Thursday 14 March 2024

Sonata Arctica - Clear Cold Beyond (2024)

Country: Finland
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2024
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I've been waiting for this one, apparently for five years now. I've always enjoyed Sonata Arctica to a degree, but I've never become a dedicated fan. Their brand of European power metal is easy to like but they've never really distinguished themselves to me the way some equivalents have, so a few of their earlier albums blur together in my memory with others by other bands. That thinking led me to their tenth album in 2019, Talviyö, so I wasn't expecting something special but I was still open to something that the younger me might have missed. What I found disappointed me, even as a casual fan. That didn't bode well.

Apparently, a decent amount of their fans had been disappointed with a gradual shift away from their roots to a more pop rock direction and, after listening to Talviyö, I could see why. I rarely give anything here at Apocalypse Later less than a 6/10 because, if it's bad enough to warrant a lower rating, then I'd prefer not to review it. I gave that a 5/10 and wondered if I'd even bother to listen to the next one, wrapping up my review with "Regular readers will know that there's a lot of great music coming out of Finland. I hope that Sonata Arctica find their way back into that category."

Well, fast forward five years and I checked out the next full album, just in case, and I'm very happy that I did so because it was clear very quickly indeed that the band either listened to their fans or found themselves joining them, because this is old school power metal from the very outset. I've read that lead vocalist Tony Kakko stubbornly resists that term, preferring melodic metal, which is fair enough, but it's power metal to most of us until they soften up like on the last album and, I guess, the few before that.

They don't soften up here until A Monster Only You Can't See six tracks in and, even when they do, the result is still worthy material. I liked that song, even before it perks up a little way in to turn back into power metal, albeit with plenty of hints at Abba in the melodies. Teardrops is a heavier song throughout but it has a softer ending and yet a very tasty one indeed. The slowest parts of the title track, which are much slower than most of the album, are also neatly heavy. The closest it gets to a ballad is The Best Things and nothing soft here feels inappropriate.

So, with this back to being roughly what we might expect from the band, the question becomes a matter of quality. How good is this? Are they back to their peak form? Have they rekindled a sense of energy to go with their sense of melody? And have they converted me into a dedicated fan, not just a casual one who likes them when he hears them but doesn't feel the urge to dip further into their back catalogue. The bad news is that I can't answer all those questions with a yes. The good news is that I can, at least, answer most of them in the affirmative.

For a start, this is clearly a much better album than Talviyö, which seemed likely from the opener alone, appropriately titled First in Line. While that remains an up tempo highlight with a bunch of excellent solos, California continued its approach, perhaps even faster again outside of one quirky slower part, and Shah Mat too, which takes a while to speed up but does so. Dark Empath is a little slower but it's a highlight for me, full of mood and emphasis, and, by this point, I started to realise that this was massively different from last time. It's like night and day and that's refreshing, even if I've only been waiting five years for it while the diehards have been waiting twenty.

So yeah, maybe they're back to their peak form. I wouldn't call this their best album, but it's much more likely to be talked about alongside Winterheart's Guild or Reckoning Night than something like Talviyö and that suggests pretty close to peak. I'm going 7/10 rather than a highly recommended 8/10, but I thought about it. Think of this as a 7.5/10. I can't remember the last time I found a Sonata Arctica song as vibrant as Angel Defiled, which kicks off almost like power metal built on harpsichord. The keyboard solo, presumably courtesy of Henrik Klingenberg, is a neo-classical joy, and the recurrent theme leads to a strong guitar vs. keyboard duel at the end too.

And that tells me that the band are enjoying themselves, meaning that I've gone with two yeses and a pretty much to answer my first three questions. So to the fourth. Did this turn me into a big Sonata Arctica fan? Well, not really, but I'm a lot closer than I've been and that surprises me. This is definitely my sort of thing, in much the same way that Talviyö wasn't and I hope that the band is truly on board with this new approach. They sound like they're having fun, even Kakko who sings a song like it would be sung live without post-production to turn it into something else. Maybe they truly are back on the same wavelength as their fanbase. If so, I'm looking forward to their twelfth album in a few years time.

And I'll definitely check that out, if partly to confirm they're not leaping backwards again.

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