vocalist. That the band’s following has seemingly rivaled that of elder Finn-metal statesmen Stratovarius speaks to just how much of a profound impact they’ve made upon the sometimes ultra-finicky power metal fan community worldwide.
So when Tony Kakko goes on record and states that this new album will be a return to form (even down to the return of the original logo), its understandable that a fan’s expectation of this promise is defined by their own personal best-of Sonata Arctica playlist. We tend to remember the highlights of what has been a rather lopsided discography, one marked by a stellar beginning but continued on through a series of spottier efforts. I speak from personal experience here, having created my own best of Sonata Arctica iTunes playlist many years ago, usually adding a couple tracks from every subsequent new album since then. I humbly consider it to be a rather terrific kaleidoscope of the tiny details that makes Sonata Arctica one of metal’s most endearing artists. If I took the time to compile another playlist from what was left on the cutting room floor (so to speak), I’d imagine the impression one would get from that playlist would be of a band high on ambition, yet uncertain on how to achieve it, often to disastrous results. See this is a band whose highs are mountain peaks, while their lows often go below sea level —- maddening for their fans for sure, but perhaps better in the long run than being stuck in the staid plod of mediocrity.
And that’s a fairly accurate (if crude) way of analyzing each new Sonata Arctica album since 2007’s Unia, a line of demarcation for the band where they decided to branch out their sound and songwriting with some far flung experimentation. Its been a rocky ride ever since. Sure there have been gems on all these experimental era records, “Only the Broken Hearts (Make You Beautiful)” and “Alone in Heaven” from 2012’s Stones Grow Her Name come to mind immediately, but there’s a been a lot of “cutting room floor” playlist material as well. And if you take a look at the band’s discography, you’ll notice that with the release of Pariah’s Child, the band has evened up the number of albums in this post-2007 experimental era to those of their classic, golden era —- four a piece to be precise. Yep, I’m including this “return to form” album with the experimental era because Tony Kakko —- who has spent these past seven years experimenting —- can no longer relate to the natural boundary of tunnel vision he had during the band’s early years. He’s an internal songwriter at heart, and as a result suffers from a lack of external separation… simply put, its likely that he doesn’t see the experimenting we hear as being all that experimental. But to us outsiders, it seems for all the bluster about how Pariah’s Child would be a no-nonsense, classic Sonata Arctica power metal album, there sure is a lot of nonsense here.
Let’s just get the really bad stuff out of the way first, because its hard to ignore such a recklessly provocative song like “X Marks the Spot”. Fellow Sonata fans, ever wish you could be in the studio during the mixing process of the band’s albums and could jump up at any moment and slap the engineer’s hands away from the console, and possibly force him to delete entire tracks? Because that’s what I wish I could do every time I hear some godawful, corny dialogue stain the very fabric of what could be a decent song. This has become an alarming trend with this band, and those familiar with their discography will know of the many stained moments I’m referring to. This is the worst one yet: A Finnish guy who sounds like a born again televangelist from Texas (I should know!!!) speaking about how rock n’roll has saved him. The song underneath isn’t spectacular by any means (and parts of it sound far too similar to “Alone in Heaven”), but it could’ve been a passable album track without all the horrible spoken word audio. Instead we get the poster-child for the very worst of Tony Kakko’s inexplicable need to do crazy, crazy things to his songs. Its a song ruined, a track we’re all likely to skip over, keep off playlists and generally speaking try to forget. Thanks Tony.
Speaking of annoying spoken dialog, I can’t neglect to mention “Blood”, where we’re treated to monotone droning of scientific explanations of animal biology. The crime in this case is that this is actually a pretty good song, a warmly melodic verse that builds up into an aggressive bridge with frenetic percussion to a pretty fantastic chorus. Again, I have to ask —- Tony, why are you subjecting your songs to these distractions? Let the music speak for itself (a lot of bands could use this advice, I’m looking at you Seventh Wonder!). Unfortunately, its not simply those questionable decisions that detract from this album’s attempt at classic status. There’s the woefully overwrought and lyrically cliched ballad “What Did You Do In The War, Dad”, and yes the title is obviously indicative of the approach Kakko takes in the lyrics, that is, a back and forth dialog between a father and son. The real shame here isn’t so much the missed opportunity on Kakko’s part by addressing such a potentially rewarding topic with fists instead of surgeon’s hands, but the fact that underneath those on-the-nose lyrics are some really affecting melodies. This could’ve been a great song, and I’m disappointed that it only reminds me of another old clunker, “The Boy Who Wanted To Be a Puppet” (I’ll volunteer to help you with song titles Tony, I know I could do better than these).
