Kingdom Hearts: Sonata Arctica Look Back With Ecliptica Revisited
A few Fridays ago on a balmy Houston evening, I witnessed Sonata Arctica perform for the first time. I was excited, not only because I had missed a pair of chances to see them live in the past, but in large part because I had been revisiting the band’s classic era catalog in the week leading up to it —- a mix of dutiful homework and genuine affection for those albums that I had loved so much throughout the band’s early years. It was also somewhat of a banner night for power metal in Houston with Delain and Xandria also on the bill. Outside in the lengthy line and inside in the darkened venue, there was a palpable sense of giddy anticipation from almost everyone in the crowd. I knew something was a little different when most everyone was packed together in a shapeless mound of humanity in front of the stage long before the local opener, collectively staring at a perturbed roadie setting up gear instead of assuming the typical heads down, phones out pose.
My pre-show impression of Sonata Arctica as a live act was colored by various live YouTube clips (most recorded on inadequate phone cameras I know). In those various clips it often seemed that either the keyboard was mixed far too low, or the guitar was horribly muddied. I also noticed a distinct lack of the swelling harmony/ back up vocals that are such an integral part of the band’s studio releases. A lack of live backing vocals for a power metal band is often a critical error —- as much as I loved seeing Blind Guardian live, a clunky crowd sing-a-long could not prove to be an effective replacement for hundreds of multi-tracked Hansi Kursh’s. I always considered Kamelot’s One Cold Winter’s Night live recording setup as the best possible standard for a power metal band: In lieu of having anyone else in the band who could actually sing apart from Roy Khan, Kamelot hired three backup vocalists to ensure that their harmonized choruses would soar. It is however a fantastically expensive luxury to have (even for a single show), and quite impractical to expect a European band to bring over additional musicians for a North American tour. Some bands are fortunate to have harmony vocalists built into their lineup like Sabaton, and others aren’t so lucky. So with those factors in mind regarding Sonata, I braced myself for a slight letdown by tempering my expectations. The stage lights went down and voices around me bellowed in triumph, and the super hyped up guy I had been talking power metal with in between sets leaned over and shook my shoulder with alcohol fueled glee.
Tony Kakko was a vocal magician that night, and a performer unlike any I had ever witnessed. He leapt and bounded across the stage with relentless energy, and threw himself into the lyrics with physical movements that mirrored or reacted to the words he was singing. His voice was accordingly sonorous, full, soaring, and capable of an impressive dexterity in adapting harmony laden lines to a solo vocal approach. When he needed us to help out on the choruses he directed our voices himself, and classics as such “Full Moon” and “Replica” felt like celebrations of power metal’s proclivity in creating joyful euphoria. Newer songs from albums that I had been critical of on this blog such as “Losing My Insanity” and “Blood” actually sounded better live, brimming with a vitality that I now associate with their studio versions. Even the dreaded “X Marks the Spot” was actually fun because Kakko simply sold it so well, his skill as a front man keeping me rapt with attention as he seemed to act out the lyrics. I was caught off guard in realizing that the song actually has a rather good chorus that I had seemingly blocked out before (my feelings on the studio version’s horrible dialogue still stand). I was even stunned that Kakko had the guts to perform such a naked ballad such as “Love” from the recent Pariah’s Child, but he somehow managed to convince a room full of some pretty convincing looking metal fans that it was okay to sway back and forth to a delicate, gorgeous, emotionally soaked song. I lingered long after the show, fan babbled to the Xandria guys a bit, and found myself not wanting to leave. As it always seems, magical nights like that are rare, and over far too quickly.
