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The Cold Heart of Winter Romance. - 94%

hells_unicorn, December 20th, 2006

When one first examines this opus, this collection of varied and heartfelt songs, the first question to arise is obvious. What is the Winterheart’s Guild? In my estimation it is a name which underscores the true contrast between Sonata Arctica and most bands that are associated with Power Metal, a group of Romanticists who came out of the snowy hills of Finland to tell their thoughts on the world that they perceive with their eyes. Lyrically, it is the expression of reminiscence and nostalgia, be it the quest for freedom of “The Cage” or the melancholy ode to love of “The Misery”. Musically, it still caries the same sense of technical intrigue and blazing speed meshed with consonant keyboard ambiences and quasi-operatic vocals that was present on the previous 2 releases.

The songs on here are quite striking in the musical department, particularly due to the presence of keyboardist Jens Johannsen of Rising Force/Stratovarius fame on 4 of the songs here. It is a credit also to Jari Liimatainen as a lead guitarist for being able to hold his own when trading leads with a seasoned veteran in the art of keyboard shredding. Out of their lead exchanges, the one found on “The Cage” is by far the most riveting.

The fast tracks tend to run together a bit on here at times, though “Abandoned, Pleased, Brainwashed, Exploited” is easily distinguished from the rest of the songs, as it places the emphasis completely on Tony Kakko’s singing. The sheer density between the musical background when it mixes with the multi-tracked chorus of Kakko’s voices in harmony with one another is astounding, and rivals the final section of “San Sebastian (Revisited)” on the previous release. “The Cage” is pretty much the closest thing to true power metal, containing a triumphant chorus, plenty of speed and guitar shredding, and tells a grand lyrical tale from the point of view of a wolf in a cage. “Victoria’s Secret” and “The Ruins of my Life” have their charm, but compared to the opening track and “The Cage”, they are a bit inferior.

The mid-tempo tracks, as usual, often contain many changes and carry a strong amount of drama. “Gravenimage” has the most blatantly deceptive structure of these songs, going from a very ballad like piano intro to a rather agitated up tempo rocker. “Champagne Bath” is a Malmsteen inspired neo classical number, and although it is quite fast at times, compared to the 4 songs mentioned in the previous paragraph, it is mid-tempo. “Silver Tongue” is quite catchy, full of lyrical wit, although I think the keyboards could be a tiny bit lower in the mix on this one. “Broken” is probably my least favorite track on here, it has a nice heavy set of guitar riffs, but the beat is so dry and predictable that I feel like I’m listening to a metronome after the first 2 minutes.

The two ballads on here display the 2 strengths and weaknesses of this band in the musical/lyrical department, melancholy longing and melody. “Draw Me” is a charming ballad, though lyrically a bit somber. However, “The Misery” articulates the same theme that I can’t find myself identifying with, passion from the state of weakness. The poet depicted in this tale of woe sees his control over his own life fade for the wishes of another, one who would not return his love in any way that could measure up to such a sacrifice. It is here that the heart of winter truly freezes, leaving its would be lovers frozen inside, separated by a wall of ice yet forced to look at each other forever through the gloss of a lie, the lie that love is a sacrifice, rather than a reward. Although philosophically I can’t endorse the words of this musical poem, the melodies and the music are beautiful, and reminds me heavily of the power ballads that the Scorpions put out in the 80s and early 90s.

In conclusion, this is Sonata Arctica’s most polished album to date, although it is not quite as conceptually ambitious as “Silence”, which I consider to be a better album due to this. It is mostly an appeal to the Power Metal audience, but the lyrics on here are so dark and somber that I could see some fans of Goth Metal liking this. It is a good listen, although I believe that the sad moments on this album unnecessarily outweigh the triumphant parts.