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A Heart Made of Real Gold - 100%

Milkfiend, November 11th, 2006

I’ve always asserted that an album should be a collection of songs that “flow” or at least maintain some continuity that makes it clear that they were recorded in the same album session rather than just being a bunch of songs (however good they may be) burned onto a CD. I consider Kamelot’s “The Black Halo” to epitomise this ideal and that album is indeed greater than the sum of its parts – listening to the whole piece is far more rewarding than listening to any single song.

With “Reckoning Night” I have encountered something that I have only once experienced before and that remains something of a paradox. Each song is a self-contained tale with its own distinct identity and all the trappings of Sonata Arctica’s brand of modern power metal, yet the album’s continuity is not compromised; it really is possible to think of each song as a chapter in the same book that is the album. The only thing that I can think to compare it to is Blind Guardian’s “A Night at the Opera”, though the songs on “Reckoning Night” are far easier to “digest” and more instantly accessible than those on ANATO. “Reckoning Night” also shares some musical similarities with ANATO, particularly in the dense layered sounds and the attempt to pack any one song with as many catchy melodies as possible – this is most distinctly realised on the tracks “Don’t Say a Word” and “Wildfire”. Perhaps the rather unique production that emphasises a soft, booming sound from the rhythm section (which complements the clean keyboards brilliantly) has something to do with maintaining the consistency and fits really well with the atmosphere of some of the songs, particularly the melancholic epic, “White Pearl, Black Oceans”.

Tommy Portimo’s drumming remains the weakest part of the band’s performance as his uninspired and repetitive use of the double bass on some of the songs can become tedious at times. The production downplays this, however, and it won’t make you want to kill yourself (see “Blank File” from their debut album) and the interaction between the drums and bass on “Don’t Say a Word” is actually very enjoyable, suggesting some evolution of Mr Portimo’s technique.

The keyboard frequently takes a lead role and is distinctly “flowery” at times and although this naturally leads to downplaying the role of the guitar there are still some enjoyable riffs to be found (the best of which is the one which opens and closes “The Boy Who Wanted to be a Real Puppet”) and some great solos, which always feel an integral part of the song and are never just played for the sake of soloing. Tony Kakko might not make the greatest frontman but his vocals on this release are as strong and as full of passion as on any of his studio recordings and his performance definitely adds a lot to this release.

Surprisingly, and pleasantly if you don’t subscribe to the infallibility of Sonata Arctica’s emotional ballads, this release contains only one ballad, “Shamandalie” (which is somewhat reminiscent of “Tallulah” from the “Silence” record). Rather the album has more than its share of fast paced blazing tracks such as “Misplaced” and “Ain’t Your Fairytale” and a couple of mid-tempo tracks: “The Boy Who Wanted to be a Real Puppet” and “Blinded No More”.

This is one of the few albums out there where every song can genuinely be called a winner. Kakko’s lyrics have, since Ecliptica, consistently (aside from a few slips) been amongst the best and most meaningful in Metal. They’re better than ever on this record (by far the best I’ve heard of any genre) and lend each composition extra credibility and purpose, essentially turning every track into a little parable that will make its mark on your soul even as the insanely catchy music takes up residence in your skull.

To scrutinise each song would be an exercise in futility as nothing I can say can express my regard (or convince anyone else of said regard – and is that not the purpose a review?) for this album beyond what I have said above, suffice to say that if you’re a fan of melodic power metal this is an essential part of your collection. Instead I will endeavour to highlight some of the most enjoyable musical treats on offer on this album.

“White Pearl, Black Oceans” is my favourite Sonata Arctica song and one of my favourite songs of all time. This is the epic of the album and features many changes in tone and tempo (swapping between slow, mid-tempo and a speedy rush towards the climax of the piece) and even boasts a few “headbangable” moments. The lead swaps between the keys and the guitar at various parts in the song to aid the changing tones that complement the narrative nature of the song. Thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end and comparable to Blind Guardian’s mighty “And Then There Was Silence”.

“The Boy Who Wanted to be a Real Puppet” and “Don’t Say A Word” are also are standouts in an album of standouts. The former contains some brilliant vocal melodies, great (and flowery) keyboard parts and boasts a “happy power metal” vibe whilst the latter is a much darker affair which gallops along to an impressive performance by the rhythm section and has perhaps the most memorable chorus of the album (which is saying something).

I feel I’ve got to justify the “perfect” 100/100 rating I give this album. Put simply, I consider it the best of its style that I’ve heard and it also has that elusive, unexplainable and deeply personal quality that ensures, should you let yourself come under the music’s spell, that this is an album that you will treasure above all but the most spectacular releases.

Of course, I recognise that this disc is not for everyone: for example many metal “purists” believe staunchly in the mystic properties of the keyboard as a prominent instrument to instantly and irrevocably turn any who hear it gay. These people as well as those who really haven’t enjoyed any of Sonata Artica’s previous works should probably spend their money elsewhere, though those of you who were sitting on the fence concerning “Ecliptica” should check this out – Sonata Arctica’s evolution from their previous (less mature) works is really quite spectacular.