I’m sure the most baffling track on the album is “Half A Marathon Man”, which actually has a nice Deep Purple/Rainbow-ish approach for the majority of the song, but they’re undermined by Kakko’s pointed lyrical American-isms. That in itself isn’t a deal breaker, but the sheer rock n’roll throwback approach is jarring, especially in the context of this supposed return to their power metal glory (of which I’m sure it’s abundantly clear by now that Pariah’s Child is not). And I can’t neglect to mention the utter mess that is the purported epic of the album, “Larger Than Life”, where the first five and a half promising minutes are blown completely out of the water by hearing an operatic choir sing the lines “So don’t take life so seriously”. Look, I tolerate a lot with Sonata Arctica, but I have a hard time swallowing the juxtaposition of an epic sounding collection of professional voices singing such mundane phrases. It simply doesn’t work, and tellingly the song unravels immediately after that, a directionless blast of orchestration and guitars that get blander as they go on…. at one point you realize that nothing is actually happening in the song, its just elevator music over tepid riffing. This song desperately needs a melodic motif that it can go back to or utilize in increments throughout —- instead it just comes off as a collection of leftover ideas that were cobbled together against an orchestral arrangement in the hopes that it would mesh together well. It didn’t, and instead can be officially considered the worst Sonata Arctica “epic” to date.
Thankfully, there are some gems on Pariah’s Child, ones that I’ve already added to my permanent Sonata Arctica best of playlist. The sharpest of these is the lead single, “The Wolves Die Young”, which sounds better on the album mix than it did for the video (maybe the fact that the video was terrible clouded my judgement?). Credit to commenter Garret, who told me to give the song a little bit of time to open up. It certainly did, with its effortlessly melodic chorus and nicely layered backing vocals, its the kind of pop song that Kakko writes so well, and that encapsulates the very best qualities of Sonata Arctica. I’m also quite fond of “Running Lights”, despite its silly car screeching sound effects at the start (completely unnecessary, this isn’t Operation: Mindcrime), its the kind of romantically nostalgic lyric that recalls the best moments of the band’s Ecliptica/Silence era, “And they enter the night when /The young ones need no sleep / Laughing at the lights they keep running /Becoming color of the night”. And I have to admit that “Cloud Factory” has grown on me, its melody is charming and invokes an almost Japanese quality, but again we have to deal with a questionable Kakko experimental songwriting moment when he caps off a rather brilliant mid-song bridge with a wild jaunt into big-top circus territory. A minor gripe perhaps, but its the kind of silliness that makes you think twice before adding the song to the road trip playlist you’re assembling for you and your buddies.
It was with great relief and an almost yearning joy that I embraced the most unadorned track on Pariah’s Child, the sparse, delicately folded ballad “Love”, perhaps the band’s greatest to date. So excellent is the songwriting at work here, so confident is Kakko in his lyrical approach that his vocals kick in before the :01 second mark, over beautifully soft piano melodies. This is Sonata Arctica! What a fantastic song —- nothing I say about it could do justice to its status as a diamond among gems. You wonder why Kakko couldn’t employ a similar display of subtle imagery that he offers in the lyric “Oh I love the face you try to hide in your hands” in songs like “What Did You Do In The War, Dad”. Maybe one of the things we’re learning is that Kakko is at his best when he’s writing about love, the losing or gaining of (or in this case, the appreciating).
Certainly we’ve learned that he’s to be taken with a grain of sea salt when making claims of returning to any type of classic Sonata Arctica era. The reality is that experimentation has slowly become a habit of his that he’s unable to ween away from, just as expecting another Silence or Winterheart’s Guild is a habit that we as fans have made, well, habitual. Perhaps the warning label we were considering earlier should be something like:
Warning: Listeners should expect frustrating experimentation, awkward spoken word dialog, and the reality of what a "return to form" means.
— The Metal Pigeon (@TheMetalPigeon) April 11, 2014
Or maybe it should simply read, “Old habits die hard”.