That the set list was generously full of classics from the band’s debut album Ecliptica was not a random occurrence. As Kakko himself pointed out on stage, the band was celebrating their fifteen year anniversary and in addition to loading their set with songs from that watershed era , they were going to be releasing their re-recording of the album at the end of the month. I spent the weeks leading up to the show listening to that album in particular, and reveling in every second of what can only in retrospect be dubbed an actual masterpiece. Upon its 1999 release, Ecliptica became a hit in Finland (and Japan) in large part due to the tangible influence of native countrymen Stratovarius’ championing efforts, and the market’s hunger for a Hammerfall-fueled resurgent interest in soaring, melodic power metal. I myself was a frustrated metal fan reliant upon newly developing Stateside mail orders to acquire back catalog from any European metal band I could find. I was listening to a weekly college radio show called the Metal Meltdown out of Cleveland that was introducing me to wonderful new stuff at an alarming rate (in that my wallet was continually emptying) —- in one week the show played new music from a trio of bands I had never heard of: Edguy, Nightwish, and Sonata Arctica. It was like water to a lost traveler in the Sahara. It was a year of classic power metal releases. It was a wonderful time to be a fan.
All these years later, its understandably difficult to remember just how strikingly different and fresh Ecliptica and its 2001 follow-up Silence sounded amidst that newly forming power metal resurgence. Sure the band were noticeably influenced by Stratovarius, but where their countrymen played it straight and safe with their take on European power metal, Sonata Arctica displayed a tendency to wildly lean in odd, unexpected directions —- both musically and lyrically. There was something quite charmingly naive and innocent about their approach, as if they were so enamored with their ability to create songs worthy of a record deal that they didn’t bother to pay attention towards sticking to standard genre rules. This was a very young band for starters (scarcely out of their teens), consisting of musicians all to eager to lean on speed and flashy solos, and they had the talent to pull it off, particularly long-departed guitarist Jani Liimatainen. Yet Sonata’s sound all started with the songwriting genius of Kakko himself, who throughout his career has displayed his knack for crafting indelible melodies with sharp hooks, and incredibly focused songwriting that flirted with a variety of tempos. He was a keyboardist, and his songs were built with that instrument serving as the framework for his songwriting, which also meant that melodies had to come first before riffs (often a hallmark of the most melodic of power metal bands). He’s of the same caliber of talent as his good friend Tuomas Holopainen of Nightwish; or Tobias Sammett of Edguy/Avantasia; or Hansi Kursch of Blind Guardian: All power metal songwriters who are masters of their craft to such an extent that they simultaneously define and defy the genre. In that regard, Kakko was both a trail blazer and someone who was practically impossible to copy.
As a singer, he was capable of projecting emotive inflections in the simplest of vocal melodies, to such an extent that every song had the potential to come across as some autobiographical account of personal tragedy about a lost-love, or worse. When I first began to listen to the band, I didn’t get around to really investigating the lyrics in the album booklets until after many dozens of listens. I was convinced that these songs were based in part from real life experiences —- and as absolutely ridiculous as that sounds to you today, consider that hardly anyone in power metal at the time was tackling such first person, introverted, real-world subject matter in such an earnest way. Sure you’d occasionally find a love ballad on a random power metal album pre-1999, Stratovarius had a couple in fact, but they were usually paint-by-numbers affairs lyrically speaking, filled with flowery, vague, open-ended diction meant to apply to anyone in particular. In short, they weren’t telling stories. Kakko has been a storyteller throughout his career, a lyricist who writes with an eye for detail and tangible imagery rather than metaphysical conceits. Think about your favorite Sonata Arctica songs… I’m thinking right now of a gem like “Tallulah” from Silence, where Kakko writes from the perspective of a love lorn narrator: “You take my hand and pull me next to you, so close to you / I have a feeling you don’t have the words / I found one for you, kiss your cheek, say bye, and walk away / Don’t look back cause I am crying”. This kind of lyrical perspective was startlingly bold and evocative for a power metal band, so much so that I figured something that gritty and real had to be inspired from his personal life, right?
