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Sonata Arctica: Pariah’s Child and the Reality of Expectations

April 10, 2014

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:
 

 
Or maybe it should simply read, “Old habits die hard”.

 

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. April 11, 2014 5:40 am

    Did you read my mind…You can read minds can’t you? I had trouble getting through it, as you may have seen on your FB page. But I choked it down like the fine metal fan that I am. Is some European metal going the way of our early 70’s rock, i.e. Aerosmith, Rush, and the like, and trying for top 40 air play? I think some of these bands eventually let the record companies decide their paths for them in order to appeal to a wider market. Some have the dignity to tell them to f off. Others, not so much. I think that may have been the case here c. 2007.

    • April 11, 2014 8:59 am

      I think that would be a fair assessment of bands like Lacuna Coil and Within Temptation, who have made rather overt attempts at the American radio market, but with Sonata Arctica I believe its something different entirely. Its worth considering just how young Tony Kakko was when he wrote Ecliptica and Silence, in his late teens to early twenties. The naivete and innocence that informed the songwriting on those albums is impossible for him to recapture in any convincing way. He can get close by emulating the spirit of that old style —- but that old style was very myopic in its vision, very focused on its Stratovarius influences, and also trying to “compete” with the then blossoming epic pomp of Nightwish (Holopainen and Kakko remember are good buddies, but in this case I think they were friends who were inspired by each other’s work).

      I feel that for Tony its a mix of getting older and more experienced that has gradually brought him away from that early era sound, a natural progression so to speak. In that sense, its incredibly unfair for fans to expect that he can deliver an album like Silence or Winterheart’s Guild, he just doesn’t see the world in that way. His songs are reflections of his world, and he does change over time like all of us. Its easy for us as listeners to be stuck in appreciating 2003 Sonata Arctica. Not so easy for Kakko.

      That being said I wish he’d stop with the silly stuff. No more spoken word dialog!!!

  2. April 11, 2014 1:41 pm

    Oh… My god. Look, I love this site, I love how you go deep in every analysis, but although I agree with you on some points (“Pariah’s Child” is not a “Winterheart’s Guild” / “Reckoning Night” kind of album, despite some notes and sounds which might remind the die-hard fan of some old songs), I think I’ll always agree with Tony more!
    The first listening I had of this album was not very good, to say the least. For me, the album was tasteless, and in the end I was like: “… ooook…”. But in the end the whole album grew in me, I just couldn’t help but like every single silliness Tony had put in it. OK, I guess the car sounds, or the “ayayay!” in “X Marks the Spot” could be out in a second, we wouldn’t regret them. But I have to tell you: what you hated, I loved, what I hated, YOU loved. I mean, the voice on that same song is just the whole point of it (although the song alone is a good one, but not as good as with the voice on it). Tony wanted to mock religion and cults by using the way people adopt rock’n’roll in their lives, I think it’s so funny and convincing that the song alone is the masterpiece of the album. In a way, Tony is telling us that rock’n’roll could be a religion in some parrallel world, and I think it’s genius. I think there’s no real meaning in this song other than: “come on, guys, leave your god behind for one second and just think with your own brain”, but he did it with such humor that I just had to love it.
    BUT, I didn’t change my mind about “Love”. What THE HELL is that song? Certainly not their best ballad. It just is soooo cheesy, I just hate that Tony chose to compose such horror. Really, I just don’t get it. Sure, it’s all full of love and softness and blah blah, but at the same time, it’s SOOOO full of LOVE and SOFTNESS and erk! I just don’t want to listen to (what is for me) their worst song ever anymore.
    Thank you so much for writing this post, some albums or bands deserve the attention and I think this album from this band was worthy of an article. I have probably more to say about it but for now I think it’s enough, haha :P

    • April 11, 2014 5:57 pm

      Haha! Interesting stuff in your comment, I’m surprised and a little amused that we’re both of the opposite opinion on both of those songs. I think where our differentiation tends to occur is that nearly all of the time, my initial opinion of a song begins with how it sounds —- I’m judging how the melody, or riff, or any other sonic element registers in my palette. The lyrics —- as much as I do love a great lyric —- come afterwards. And so I do get what you’re saying in regards to the concept of the song, and yeah, I’ll admit that its clever in a cheeky sort of way. But my opinion of the track as a musical song still stands, the spoken word dialog is an atrocity. There are times where a band will implement those kind of sound effects/dialog into a song and have it work, but the number one rule I think is that the voice itself and the placement can’t be distracting to the music. Unfortunately for Sonata they tend to get it wrong all the time.

      And as for “Love” and your reaction to it —- this is Sonata Arctica, you should be braced for, as you put it, cheesiness! I tend to shy away from using that term myself because its one of the most frequent insults hurled at all things power metal, and I simply don’t understand what it means anymore. I don’t see much difference between a band like Behemoth and one like Freedom Call aside from aesthetics, they’re both equally as ridiculous if you choose to view them in that light. I think that anyone venturing into power metal should get the picture fairly quickly that this is a genre where ironic detachment is left at the door. I guess what you’re trying to say is that you find the song too melodramatic, or too saccharine —- and I can see where you’re coming from. But I’ll offer that its quite difficult to pull off a song like “Love” with real conviction as it is, than to dial it back as a songwriter and take the more “cool” approach. Its got a great melody, one that sounds vibrant even when played only on piano, and Tony delivers the lyric with empathy…. I just really love it. Reminds me of “Tallulah” actually.

