Artist: Sonata Arctica

Album Title: The Ninth Hour

Label: Nuclear Blast Records

Date Of Release: 7 October 2016

It has, I must admit, been a long time since I last listened to Sonata Arctica. When I went through a huge power metal binge around the turn of the millennium, I discovered the Finnish metallers via their second album, ‘Silence’. I rather liked it but for some reason, I never really returned to the band to listen to subsequent releases. I have no real idea why, particularly when some later albums, such as 2007’s ‘Unia’ are considered some of their very best.

But when this album popped into my inbox, something compelled me to have a listen. As a sucker for an interesting front cover, I think this had something to do with it. With ‘The Ninth Hour’, the quintet of Tony Kakko (vocals, keyboards), Elias Viljanen (guitar), Pasi Kauppinen (bass), Henrik Klingenberg (keyboards) and Tommy Portimo (drums) really piqued my interest. The cover of album number nine offers a striking window onto the lyrical concept which is based around the balance between humans and the natural world at a critical point where our actions could have a devastating effect on our environment. It’s a powerful message for a band better known for producing up-beat, up-tempo and fun melodic power metal.
And, on balance, I think it works. And I’m glad that I listened to my instincts because ‘The Ninth Hour’, is a strangely enjoyable album.

‘Strangely enjoyable’ may sound like an odd description, but I use it deliberately and for good reason. There are some cracking tracks on this record that I can’t stop listening to and then there are some that I’m not so keen on but yet I still find myself listening to them, unable to skip or ignore them. How is that even logical? It isn’t and that’s why I refer to ‘The Ninth Hour’ as strangely enjoyable.

The first thing that I have to mention about this record is the production. Self-produced and mixed, the end result requires that word ‘strange’ again. It isn’t that the production is bad because it’s not. But to these ears, it feels a little odd.

Opener ‘Closer To An Animal’ is a cracking, up-tempo power metal track that stands up there with the best that this Finnish quartet have penned. The synths stand at the centre of the song, bathing it with strong atmospheres, whilst the guitars offer some chunky riffing and the rhythm section sets a galloping framework. The melodies are undeniably strong too, getting under the skin very quickly and I love the ending with the spoken word section; it’s cheesy but it really works. However, the sound of the drums comes across as a little too artificial and processed.

But the biggest gripe is reserved for the vocals. Given that Tony Kakko is such an integral part of Sonata Arctica, you’d think that his voice would be allowed to shine through. Unfortunately, as he is called into action for the first time on the record, he sounds a little lacklustre and unclear in the mix. It gets better as the track develops but there are times when he sounds like he is fighting to be heard. There’s that word again: strange.

Photo credit: Ville Akseli Juurikkala

Photo credit: Ville Akseli Juurikkala

The same can be said for the vocals within the equally excellent ‘Life’, a song that is immediately hummable, full of gorgeous melodies, great expressive solos and a chorus that simply won’t let go. But when Kakko enters the fray, his vocals sound overly tentative and feel like they are struggling. Worse than that, he sounds almost bored. I’m convinced that this is down to the production rather than his personal performance, but it is a shame nonetheless, as I should be hailing this song as one of Sonata’s best rather than being distracted by the vocals. Instead, I’m overly concerning myself about the first minute or so of an otherwise excellent melodic metal song.

Production aside, there are quite a few more great songs on offer on ‘The Ninth Hour’. ‘Fairytale’ feels more like a standard Sonata Arctica power metal composition, dominated by an energetic and forceful rhythm section that barely stops for breath and which is drenched in synths. In contrast, ‘We Are What We Are’ is a slower, ballad-like song that has turned into a bit of a grower, containing an irresistible Celtic folk feel and an emotional performance from Kakko.

‘Among The Shooting Stars’ is a more straightforward, slower track with a great chorus, powerful guitar tones and lush orchestration, whilst I find the slightly more progressive sounding ‘Fly, Navigate, Communicate’ intriguing.

And it would be churlish not to tip my cap in the direction of the ten minute epic ‘White Pearl, Black Oceans Part II’. Rich classical orchestration kicks things off in the vein of an understated Hollywood score before opening up into a powerful symphonic metal workout with progressive sympathies not hugely dissimilar to the more recent output of their compatriots Nightwish.

On the flip side, I can’t say I’m overly keen of ‘Till Death’s Done Us Apart’, a track that benefits from a genuinely galloping tempo but which comes across as being just a little too contrived and veers occasionally too close to a show tune for my liking. ‘Rise A Night’ on the other hand lacks a wow factor despite being fast-paced and full of lead guitar excess whilst ‘Candle Lawns’ is a rather twee ballad that does little to inspire me. Additionally, ‘On The Faultline (Closure To An Animal)’ closes the album with a reprise of the opener, albeit in a slightly underwhelming manner.

And yet, despite not liking these songs a great deal, they all contain something within them that prevents me from wanting to immediately press the ‘skip’ button. Here’s that description again: it’s very strange.

I think my overall impression of ‘The Ninth Hour’ is an album that has some exceptional moments of melodic power metal but is hindered by some less inspiring tracks and a production that threatens to undermine the band just when they are delivering some of their strongest material to date. It is therefore a good record, albeit one that is strangely and frustratingly flawed.

The Score Of Much Metal: 7.75


If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others via my reviews pages or by clicking the links right here:

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Messenger – Threnodies
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Ghost Bath – Moonlover
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Oceans Of Slumber – Winter
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Serenity – Codex Atlanticus
Borknagar – Winter Thrice
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Agent Fresco – Destrier
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