As it turns out, Kakko was a lyricist of the Joe Elliot mold, he being the famed lead singer of Def Leppard. When I was a budding rock fan in the early nineties, I read an interview with Elliot where he admitted that his lyrics were pure fiction, despite his narrative perspective almost always being in the first person with seemingly autobiographical overtones. I know its not a revolutionary concept, and that many other bands have utilized such a lyrical strategy to ratchet up the tension and passion in their music (Journey comes to mind immediately), but Elliot was the first famous musician that I had ever read such an admission from. Reading it then was a bit of a revelation for me, and made me pay attention to lyric writing in rock music with greater attention, to not be so gullible, and to think about things like narration and perspective and diction in a new light. It made me pay greater attention to Metallica’s Load for example, while many upon its release were writing it off as a sell-out move towards alternative rock, I found myself thinking that it featured James Hetfield’s most thoughtful and resonant lyric writing. So it was with great surprise that I found myself hoodwinked by Kakko, who in the very first interview I had ever read with him revealed that his lyrics were purely fictionalized. Doh! This has of course carried on throughout his career, as he recently pointed out in a late September interview on the Metal Meltdown radio show regarding his penchant for writing songs about relationships and love, “I write a lot of stories, these are not my diary entries by any means. I’ve been with my wife for eighteen years. We started dating back in ’96, the same year this band got started so she’s been there the whole time”.
Suffice it to say that when I finally got around to reading the lyrics, I had some other forehead slapping revelations. Take an Ecliptica classic such as “Full Moon”, which upon a cursory hearing could seemingly be about the emotional troubles and turmoils of a complex relationship told in a very romanticized, metaphor-laden manner. Kakko’s emotional vocals sell it that way dammit! But no, its actually about a man on the cusp of his werewolf transformation trying to isolate himself away from his wife during the full moon (“Run away run away run away!”). There is no larger metaphor there, but I suppose in its own juvenile, kooky way it works as a love song. Similarly there is no actual person named Dana, a fictional character in Kakko’s lyrical universe whose name was culled from Dana Scully of The X-Files (Kakko was a huge fan, as am I). Feel free to read into the lyrics of “Letter to Dana” what you will in that light, but I don’t recall Gillian Anderson posing for anything naughtier than the cover of FHM magazine. Likewise, the “Mary-Lou” of the Ecliptica Japanese bonus track is just a made-up character in a rather distressing tale of teenage pregnancy, yet one that’s sweetly sung. I could go on and on reciting examples of misinterpreted Sonata Arctica lyrics, but the point is that these were all songs sung with such emotional resonance that they started to mean whatever I selfishly wished them to. I’m reasonably confident that other Sonata fans have felt the same way. Why else would we get so throat lumpy and something-in-my-eye about so many of these wonderful songs? I believe its because Kakko sang them with a passion and intensity that to this day seems embedded with painful experience —- despite all proof to the contrary. So powerful is his natural talent that I found myself haunted by a Bette Midler song I couldn’t have cared less about before.
With all that in consideration, I think its okay for any of us to ask why the band is re-recording Ecliptica at all. Well, the short answer is that the aptly dubbed Ecliptica Revisited was done at the request of the band’s longtime Japanese record label, a request the band agreed to as a gesture of goodwill towards a company that had stuck by them since the beginning. Kakko has even commented publicly that the contract they signed for the release stipulated that the re-recording had to be 94% identical to the original release, essentially meaning that they couldn’t re-work the songs into transformed versions or acoustic strip downs. For Kakko, this stipulation not only made it easier for the re-recording to be completed, but helped him to contextualize this release as a simple tribute to the original, as well as a more accurate representation of how these songs are performed live today. Typically within the metal community regardless of subgenre, a re-recording is frowned upon, not only for the often cloudy nature of the reason for it’s existence but more for the larger threat it presents to the legacy of the original. Most of the opinions I’ve seen regarding Ecliptica Revisited seem to align with that way of thinking, and I certainly understand some fans’ puzzlement and frustration (although I think its a waste of energy to get up in arms over a release that clearly will not be replacing the original recording).
As far as how enjoyable the re-recording sounds, well… that depends entirely on what you’re expecting from it. It would be a bit dense to expect an absolutely perfect, note-for-note recreation —- you have to walk into this expecting that certain melodies will be altered, the high notes might not be as high, and there might even be a key change or two. We’re factoring in a difference of fifteen years, the numerous adjustments that have been made over time to the way these songs have been played live, as well as the simple truth that no two recordings can sound alike (different band members, recording facilities, equipment, microphones, etc). Oddly enough I was really excited about this release, I think in large part because it gave me an excuse to simply spend a justifiable chunk of listening time with all these old songs I love so much. I spent the past few weeks going back and comparing the original and this re-recording with back to back listens, in an attempt to try to scope out what I liked about each over the other (a behavior one friend of mine deemed “maniacal”), and came up with an litany of notes.
