Sound — 8
Sonata Arctica have been known to exist outside of the realm of many big European styles of metal. They've never quite been "100 percent power metal" in the same way bands like Stratovarius and Helloween were, they've never been as progressive as bands like Pain Of Salvation or Dream Theater. Instead, they've always been in some intermediate area, some strange sort of mix of prog and power metal, never quite fully immersing themselves in either, save for their decidedly more traditional power metal leanings on their first two records, "Ecliptica" and "Silence."
"The Ninth Hour," the band's ninth studio album, sees them continuing where they've left off on previous album "Pariah's Child," but also sees them making some interesting diversions that they haven't taken in quite some time. Wearing their influences on their sleeve has never been a weak point for Sonata Arctica, but album opener "Closer to an Animal" evokes late-'90s European progressive metal bands like Pain Of Salvation almost to the point of being an honest homage. The track is truly beautiful, with lots of amazing vocal melodies from vocalist Tony Kakko, Henrik Klingenberg's cheesy '80s synths that somehow work incredibly well over Elias Viljanen's chunky guitar playing, while drummer Tommy Portimo and newcomer on bass guitar, Pasi Kauppinen, bash out an incredibly tight and upfront rhythm section. As a first single, this was a perfect opener and first taste of the album, and its sort of dichotomy of beautiful proggy parts mixed with the band's traditional style of melodic metal really set the tone for the album. Following the track is the album's second single, "Life," which takes a bit more from the band's power metal past, while still retaining the melodic sound they've been establishing from album to album. Elias and Henrik do a wonderful solo tradeoff, and get their first real opportunities to stretch their wings and play on the album.
It should be mentioned that I had always been a bigger fan of Jani Liimatainen's guitar playing on their albums up to "Unia" over Elias', and not much of Elias' playing had really interested me, but I'm finding a lot to like about his playing on this album. He really seems to have come into his own with the band on this album, and his approach to guitar playing has become a bit more relaxed. "Fairytale" is a scathingly political song that has a much heavier and faster sound than the first two tracks, but just like a lot of their material, doesn't so much come off as a power metal tune as something that straddles that thin line between power metal and '90s prog metal. It's definitely one of my favourite songs from the record, and it sounds like it would be huge in a live setting, with a lot of great energy. "We Are What We Are" features a guest appearance from Troy Donockley (Nightwish, Iona, Maddy Prior, The Bad Shepherds, etc.) on low whistle, and is a melodic power ballad. As far as power ballads on this album go, this one is definitely one of the better ones, and features a wonderful keyboard solo from Henrik as well as some truly beautiful singing from Tony.
"Till Death's Done Us Apart" is an epic, theatrical metal song that seems to be part of the band's ongoing "Caleb" saga. Picture Jim Steinman's work with Meat Loaf, but taken on by a European power metal band. There are many transitions from speedy riffs to dramatic piano-led verses, and it feels like the most progressive song on the album in terms of structure, with very few of the parts repeating themselves. There are echoes in the song, melodically, structurally and lyrically, of the song "Caleb" from their "Unia" album. "Among the Shooting Stars" is also a very "Unia"-esque mid-tempo song that's a bit too heavy to qualify as a power ballad, but too light to really be called anything else. It's a lovely tune, with a lot of great vocal melodies that weave in and out, and some really impassioned singing from Tony, but overall, it's not energetic enough to really warrant much attention from me. "Rise a Night" picks up the pace dramatically, with some of the band's fastest, most "power metal" leanings since perhaps "Reckoning Night," but with some great science fiction-tinged lyrics, and more of Tony Kakko's beautiful melodies. Elias and Henrik get another shot at trading solos, and this aspect of the band is always something I enjoy.
"Fly, Navigate, Communicate" is a bit of a strange song, with some very pretty melodies over top some of the band's most progressive metal riffing and ambient keyboard playing. Tony Kakko admits to a heavy Devin Townsend Project influence on the track, and while it's not completely obvious on first listen, paying attention to his vocals reveals it, as well as showing off his incredible range. "Candle Lawns" is a touching, heartfelt song Tony composed for a friend's film project, though decided to use on this album. It's a very '80s-tinged power ballad, not unlike tracks by bands like Journey, and it's not really my favourite song on the album, but it does have a really nice guitar solo, and it's a rather pretty song. "White Pearl, Black Oceans, Pt. II - By the Grace of the Ocean" is a sequel to the epic track from "Reckoning Night," and is about as symphonic as the album gets, and with its length of just over ten minutes, covers a lot of ground. It's actually a fairly progressive track for the band, with many melodic and rhythmic twists and turns, continuing the sort of Jim Steinman-esque songwriting that's present on this whole record. There are some wonderful sections, huge buildups in speed and intensity, some wonderful solos, and as far as their epics go, it's among the best they've done in a while.
