It shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone reading this to be told that heavy metal incorporates a wide spectrum of sound. Included is everything from the glittery, sock-stuffing rock of the Sunset Strip’s heyday and the working men’s pubs of ‘70s/’80s Britain to the icy cold of Norse extremity and the thick humidity of Florida transposed into thick humid heaviness and beyond. However, even if one person’s radio-friendly guilty pleasure is another person’s maelstrom of demonology, can we all agree that Finland’s Sonata Arctica has spent more than too much time throughout its career pouring energy into the melodic portion of ‘melodic metal’ – a self-referential refutation of power metal – instead of the metal part of the equation?
To the band’s credit, it’s been done to great impact and success; they sell oodles of records, headline shows all around this decrepit, decaying planet, are perpetually in demand for festival appearances and—extrapolating from the lone time your intrepid scribe witnessed the band in the flesh—their live show is impeccable and enjoyable. However, their music is mellifluous enough to send packs of death, grind, black, sludge and doom metal supporters into diabetic comas. Denizens of the dark can post up with all the toughness they can muster, but there’s no doubt Sonata Arctica is skilled at writing earworms able to get owners of even the blackest hearts humming. The blood sugar spiking continues with the band’s tenth album, Taviyö. And while the basic elements of metal are present and accounted for, they are used in a manner that’s more fairy tale than fist banging.
The introductory 30 seconds of the lead-off track, “Message from the Sun” appears to be the sound of five guys who couldn’t be happier of the launch of Disney’s new streaming service before a detour into some Dragonforce-lite musical glucose. Here, the guitars do their fair share of scalar running and minor league fretboard heroics while the chord progression is a high fructose corn syrup extraction of major key orchestration. The chorus, despite it generating images of the final make-out scene of a Hallmark Channel rom-com, is an indubitable earworm that mere mortals will be powerless to repel, even with a combination of Viking swords, battle shields, and battle vests.
Same goes for the next song, “Whirlwind,” which not only has a refrain that listeners won’t be able to stop refraining but has the band working the same magic during the verses with a simple ascending/descending chord movement. Let’s not forget about how “Who Failed the Most” actually has vocalist Tony Kakko “tra-la-la-ing” in parts of the verse and directly, but hopefully metaphorically, referencing “the lord of the rings.” This track may be slathered in non-ironic Velveeta, but it’s done in a manner that only the soulless amongst us won’t be belting it out in the shower.
Can you sense where this is going? There’s a discord pitting those who concern themselves with their metal being as frowning and bitter as possible versus the fact that regardless of how cheesy Sonata Arctica are, they know the way around melodies and phrasing strong enough that even a tone-deaf Merzbow fan wouldn’t be able to deny.
However, there is a fair share of moments where the band gravitates so far from anything resembling anything with a set of cojones that the air is more like bad soft rock or chintzy yacht rock with a distortion pedal and a little extra shredding oomph in the solos to compensate. “Cold” is the sort of song that could have AOR radio programmers saying, “C’mon, we’re looking for rock to add to our rock station’s playlist!” “Storm the Armada” makes Def Leppard’s Pyromania sound like a cross between suicidal black metal and gore-grind. None of these are helped by Kakko’s robotically restrained and congested cartoon character vocals which are devoid of the epic majesty the band can capably pull off. On the other hand, the timbre of the frontman/chief song writer’s voice isn’t the only deleterious sticking point in “Demon’s Cage” which tries too hard to squirrel punctuated piano bursts into palm-muted chugging but ends up creating more messy mish-mash than anything smooth and seamless.
Another sticking point that becomes quite evident as the album skates along is how terribly a startling majority of the songs start off. Think of all the great intros in metal’s canon: “Battery,” “Fight Fire with Fire,” “Human/Into Crypts of Rays,” “Corporal Jigsore Quandry,” et al. Taviyö provides the exact opposite of anything cool or compelling with a display of listless meandering, directionless non-sequiturs and failing to get to the freaking point! For a veteran band with a history of pomp and circumstance, it’s actually quite astounding how half-heartedly so many of these songs are introduced. On the other hand, it’s a good sign that many of them do redeem themselves in the end.
But enough negativity! The slick alternate picking, early Faith No More-ish keyboards and Kirk Hammett-speckled lead in “A Little Less Understanding” is an impressive work out and “Ismo’s Got Good Reactors” could be a title referring to some aspect of the thermonuclear dynamics industry or complete nonsense but is actually the album’s instrumental centerpiece combining histrionic and baroque shredding with scales and melodies borrowed from the Far East.
Sonata Arctica will likely never be accused of being the background music to a citizen uprising or used as an MMA’s fighter’s walk-on music, but when it comes to hooks, they have more in their pockets than a septuagenarian fisherman. But, similar to how it shouldn’t come as any surprise that heavy metal incorporates a wide spectrum of sound, it also shouldn’t come as any surprise that too much sugar is bad for you.