I’ll spare you the bulk of them, but I’ll clear the decks of my negative impressions right away: I won’t fault the band or Kakko in particular for failing to realize this, but the slight tempo adjustments slowing most of these songs down a touch severely impacted a few in particular, effectively muting their original energy. This is acutely felt on “8th Commandment” and “UnOpened”, where the slower pace drags down Kakko’s vocal delivery in the refrains, zapping the songs of their original broiling anger (and yes, their sense of fun and exuberance). Similarly on “Replica”, a personal favorite of mine, Kakko tends to put the brakes on his delivery of the chorus, robbing the song of its original sense of urgency. I should note that this re-recorded version of “Replica” is almost identical to the manner in which they played it here in Houston, and in a live setting this slower pace worked in the sense that Kakko was able to use the extra time to play the performer and guide us in our sing-a-long. In fact you can hear the pauses where you can just imagine him gesturing to the crowd to join in —- it works in the context of a show where you’re just thrilled to be a part of the song in a meager way, but here on record it comes off as lacking. Its interesting to note that if you compare the song lengths of the originals to the re-recordings, you’ll see that the majority of the track lengths on Ecliptica Revisited have been extended by an average of ten seconds, the cumulative effect of all this slowing down business.
Fortunately the tempo downshift doesn’t hurt all the songs, in fact helping some songs to breathe easier and feel better paced. Cry heresy if you must but I actually find the vocal take on the re-recording of that eternal classic “My Land” far better than the original: Kakko’s enunciation and pacing is better, and the lyrics are more discernible as a result; I also love the alteration he made at 2:30 on the lyric “You can’t keep me away forever”, on the original that line only appears at the end and he doesn’t satisfyingly lean on the “forever” like he does here. I also really love what they’ve added to “Full Moon”, the intro is still as delicate and beautiful as it originally was, but the band gets heavier in the buildup to the galloping verses, giving the song a darker, stormier vibe. The chorus is as bright as ever though, and what I find so incredibly wonderful about Kakko’s vocal approach on it is that he seems to be reveling in its history as a fan favorite. I know its a subtle thing I’m trying to relay, but I hear it in the way he delivers that classic chorus with all its inherent poppiness in such a celebratory manner. Not surprisingly, its the balladry of “Letter to Dana” that benefits the most from the re-recording, with guitars multi-tracked in choice spots, better vocal phrasing, and a greater emphasis on making those lead guitars really capture the epic sweep in a Slash-esque way. Unfortunately, it is a bit of a misstep and a shame that they didn’t turn up the harpsichord effects at 4:25 —- that was such an epic moment in the original and although you can still faintly hear them underneath, they’re not nearly as goose bump inducing here. I also think “Destruction Preventer” comes off a little better here, as they sanded off all the rough edges (Kakko’s wildly high pitched yelps) and added layers of extra guitars and harmony vocals.
All told its likely that some of you won’t hear things the same way I did, and my impression could by colored by the very vivid association I have of certain re-recorded songs sounding similar to their live renditions. If that’s really it, then all I can offer is the suggestion for you to catch the band in concert on a future tour. But we are comparing apples to apples here right? Ecliptica in its original recording is a masterpiece of melodic power metal, or at least as near close to one as you can get (I definitely put it up there), and it would’ve been fine without a re-recording. Yet it doesn’t diminish in the light of this one, in fact, I think its helped me to remember just how special these songs are. I can’t recall the last time I’ve listened to the entire Sonata Arctica catalog as intently as I have in the past month, and I’ve found myself grateful for the opportunity to have my interest renewed. Maybe that coupled with seeing them live has given me a greater tolerance for the flaws of recent albums, and a greater sense of appreciation for all the collective gems and rubies they’ve given to me. Their best work captures the essence of what I love so much about power metal’s potential to uplift my spirits even through the saddest lyric. Its amazing to consider that they’re now regarded as a veteran band within the genre, when for seemingly the longest time they were the up and comers. Fifteen years was a lifetime ago. Happy anniversary Sonata Arctica.