      • April 12, 2014 11:46 am

        Well, it’s not that I focus more on the lyrics, but instead I think the voice on “X Marks The Spot” adds a lot to the song, which is pretty basic and catchy. To be honest the lyrics could have been very serious and dealt with the religion in a more direct way, I still would have loved it. But yeah, the fact that Tony hid the real meaning behind rock’n’roll is even better. But with the voice on it, I think it reaches another level. I obviously understand that not everyone will like that intruder, which (you’re right) tends to disturb the listener, but it seems people can either love it or hate it – we are the good examples for each case, haha!
        “Unfortunately for Sonata they tend to get it wrong all the time.” > Do you have an example of another song like that? I don’t see any for now…

        Yes, I meant too “sugary”, too full of oversimplistic feelings, and all, as far as “Love” is concerned. That’s what “cheesy” means for me, but I know it can be anything and can sometimes be misused.
        You’re right, Sonata is good at ballads that are reasonably in line with “Love”, but there is not a single note of originality or emotion in it (apart from the obvious feeling of “oh, Tony declares he’s in love, that is sooooo overcute”). “Tallulah” makes me feel something when I hear it, and it’s the same for any other ballad they wrote (I think). I think the quality of “Love” is so much poorer than such brilliant, heartbreaking songs like “Broken” (ok, maybe this one can’t be considered as a ballad, the tempo’s not that slow) or “Misery”, or the excellent “As If The World Wasn’t Ending”, for example.

        One thing is for sure: “Pariah’s Child” makes people talk and debate and talk some more! I’m glad :P

    • April 12, 2014 6:51 pm

      “Do you have an example of another song like that? I don’t see any for now…”

      I must’ve been thinking of “I Have a Right” from the previous album, a really great track that has needless spoken word dialog from a child. I think the meaning of the song is pretty apparent on its own, and doesn’t need that extra embellishment that really just zaps me out of the musical headspace it creates. It was a blemish that didn’t need to be there.

      And I can’t forget the awful intro to “Wildfire” from Reckoning Night — worst voice ever. Or possibly it could go to “Caleb” from Unia. I guess I’m just not a fan of the way they choose to implement it. There have been bands who have pulled it off really well, Queensryche with the first Operation:Mindcrime for example.

  3. Eric permalink
    April 12, 2014 11:35 am

    The last good album these guys did was Reckoning Night. Everything since, with the exception of a few songs here and there (i.e., Flag In The Ground, Paid In Full, I Have A Right) have been pretty bad. I haven’t heard anything from this one except for Wolves Die Young and Cloud Factory which I liked but I’m not falling for the trap this time and buying the whole cd. I’ll bet “Love” is no “Letter To Dana” either… :-P

    • April 12, 2014 11:50 am

      The songs you seem to like are the most catchy, apparently, whereas I, on the other hand, came to appreciate the genius of Prog, long theatrical songs they started to compose with “Unia”. I understand many people stopped following the band with this albums (the band seems very well aware of it), but I can’t help but love all their albums, even though I hated “Unia” and “Stones Grow Her Name” when I first listened to them.

      • Eric permalink
        April 13, 2014 11:10 am

        You say “catchy” like that’s a bad thing. I think that the reason why many old school fans of the band don’t like the newer stuff is that the melodic catchy choruses have been replaced with long and meandering “Prog” songs that are just not as palatable.

  4. Garret permalink
    April 12, 2014 5:04 pm

    Haha glad you warmed up to “The Wolves Die Young” and thanks for mentioning me in your article. That was a bit of a surprise lol. My overall impression of the album was that it’s a good album but not a great album. It has a lot of good songs like “Running Lights” and “Blood”, which is my favorite song despite the damn stupid defintion of blood. The worst part about that is that every time I run across that part I remember the “Shitload of Money” video…’nuff said. It’s rather interesting to hear all the varying opinions on this album. For instance, I also just read the review for PC on AngryMetalGuy.com (reviewed by AMG) who liked “Larger Than Life” and “What Did You Do in the War, Dad?” while saying that “Love” wasn’t so good to say the least. So I guess we can all agree that this album has something for someone at least. But yeah the weird singing parts and the stupid spoken parts need to stop. Or maybe Tony just needs to get his writing filter fixed.

    • April 12, 2014 7:15 pm

      I just read AMG’s review, and yeah its pretty funny how it works out sometimes. I guess all our Sonata playlists would look different. Speaking of music videos, I saw that the band released a music video for “Love” today, I thought it was rather well done considering how over the top Patric Ullaeus’ videos usually tend to be. I think its gutsy of them to release this song as a promotional single, let alone commit to a music video. I think a lot of the negative reaction this song is getting is people trying to come to terms that there isn’t the usual darkness or touch of sadness that inflects Sonata’s love-themed work, but I think there’s something rather poignant about the song and video reflecting upon the often rare concept of lifelong love. I mean, particularly for a metal band.

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