Sonata Arctica have delved into heir past and re-recorded their debut album, Ecliptica, originally recorded in 1999, and while I'm most generally opposed to such projects, they've done a great job and get high marks.
I'm playing catch up here, so bear with me. Somehow in the shuffle I had missed Sonata Arctica - for fifteen years. In fact, the Finnish melodic/power metallers were just in San Francisco less than two weeks ago. Damn my luck. This is one of the coolest bands I've stubbled across in ages, and I let them slip through my hands by dint of sheer ignorance. Well, I'm no stranger to sheer ignorance, but I'm not so daft as to not dig this band, and this album.
As is so often the case, Sonata Arctica has endured some lineup changes over the last fifteen years, with only lead vocalist Tony Kakko and drummer Tommy Portimo remaining, but in listening to this history lesson I can report that both are at the top of their respective game, in fact, Portimo is a better drummer than he was back then, and while Kakko may not have the top end he once had at his disposal, he's traded youthful pipes for a savvy, better tone, and strong delivery (and truth be told, he hits 95% of the original notes). As for the newer members, again Sonata Arctica has dodged the bullet, and everyone in the band is amply talented.
Blank File is a song that may be much more relevant than it was when it was written - a cautionary tale of what will become of personal information in the future has become our all too current reality, and Kakko belts it out as enthusiastically as ever. Guitarist Elias Viljanen and keyboardist Henrik Klingenberg trade eights across the solo section, then they do some fleet finger harmonizing the likes of which I haven't heard since Gary Moore was facing off with Don Airey back in '79. If I had to describe Sonata Arctica to someone I'd ask them to imagine a slightly more technical Manowar with a decided pop bent. Kakko sings, and what's what's kept me away from most metal for the last twenty years has been the lack of singing. I've no love of Cookie Monster crooners, and this is anything but.
I said Tommy Portimo had upped his game as a drummer, and it's made very clear on the melodic, mid-tempo rocker My Land, on which his playing is much faster, tighter, and musical. Kakko is spot on, and though there may not be the youthful enthusiasm of a debut album, the updated sounds, and the maturity of the musicians make this version better to my ears. I do wish they had mixed the keyboards a bit hotter, but I say that a lot, so maybe it's just me. I every band retraced their steps this way, I'd be less inclined to look at this type of project with such distaste.
8th Commandment is a big fan favorite for the band, and I can honestly see some complaining about the keyboard mix on this one, but I'm also guessing that if the record companies involved do their job and get this offering out to some new ears, the quality of the package should see a net increase in love across the board. So often when I hear an album being re-recorded it is strictly for profit (Scorpions, Loverboy, ELO have all been guilty of this) - usually to get some revenue back that has dried up from their old labels, but this actually sounds like the band tried to top their past, and in doing so have fared well.
Another song which has only grown in relevance is Replica, the sad tale of an empty shell of a man returning home from a war won, but a life lost. This song actually sounds much better than the original to my ears, given the better tons on the guitars and Kakko's more mature pipes. This guy has a great dynamic range which has gotten better as he's gotten older. Klingenberg is as fiery a guitarist as you could ask for, and when he slows things down he's also exceptionally tasteful. I love that I now get to go back in time and discover this band's catalogue.
Here's another tune in which the keyboards are paling in comparison to the original recording (note that it was Kakko playing the keys on the original, and he was brilliant in that role before he opted for being a frontman), but Kingdom For A Heart is another ripping tune that if you didn't know its heritage, you'd just think of as fabulous.
Fullmoon - here we flip back again, and the new version simply sound better than the original. Portimo's foot work is as good as Ali's in his prime, and he floats like a butterfly, and stings like a bee. Kakko's multiple layers of background vocals are stunning, and I'm so damned impressed by the fact that this bunch hit this project so head on. Pasi Kauppinen thick skinned bass tones are the perfect glue that connects the whip-snap guitars with Portimo's great drumming.
There's four more great tracks, but I've given you all the excuse you need to go out and purchase this record. It's a great effort by a band that has obviously grown up gracefully, and with its faculties intact. If you're a longtime fan, you'll most likely have your own opinion, based upon the usual and understood nostalgia that comes with something so close to the heart, but I can't but think that if you ever loved this band, you'll love them more now.
Release Date: North America - November 18, 2014
EU - October 24, 2014
Nuclear Blast Records