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Melodic Power Metal and Balladry Done Right - 92%

DawnoftheShred, September 24th, 2007

There isn’t anybody out writing kickass power ballads anymore. As modern metal bands fruitlessly insist on attempting to outdo one another in terms of extremity and brutality, power ballads have become a lost art, written off as pussy songs for pussy bands. It’s a shame too, as I’ve always seen a proper ballad as a refreshing change of pace on a given album, providing that it’s well written. Judas Priest, Scorpions, Metal Church, hell even Manowar threw in some quality balladry to spice things up. “But Dawnoftheshred,” you might say, “power ballads are still a common element among power metal and symphonic metal bands, even today.” That is very true. But the problem isn’t that bands aren’t writing power ballads anymore, it’s that they aren’t writing GOOD ones.

My favorite illustration of this observation comes from my favorite scapegoat among the modern power metal scene, Hammerfall. In order to show that they still have a lighter side underneath all the steel and chain mail, Hammerfall is sure to throw in a ballad or two before a given album’s end. But never a good one. Hammerfall ballads are generic acoustic (or generic piano) songs delivered without memorable melodies, emotive guitar solos, or a noticeable sense of conviction. And so it goes with pretty much every power metal band I’ve ever heard. Either their ballads suck, or they don’t include any for fear of displaying some sort of an emotional side.

Sonata Arctica, more than most, are a band that’s come under a lot of unnecessary fire for having said emotional side. Detractors have been quick to label them “flower metal,” that most repugnant of labels, simply because they write personal lyrics, numerous ballads, and feature airy keyboard textures as part of their sound. I’ve always found the “flower metal” label a bit misleading, as it seems to imply that the “power” element of power metal is completely gone, replaced by fairy dust, rainbows, and various other derogatory faggotry that extreme metal enthusiasts assume that such bands sing about. Be that as it may, Sonata Arctica are nonetheless among the most original bands to emerge into the power metal scene in the last decade; their virtues existing in meritorious songwriting, skilled reservation, and undeniable conviction, “Flowery” keyboards notwithstanding.

Now while the reason I fucking dig this band is that they single-handedly resurrected the art of the power ballad, they don’t skimp out on the metal to accomplish it. But be warned: Sonata Arctica does not use the guitar the way a traditional power metal band would. Jani Liimatainen tends not to play distinctive ‘riffs,’ relying more on minimalistic power chord progressions (held chords or tremolo picked in some fashion) designed to highlight the vocals and/or the keyboards. Even in typing this now, I recognize that this sounds like a recipe for disaster of the utmost level. Metal should never sacrifice riffage to highlight the vocals, unless of course, your vocalist is unbelievably good. Such is the case with Tony Kakko, who is somehow good enough to make this work and keep the album interesting. His voice has a distinctive flavoring to it representative of his Finnish background and his range is almighty. SA would be little more than a glorified mid-90’s Stratovarius clone if it weren’t for him. His keyboard work is also impressive, adding a unique atmosphere throughout the songs on here. Synth effects range from strings to choirs to harpsichords (fuck yeah), though many of the solos have that cheesy pad effect that detracts from them considerably. Liimatainen does make up for the lack of riffage in his solos, however. His technique stands with the bests in the genre, while his ear for melody and sense of feeling is unrivaled. Tommy Portimo and Janne Kivilahti (drums and bass, respectively) kind of go through the motions in comparison, but their playing is solid if not extraordinary. Their lack of variety, much like the guitars, is a bit unfortunate from a musician’s standpoint, but the songs are no less powerful because of it.

Speaking of the songs, they aren’t one dimensional. SA non-ballads come in two flavors: fast and mid-paced. The faster ones are the most Stratovarius-influenced. Opener “Blank File” rips forth at a blistering pace, but if one doesn’t focus on the double-pedal abuse, they’d find a crazy solo section and a lot of memorable Kakko vocals. “8th Commandment” features one of the more recognizable riffs* and is just as powerful as anything Blind Guardian would do. “Destruction Preventer,” the epic closer, finishes the album off just as it started, fast as hell and full of solos. But unlike most power metal bands, the slower these guys play, the more they shine. Mid-paced numbers like the exotic “Picturing the Past,” slightly neoclassically inspired “Unopened,” the infectious keyboard-laden “Kingdom for a Heart,” and the driving concert staple “My Land” blow the faster ones out of the water in terms of catchy songwriting and focused composition.

But as I’ve expressed above, where this band truly stands out among their peers is in the power ballad department. “Replica,” the tragic tale of a war-torn veteran, is infinitely more touching and refined than anything that Hammerfall will ever compose. Partly due to Kakko’s inimitable vocals, partly due to Liimatainen’s perfect lead phrasing, and partly due to the beautiful collaboration of keyboards and guitars (acoustic and electric), this song is a classic. A similar success can be found in the more subdued, but far more introspective “Letter to Dana,” one of the saddest songs the band has composed to date. Tragedy is an intricate part of the band’s work, and it’s put to good use here, channeled through Kakko’s lyrics and Liimatainen’s amplifier. The absolute highlight here is “Full Moon,” which opens under the guise of a piano ballad before accelerating into a very epic sounding mid-paced rocker. Again, the keyboards are perfect, as are the vocals and guitar solos. It’s this song that first calls to mind classic Scorpions balladry, a recurring impression in their later work. Altogether that is this album’s only downside: that it is not as enchanting as their later material would be.

There will always be those that deride this album as “flower metal” swill, but I in turn will always applaud this work for expanding power metal’s boundaries into uncharted territory. And this is not even on the same level as the works that would follow it.

*EDIT: I just found out that this riff was basically copped from an old Malmsteen song called "Forever is a Long Time," so I docked 'em a point because I'm petty and stupid. Carry on.