At one time it really did look like Finland’s Sonata Arctica were ready to take their place at the head of the European Power Metal table and remain seated there for quite some time. Three albums of undisputed quality earned them big reviews and an army of long-haired fans with varied and amusingly peculiar accents.
However, in 2004, things began to wobble. Although Reckoning Night (Nuclear Blast) sold well, and spawned the hit single ‘Don’t Say A Word’, it was clear the band were beginning to head off in a different direction. A direction that not all of their fans seemed to appreciate. So when ‘Unia’ (Nuclear Blast) arrived in 2007, containing a darker and more progressive sound, it’s probably best to describe the reaction as ‘mixed’.
The band continued in this vein for two more albums while re-introducing little touches of their original sound along the way. By the time ‘Pariah’s Child’ (Nuclear Blast) arrived in 2014, Sonata Arctica had all but gone full circle, right down to featuring wolves on the cover art again.
And so, with ninth full length offering, The Ninth Hour (Nuclear Blast), the band continue to try to rekindle that spark. The problem is, that in 2016, the Finnish five-piece don’t really appear to have much left to offer. Whereas Sonata Arctica circa 1999-2003 sounded vibrant, enthusiastic and full of life, the band today sound like most of their efforts come from trying to force songs into recapturing their old vitality rather than being able to let things happen naturally.
A clean, and disappointingly sterile mix full of twinkly keys and clickety-click drum tracks heightens this impression, sounding like it could quite easily have been recorded back in 2002. Vocalist Tony Kakko, while clearly still in possession of a phenomenal set of pipes, plays it safe far too often, although this kind of minimalism does actually work on certain songs. ‘Life’ has a nice “la la la la la” style chorus, and with its tin whistle and cynical chorus, ‘We Are What We Are’ is one of the band’s better ballads. Just a shame about the intrusive plinky-plonk keyboards.
Unfortunately, the otherwise steady opening track ‘Closer To An Animal’ features the band trying to outdo Nightwish with a pompously melodramatic Richard Dawkins style spoken word section. ‘Till Death’s Done Us Apart’ is an incoherent mess where the lyrics, “ding-dong, ding-dong, everything would go wrong” are toe-curlingly appropriate, ‘White Pearl, Black Oceans Part II’ sounds perilously close to ‘Auld Lang Syne’ at times, and closer ‘On the Faultline (Closure To An Animal)’ sounds like it was written for The West End or Broadway.
Never genuinely terrible but also never great, The Ninth Hour simply hovers disinterestedly above that beige line which divides acceptable and disappointing.