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A Few Tweaks Go a Long Way - 93%

octavarium, February 28th, 2011

Sonata Arctica's first three albums were pretty faithful to each other in style: a mix of super-fast and melodic power metal anthems mixed with good but somewhat unimpressive power ballads. The band's fourth album follows a similar formula as well, but with a few surprises along the way. It would be the band's first forray into experimenting with progressive metal that would be further delved into and adopted in Unia and The Days of Grays while keeping a strong power metal feel. But while there may still be familiarity with some experimentation, it still creates a fresher sound than ever before.

The band doesn't delay at all with the opening of the album as it immediately opens with the blazing-fast guitar riff of Misplaced (lyrically a seemingly sort of sequel to My Land) before pausing for a moment and switching to a keyboard riff. This is what seems like a traditional Sonata melodic power anthem, but there is also a heavier sound involved, making this truly a new start for the Finnish band. The fast-paced intensity of Misplaced transitions to the first "power ballad" Blinded No More. But this could hardly be considered a power ballad as instead of being overly soft, it has a slow and steady heavy riff which features perhaps the first instance of progresssive metal. Followed by this is the trademark album "wolf song" Ain't Your Fairy Tale, a basic power metal Sonata song. But the surprises continue as the nex song Reckoning Day, Reckoning Night, is a symphonic and orchestral soft instrumental before continously transitioning to Don't Say a Word. This is perhaps the most unique track on the album, with a fast-paced melodic theme that is also dark and eerie with lyrics of madness and obsession, a hauntingly light keyboard, and the normally upbeat Tony Kakko sounding truly villainous and evil. The Boy who Wanted to be a Real Puppet is another example of a power metal/progressive metal mix, but the transitioning soft/loud and fast sound ends being somewhat unimpressive. The power metal kicks back in again with another strong track My Selene. But like Misplaced, this power metal song sets itself apart from the rest of Sonata's traditional sound with a very catchy melodic but with a full and heavy riff in the chorus but a light keyboard during the verses. Wildfire is another truly unique track with a very heavy and aggressive sound that is borderline thrash/speed, features an eerie spoken word intro, light keyboards, aggressive vocals by Tony, and angry harsh vocals by then-newcoming keyboardist Henrik Klingenberg. White Pearl, Black Oceans is the longest track on the album and is the most varied, with a power ballad intro, transitioning to a power/progressive metal sound, back to power ballad, back to power/progressive metal, ending with power ballad. Shamandalie is nice but is another standard, traditional Sonata power ballad.

Now here's where things get tricky. The album's final track is listed as Wrecking the Sphere, which is an impressive over-7 minute power metal track with a heavy sound similar to My Selene and Misplaced, but this track is only the Japanese version of the album. All others are replaced by a hidden track called Jam (under the name Wrecking the Sphere) that is a tropical, latin-styled instrumental that was basically a sort of demo the guys did for fun in the studio. This is probably the biggest problem of the album, as it lacks a really strong closing track.

This is perhaps the most important album in Sonata'a history, because it marks the band's turning point: keeping a familiar style while preparing to adopt new sounds that would be especially prevalent in the controversially different Unia and The Days of Grays. The power metal is there, the emotion is there, and the power ballads are there, but with added progressive elements everything feels more powerful and stronger without dropping the melodic sound Sonata won fans over with. This is Sonata Arctica's strongest outing and it still features the basics. Tony's tenor is still impressive, Jani's guitar solos are still spectacular, and the stunning keyboard solos still complement the guitar solos, this time with Klingenberg. Once again, there is much good on this album with nothing truly bad, but it will once again come down to fan's preferences for power metal over power ballads. Even Jam can be enjoyed for light-hearted humor. The guys from Finland really hit there stride here.