Review: Sonata Arctica – Talviyö
If you’re up to date on the other other podcast, you recently heard Nina interview Henrik Klingenberg, the keyboardist from Sonata Arctica. And if you’re not, you should go check that episode out, you only have to wade through half an hour or so of Joe and Co. Talviyö is now almost upon us, but what’s it like? There’s a great thinker of our times, a man whom I’ve always personally admired, perhaps more deeply, more strongly, more abjectly than anyone else before, a man whose personality is so totally and utterly wonderful that my feeble words of welcome sound wretchedly and pathetically inadequate in his presence. He’s someone whose boots I would gladly lick clean until holes wore through my tongue. This man is so totally and utterly wonderful that I would rather be sealed in a pit of my own filth than dare tread on the same stage with him as he declares: “let’s find out!”
Look, here’s the thing. I wanted to write a really fancy review of this album that wouldn’t actually be a review of this particular album, but rather some random winter night that may or may not have happened. All the while I’d reference the songs, the flaws and the successes of the record. But I’ve since had to admit that I cannot muster the fortitude to do so. It has proven very hard to sing Talviyö‘s praises, and equally as difficult to bury it in a heap of manure. It is not a terrible record, and it is not a good record. It’s not even one of the extremely frustrating and completely OK records that fail to evoke any kind of a (direct) emotional reaction in the listener. But it is something. And that something is the most uninspiring 56.5 minutes of music I’ve heard in a very long time.
Ten albums and 20 years (23 counting Tricky Means/Beans) is a commendable feat for any band, and Sonata Arctica has never even taken a single one of them off. Though their music has undergone several changes throughout the years, it’s always maintained a recognizable sound at its core; this is largely due to the fact that vocalist Tony Kakko has always been the band’s central songwriter, even though it’s become practically impossible to believe that. Despite Kakko’s perpetual sole songwriter credits, Jani Liimatainen and Mikko Härkin have had a much heavier hand in arranging the songs than Kakko ever let on.
Over the last few albums, Sonata Arctica has settled into something of a rut, and the band seems content with repeating the same old things from a new (but less than fresh) angle. On every record, there have been exceptions—remarkably numerous ones, actually. The reason they still stand as exceptions is because they never leave the confines of their structure. If the band decides to try something, it’s almost always limited to one song and has no bearing on their direction on a larger scale. An idea is introduced, but never taken further advantage of, never integrated into their songwriting. They exist in a vacuum around Sonata Arctica’s vaguely proggish, and often relatively sluggish, power metal.
According to another recent interview, opener “Message From The Sun” was intended to be another one of those tracks that lure in old-school fans, but it could have fooled me. The only thing even vaguely reminiscent of their older days is the double bass beat, and all of the album’s dead weight is still to come, so it doesn’t function as a change of pace either. Kakko sounds comfortable with his range, but his melodies tend to fall flat, and his delivery has become subject to routine. Wherever his tracks have been doubled, it sounds less like harmonizing and more like two separate, distinct tracks.
But this is Talviyö, not some other Sonata Arctica record, and it may have been intended (no it wasn’t), as the band has attempted to capture more of their live sound on tape this time. For this purpose, they hired their sound guy (Mikko Tegelman) to produce the album as the first ever outside producer the band has used. As a result, the instruments are perhaps better balanced between each other than ever before. Although this doesn’t mean the album sounds particularly good, especially the dry, muffled guitars which could crack ears. Then again, the only thing to listen to on the record is the band playing together, as interesting riffs and good melodies are about as scarce as a cactus in Lapland wilderness.
“Whirlwind’s” mid-section and especially the latter half of “Storm The Armada” see the band break their rut and almost have fun while featuring the liveliest playing the album has to offer. The instrumental “Ismo’s Got Good Reactors,” which at least has a heartwarming childhood story behind its goofy name, is the only cut where Sonata Arctica seems to be into what they play throughout a song, and it’s the most fun that can be had with Talviyö. The arrangement of “Who Failed The Most” never really comes together, with most of the guitar playing coming off as an afterthought, but this track carries the most memorable melody on the record. Elsewhere, “Last of The Lambs” is an atypical, moody ballad relying almost completely on synth to build atmosphere and very soft percussion to provide a beat; it’s not a great song in its own right, but if something of it were to rub off on Sonata Arctica’s songwriting in the future, it could make for interesting outcomes.
Almost none of the good bits carry through their respective songs though, and there aren’t many songs on the album, aside from the instrumental, that would help the record stand out; it seems unreasonable to expect that any of them would have any lasting impression on the band’s songwriting either. Even worse, we’ve got songs such as the trite rock-piece “Cold” somewhere from Tobias Forge’s pre-fame box, and “A Little Less Understanding,” a number that would barely have qualified for the Japanese bonus track slot it was originally intended for.
Despite its few good moments, Sonata Arctica sounds neither inspired nor like they’re having fun on Talviyö. In fact, they mostly sound like everyone involved would rather be somewhere else, and almost everything comes off as lifeless and bland. This is an album filled with assembly line professionalism that makes all emotion indiscernible (though I wouldn’t describe the band’s songwriting, just their performances, as such). At least in the interview above, Nina sounded much more excited for it than I am. I cannot find any such enthusiasm for Talviyö that I might have given it the reaming it deserved.
1/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
Talviyö comes out through Nuclear Blast on September 6th. Keep up with the band, and the label on Facebook.