• Turning flaws into strengths - A review of Sonata Arctica's ''The Ninth Hour''

    Sonata Arctica - The Ninth Hour (2016)

    I have always had a hard time approaching Sonata Arctica's music. Their early years always sounded like a light version of Stratovarius to me. Their catchier tunes were so saccharine, fluffy and amorphous that I considered them worse than exchangeable radio pop music. The group's more experimental and progressive tracks sounded tiring, structureless and mismatched to me since instruments and vocals often didn't harmonize in my opinion. It's more by coincidence that I saw the group playing live three times in the past few years. In fact, I was always coming to see them because they were playing with another interesting band such as Leaves' Eyes, Nightwish and Xandria for example. Despite not being too fond of their style, I liked the band's energetic, intimate and sympathetic live performances and decided to give them another shot. Despite all its obvious flaws that have rightfully been mentioned in numerous reviews, The Ninth Hour somehow manages to transform its flaws into strengths and to sound appealing to me. It's not a masterpiece by any means but a calm, harmonious and intellectual release that European power metal fans should pick up.

    Let's try to point out how Sonata Arctica manages to make its flaws work in its favor with three concrete examples. The first debatable track is already the opener ''Closer to an Animal''. When I first heard the song, I felt that the vocal melodies and the lead guitar melodies didn't harmonize at certain moments and sounded strangely out of tone. The vocals sound somewhat powerless and the dull production adds to this impression. I still think this track is a bad choice as an album opener. It neither opens the record with a powerful bang nor with a catchy hit. Songs like the classic up-tempo power metal stomper ''Rise a Night'' or the catchy ''Life'' would have been much better choices to open this album. Still, I didn't want to give up on the song and it ended up growing on me. The opener is a rather progressive track with ambitious lyrics, hypnotizing soundscapes and unusual song writing. It's actually quite a statement to open the album with a song that is that hard to digest. Sonata Arctica make it clear right from the start that they have their very own and unique sound and think out of the box. I respect the group's motives and since the song has enough atmosphere, depth and diversity, it ended up being one of my favorite tunes on this release.

    A second example comes ahead with the second tune ''Life''. This song does so many thing that aren't hold in high regard. The melody lines are extremely soft, melodic and catchy which is quite unusual for metal music in general. Even in their own power metal genre, this track is outstanding in terms of commercial appeal. In addition to this, the song includes rather unusually life-affirming lyrics that come across quite awkwardly with strange passages such as ''Life is better alive''. If that wasn't enough, the entire song builds up towards a chorus that focuses on a happy sing-along part instead of actual lyrics. The entire track makes me think of a fluffy rose teddy bear with colored hearts drawn all over its soft plush that just needs to be hugged by a joyful toddler. No matter how hard I try, I just can't escape this song's comforting, hopeful and optimistic charm. The obtrusive chorus ends up being completely unforgettable, the joyous melodies get me every time and even the unusual lyrics are stuck on my mind because they are so particular.

    A third example is the fact that The Ninth Hour almost entirely consists of balladesque tracks with the exceptions of the moodier ''Fairytale' and the powerful ''Rise A Night'' that end up being highlights on here because they provide some much needed energy to an otherwise quite soft record. The number of calm, harmonious and slow-paced tunes is almost overwhelming. Still, it's undeniable that the band simply does what it knows best and excels in this genre. This can be seen as predictability, repetition and standstill but in this case I see it as a band's rare awareness of its own strengths and limits. Even though a first listening experience of this ballad collection might be tiring, it turns out that most of the songs on The Ninth Hour show enough variation to stick out and convince in different manners. The folk-inspired ''We Are What We Are'' develops a smooth, epic and enchanting atmosphere with soothing vocals and floating keyboard sounds. The elegant, neoclassical and imaginative ''Till Death's Done Us Apart'' sounds like an inspired interpretation of a creative fairy tale. The mixture of uplifting melodies yet sorrowful lyrics in the very melodic ''Fly, Navigate, Communicate'' develop an intriguing contrast that unfolds its imaginative charm more and more with each spin. 

    In the end, Sonata Arctica manage to transform what seem to be obvious flaws into unique strengths on The Ninth Hour. This record definitely isn't for everybody but you can't get anything better if you're looking for smooth, melodic and enchanting European power metal these days. Aside of the unnecessary and overlong ''White Pearl, Black Oceans (Part II: By the Grace of the Ocean)'' and the album closer ''On the Faultline (Closure to an Animal)'' which is actually just a softer alternative version of the opener, this record includes nine songs that may take some time to open up but will unfold their magic if you bring some patience and appreciation for this genre. This is why these unique Finish magicians deserve a fair rating here.

    On a closing side note, the Japanese bonus track ''The Elephant'' is one of the best tracks on the new record and comes along as an energizing up-tempo power metal track with meaningful lyrics about the madness of war. This track is a definite highlight on the record and might appeal to fans of the band's early years. Faithful fans should really get their hands on the Japanese version.

    Final rating: 80%

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