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Wintery bliss, simple and soft. - 78%

Empyreal, April 16th, 2009

Sonata Arctica's transformation from happy to depressing was quite a jarring one, coming seemingly out of nowhere and also so quickly that nobody really had time to comprehend what was happening. Ecliptica was just fantastic, a melodic Power Metal masterpiece, Silence was kind of like old Stratovarius on steroids, and then we got this one. Winterheart's Guild, an album that sort of gelled the sound down into a very calm and subdued album full of artistic vocal acrobatics and frosty, snow-caked guitar/synth melodies to top it all off. The band got a lot darker on this one, with the music sounding more intricate and personal than ever - a trait that would continue until the present day with their current opus Unia.

The important thing about this is that Sonata Arctica weren't really trying to make an album to headbang to. This is more of a mellow and reflective album than anything, and musically it is not quite as extravagant and daring as the band had been in the past, being more simplistic and relaxed than before. I can give them a certain amount of leeway for that, because really the style here is just too good to really condemn. Very charismatic and easy to identify. Nobody else ever really sounded like this. Now, the one thing that does bug me is the rather one-dimensional rhythm section, which sounds fine on the slower songs, but is pretty damn bland on the faster ones like "Abandoned, Pleased, Brainwashed, Exploited" and "Victoria's Secret." The drums are just too simplistic for music like this, and the bass doesn't really do anything noteworthy either. It sounds very dry and like it could be much improved upon. This album is pretty much driven solely by Tony Kakko's vocal melodies, which are very layered and complex, always challenging the listener and always delightful to hear.

The best song on here is definitely "Gravenimage," which is a sad midpaced number with some absolutely brilliant "cold" sounding melodies and a somber vocal performance that shows how much Tony Kakko progressed vocally in the short time between Silence and this one. "The Cage" is the best fast song here, with an electric chorus and some truly vibrant melodic ideas, and "Broken" is a nice, darker tune with some experimentation - just listen to the way it trudges along through those aggressive, rhythmical chorus lines. The guitars are more up-front here, too, serving as more of a background element rather than a leading one, but there nonetheless. "Silver Tongue" is the other really good song here, as it has some truly wonderful vocal lines that I will never tire of hearing. It's just catchy as all get out.

I think what Sonata Arctica did here was actually very interesting: they didn't really make conventional metal albums, but what they did instead was essentially using a standard Power Metal template and twisting it into their own special little niche, adding a lot of their own personal touches and intricacies that will probably go past most of the metal world. This isn't perfect, with some slight problems like the drum and bass thing I mentioned before and a few songs that just aren't as memorable, but it is a testament to Power Metal creativity and more bands should try their own hands at this - it would be quite interesting to see what they come up with.

Originally written for http://www.metalcrypt.com