Outlining what might be my only real criticism of the album, the album's closing track, "On the Faultline (Closure to an Animal)," is supposed to be a mellow bookend to the album, a reprise of sorts of the album's opening track, sharing many melodies and lyrics. Usually, this kind of thing on a concept album is a wonderful way to tie together the record musically and lyrically, but I feel like this mellow approach just didn't sit well with me, and it's quite possible that this track is the Sonata Arctica tune I like the least in their entire discography. It's not really a very bad song, overall, it just felt a little cheesy and a little less poignant than I had expected a sort of progressive-style album bookend piece to be. And I feel like the mellowness of the album overall was something that did get to me at times. Many of the songs have very sad melodies, not a lot of energy overall, and even a couple of the faster tracks, like "Life" or "Rise a Night," don't feel all that energetic. Trading energy for beauty is perhaps not the worst thing this band could do, but I had hoped for a better balance on the record.
Pasi Kauppinen, as well as handling the band's bassist position, also took care of the production on the record, and it sounds wonderful. The '80s synths and orchestral samples are nowhere near as overbearing as many other bands in the genre, and the instruments all get a lot of breathing room in the mix. A wonderful added touch for folks who purchased the album on iTunes is a cover of Bryan Adams' "Run to You," which, given the '80s-esque tones of the band on this album, is a really natural choice of cover song for them.
Lyrics — 9
Concept albums are a bit of a tricky business in this day and age. There used to be a time when a concept record was a special thing that only a few bands would do, enticing the more literate music fans in. Nowadays, however, nearly every genre has many examples of conceptual records, and it's become very hard for any band to really stand out with one. Sonata Arctica has never quite done a traditional concept record before, and "The Ninth Hour" is (sort of) their first. It's actually a very loose concept that doesn't quite work its way through all of the songs on the album, as some deviate from the concept. Unlike a lot of power metal bands who focus on topics like fantasy stories, historical battles and the like, Sonata Arctica tackle contemporary issues in politics, environmentalism, and human nature head-on. If this all sounds very familiar, remember that they count Swedish prog-metallers Pain Of Salvation among their influences, and there are themes on this album reminiscent of their albums "One Hour by the Concrete Lake" and "The Perfect Element Part I." Rather than a narrative story, the band chooses to focus on different facets of each topic on each song, with the song "Closer to an Animal" probably being the best representation of the lyrical themes on the record: "Imagine now if we one day could build a flying contraption and see the world/What if we could somehow store knowledge in a cloud/Draw a smiley face on the moon/Find the meaning of life."
A lot of Sonata Arctica's albums in the past have had lyrics which were very dark and depressing, but on this record, they've seen fit to focus on more positive aspects of life, and even provide these words of inspiration on the song "Life": "Smile/Life is better alive/It is a dumb thing to say/But the fact won't wane away/Sing with someone today/When your team makes a game winning goal/Get ready to sing." Tony Kakko even takes on a rather touchy topic by all but directly naming Donald Trump in the track "Fairytale": "Who'll be the superseder/The builder of the walls; a great leader/He'll rape us all and say surprise/and everything is fine/So, I would need a billion dollars to my name?/But no validation, no acclaim?/It's like a play, TV-make-up, a toupée/The chosen one may dig one grave./For the nation. Hooray!" "Rise a Night" on the surface sounds like a song about something like perhaps vikings or marauders enslaving their enemies after a vicious battle, all very typical power metal fare, except that the line "You could build a ship, sail the stars," as well as confirmation from Tony Kakko himself on a Youtube track-by-track of the album, shows that the song is actually about an alien invasion after the conquering race has destroyed their own environment.
There are also the staples of Sonata's lyrical themes, including a song about werewolves ("Among the Shooting Stars"), a song that's quite possibly another chapter of the "Caleb" story ("Till Death's Done Us Apart"), and a sequel to "White Pearl, Black Oceans" that, surprisingly, has a bit of a happy ending.
As always, Tony Kakko's voice is incredible on the album, with a very dramatic tone and a huge range throughout. He even manages to evoke singers like Devin Townsend, such as on the song "Fly, Navigate, Communicate," and if there's one aspect of any Sonata Arctica album that's always a pleasure to listen to, it's his vocals.
Overall Impression — 8
While I was most immediately impressed by the band's previous album, "Pariah's Child," I found this one needed some growing time. Listening to the album numerous times to get all of the twists and turns, there were many tracks I thoroughly disliked on first listen that I find myself immensely enjoying now. It's not as direct as previous Sonata Arctica albums, and while I wouldn't go and call it "deeper," since they've always had a bit of depth to them, there's still many layers to peel back on the album, with lyrical themes about respect of life and the environment putting them above many power metal bands who seem to only be able to sing about the same tired high-fantasy topics. The musicianship is as impressive as ever, as is the production. The only thing I wish this album had was a bit more energy. "Closer to an Animal" really got my hopes up for both the progressive side of the band as well as the energetic sound, but it seems the band has opted for a more mellow sound much like their "Unia" album (though even that album is quite a bit heavier at times). However, I did not find this to be reason for complaint, it was merely unexpected, given the energy of the album's first two singles. There are still some really amazing moments on this album, however, and it's still a very worthy release in 2016, and highly recommended if you're a fan of power metal or European progressive metal from the late '90s (basically, this album sits really well with just about anything released on a record label like InsideOut). Definitely an 8.5/10, and a very strong, if somewhat more difficult to get into, release for the band.