|Review: Sonata Arctica - Unia|
Label: Nuclear Blast Records
Year released: 2007
Genre: Progressive Metal
Review online: November 14, 2007
Reviewed by: Larry Griffin
You've got to be kidding me. This is the same Finnish pop metal band that recorded the superb-yet-flawed Stratovarius-esque debut album Ecliptica back in 1999? The same band with the cheesy, happy choruses and the broken English lyrics? The same band with the double bass speed attack drums and the keyboards drenched over everything like a blanket?
Could've fooled me.
It's been three long years since Sonata Arctica's fourth studio full length Reckoning Night, and the question on everybody's tongue is "does this album live up to that one?" I'll spare you any further pretensions and say yes, it indeed does live up to and surpass its acclaimed predecessor with style and class to boot. Sonata Arctica have always been an article of controversy amongst the metal crowd, attracting either the "they're fucking awesome" side of the argument or its polar opposite - those people who claim the band have always been exceedingly homosexual. Well, that argument is about to have the rug pulled out from under it with the release of Unia, as this is nothing like the poppy, happy, melodic power metal band you may have known and loved/loathed (change to suit your taste).
Here on Unia, Sonata Arctica have taken a big leap and done something completely different from their back catalogue and completely different from everything that's currently popular in the music scene in general. They've ditched any semblance of pop-sensible songwriting, and they've also ditched the clear, light, fluffy production values they so embraced on previous albums. The band has ushered out the speedy double bass seizure attacks and the fluttery, melodic solos and brought in a host of heavy, chugging, almost mechanical riffs and rhythms, layered over with a plethora of dark, sorrow-drenched, romantic keyboards that invoke images of sprawling, twisted landscapes under a bright, relentless moon. Tony Kakko has stopped using his upper range, instead utilizing a more mid-ranged, theatrical style of vocals backed by layers and layers of choirs. They've done this before, but never to the extent as is displayed on Unia. Here, we get everything from straightforward power metal singing to throaty, almost thrashy rasping and growling, to a deep, baritonal chant, and everything in between.
I mentioned the songwriting before, and it's a huge step up from what the band has done previously. In the past, the band focused a lot on catchy, ear-candy-esque melodies and big, hymn-wide choruses that were fit to play live, and it was a fun formula, but not one that the band could keep up forever if they wanted to remain a prominent entity in the Finnish power metal scene. They've taken a leap forward here, and the songs are complex and intricate, not radio friendly in the least. None of them have distinguishable choruses; instead focusing on a constant stream of Tony Kakko's vocals and lyrics that carry the song forward, usually topped with tons of the aforementioned vocal layers. The music itself is a majestic cascade of driving synths and heavy, downtuned riffs that might not be appealing on first listen, but something new will reveal itself every time. There are a few shades of old Sonata Arctica popping up now and then, but this is a progressive refinement of everything they've done before, and more. Each song is a wild ride of odd, enchanting arrangements that will grow on you with each passing listen; truly a captivating album from beginning to end.
The opening blast of the grooving, angry "In Black and White" reveals a band that has clearly spent a lot of time on their music, and the rest of the album doesn't fail to please. "It Won't Fade" is a grinding, almost menacing tune with choirs that raise higher and higher until the song drops out toward the end with one last pained shriek from Kakko; truly an engaging song if you give it time to grow on you. "Under Your Tree" is shamelessly and blatantly balladesque, although it lacks a lot of the smarmy cheese that plagued earlier ballads by the band; a sorrowful, moving song accented with light, romantic violin melodies. The album's centerpiece is "Caleb," a stirring, foreboding mini-epic, splattered with mechanical stop-and-go riffs throughout, and here we have a turning point as well - for the biggest progression in the band's sound is evident in the songs following this one. "The Vice," "The Harvest" and "Fly with the Black Swan" are all stunning displays of furiously vivid, lively progressive mastery that will sweep you away to worlds unknown and unseen by human eyes, and "My Dream's But a Drop of Fuel for a Nightmare" is possibly one of the best songs the band has ever written; 6 minutes and 13 seconds of pure, sweeping, majestic bliss caught on CD.
In a year where many other power metal bands have gone down the shitter, Sonata Arctica provide a breath of much-needed fresh air. Unia is progressive, twisted, daring and dreamlike; a fascinating roller coaster ride through the darkest corners of humanity that will reveal its shining jewels after multiple listens. There are a few weaker tracks, but this is one of those albums that's meant to be heard as a whole, not as a collection of single songs - and if you can't deal with that, then go back to "San Sebastian" and "Letter to Dana," because the band doesn't need you either. This is a deeply involving and intricate musical drama that is not just a bunch of songs, but a whole album. Sonata Arctica have completely reversed their terrible mistakes with last year's The Collection, and this is possibly one of the best albums of the year, as it gets better every time I hear it. I'm not giving it a perfect score due to the fact that I feel the band can do even better on their next efforts, but I will recommend this ridiculously highly to anyone who isn't afraid of the unexpected and the unknown.
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