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Sonata Arctica > First in Line > Reviews > hells_unicorn
Sonata Arctica - First in Line

A hopeful sign of a much needed turnaround. - 85%

hells_unicorn, November 20th, 2023
Written based on this version: 2023, Digital, Atomic Fire Records

With roughly 20 years now in the rearview since Sonata Arctica was a name associated with stylistic and qualitative consistency, European power metal audiences have no doubt been thinking that something needs to give, and that just may well have happened a few short weeks ago. Having taken a 4 year hiatus from composing new material in a studio capacity since the confuted and highly mixed bag that was 2019's Talviyö, apart from a duo of acoustic LPs rearranging select songs from prior albums, a calm of sorts had worked into things that may well have been pointing to an upcoming storm, and this time around a decidedly familiar and welcome one for anybody who had been missing what this band had brought to the table during the first half of the 2000s in the form of a fast-paced banger after the mode of 2003's Winterheart's Guild dubbed "First In Line".

Given the noteworthy absence of original guitarist Jani Liimatainen and long-serving bassist Marko Paasikoski, both of whom made the aforementioned 3rd Sonata Arctica album an undisputed power metal classic, it can be stipulated that what occurs on here musically will have its share of deviations from the original. However, the only noteworthy departure from this outfit's seminal sound that really stands out here is Elias Viljanen's busier riffing approach, which results in a somewhat more complex yet still orthodox flow that is pretty reminiscent to what Stratovarius has accomplished since Matias Kupiainen replaced Timo Tolkki. Otherwise, this is the same sort of triumphant, double kick-happy brand of Euro power that screams 2002 like its going out of style, and surprisingly enough Tony Kakko has even traded in his overly melodramatic caterwauls for something far closer to his original soaring, pristine tenor of yesteryear.

The whole song functions as a celebration of where power metal was prior to the encroachment of modern AOR that began seeping into the scene at around the same time that this outfit's prior swansong Reckoning Night stood as one of the last expressions of the traditioinal approach. The melodic progression from verse to chorus is as methodical as it is organic, with Kakko taking a far less rambling approach to his generally wordy lyrical poems and presenting something that the average layman can sing along to without getting tongue-tied. But even more refreshing is the accompanying instrumentation, which manages to mostly stay content working within the template of a straightforward, up tempo roar from the rhythm section and otherwise pushes the envelope ever so slightly during the break periods in Tony's singing to paint some flashy keyboard and guitar leads over a consonant, well-realized template.

The only downside to this song, apart from its previously noted predictability, is the remaining air of uncertainty as to what will follow it with the arrival of 2024. Long time fans of the Sonata Arctica brand, of which I still consider myself a part of, have been left with a rather nasty case of frost bite after the seemingly solid return to form presented in "Flag In The Ground" after the trainwreck that was Unia, only to get a slightly less confused mess in The Days Of Grays, while even the nearly consistent return to the power metal template that was Pariah's Child refused to fully close the deal. This time around, the appetizer before the meal has far more meat to it and would seem to point to a band that has finally come full circle after more than 15 years of wandering aimlessly in search of "the new sound", but it's all up in the air until the next LP comes to light.