Sonata Arctica - The Days Of Grays
Nuclear Blast
Prog-Power Metal
12 songs (59:20)
Release year: 2009
Sonata Arctica, Nuclear Blast
Reviewed by Elias
Album of the year

This is a difficult review for me to write. Sonata Arctica are probably the most meaningful, emotional, and musically delightful group I have come across since listening to Metal. Ecliptica was the first Power Metal album I discovered, at age 14, and I’ve been listening to it ever since. Along with Silence, it probably qualifies as one of the best Power Metal albums in existence. I then followed Sonata’s development with curiosity, sometimes apprehension, but always with a sense of fulfilment. Their change in direction from well-constructed straightforward Power Metal to the more chaotic Prog-tinged sound of Unia was regarded with horror by many, but I was unable to give up on it, and persevered to arrive at what I believe to this day is one of the best albums of 2007, despite being labelled “disappointment of the year” by the voters of this site’s forum. I can only attribute this to a lack of depth among the listeners, as Sonata’s new approach to song writing is definitely more complex and multi-faceted than its early style. Unia, however, being the first real attempt at this new sound lacks the refinement and elegance that comes with experience. The band’s new release, curiously entitled The Days of Grays, puts the experience gained with Unia to use, and produces a balanced and more cohesive version of what Unia was probably meant to be.

Where an intense clustering of melodies and instrumental lines resulted in apparent cacophony on Unia, The Days of Grays manages to deliver songwriter Kakko’s probable intentions with success. Each song is like a mini-symphony, with various movements, crescendos, interludes, and themes all collaborating for the final purpose of the song. This is most apparent on Deathaura, where Kakko’s ambitious composition is also aided by the longer duration of the song (clocking in at 8 minutes). Opening with a swell of strings (which flows quite well from the piano-based intro), the song kicks off with a Wagnerian cavalcade of orchestration and aggressive playing from the band, only to give way to the very sweet singing of Johanna Kurkela. An ominous lull lasts for a few seconds, until the band kicks in with a passion, exemplified by Tony’s emotional yelling. The song is divided into ten segments, and throughout its 8 minutes uses this division to the fullest, giving each part its own trademark, while always harking back to the main overall themes (by a complex use of keyboard lines) and the importance of dynamic contrast in the song. The song ends with Kakko crooning tenderly, completing the circle set by Kurkela. Deathaura is an emotional rollercoaster, a brilliant beginning to an album that seeks to be intense in every song it presents.

This attitude towards composing is obvious throughout the entire album, although with shorter songs the band does limit the amount of diversity, lest it end up in confusing chaos. The influence of classical music is very noticeable, both in the attitude to writing and in the use of instruments. Choruses take on the big, sweeping, all-encompassing bass functions of Romantic orchestras, while the verses resemble movements in symphonies, and the ballads seem to be directly inspired by classical and baroque sonatas. Songs like The Last Amazing Grays and Flag In The Ground have a much more straightforward overall feel, while still allowing Kakko his classicisms and operatic indulgences. Even the ballads like Breathing wallow in intense compositional patterns and very diverse melodic lines, which, again, always serve the further purpose of the song.

Flag In The Ground, however, is particular. The song was originally written for the band’s 1996 demo Friends Till The End. It was reworked with new lyrics for The Days of Grays, but the early Power Metal signature is unmistakable. An adept description would probably that of a Reckoning Night-esque anthem combined with a strong desire for profundity. Nostalgia for the early days of Ecliptica and Silence is further evoked by the presence of typically composed interplaying solos for keyboards and guitar, although this is anomaly for the album in its entirety. This is probably my only complaint with The Days Of Grays, the lack of solos. Early Sonata albums had built up an impressive arsenal of melodic, virtuosic and engaging solos, courtesy of the fret mastery of Jani Liimatainen and the melodic skills of Tony Kakko, Mikko Härkin, and Jens Johannson (on respectively Ecliptica, Silence and Winterheart’s Guild). Reckoning Night already saw a tendency to lean away from the guitar in favour of keys; unfortunately Henrik Klingenberg, despite being an excellent musician, has the daunting task of being held to a standard set by some of the best keyboardists in the Metal scene. Unia was almost completely devoid of strong guitar solos, and thus the replacement of Jani Liimatainen with Elias Viljanen seemed to me to have the potential of being a blessing in disguise. Perhaps he would have a positive influence on reverting emphasis to the guitar as a soloist instrument. Unfortunately, solos remain few and far between. Even the few that do appear are not at the level of the magnificence present on the early records. Highly unfortunate, but forgivable, I guess, when taken in context of the band’s overall development.

My biggest moment of fear when listening to this album the first time came when I heard Zeroes. At the first listen it seemed utterly atonal, a complete cacophony of sounds. I was afraid I might be listening to another example of what had plagued so many fans when they first heard Unia. Upon repeated listens, however, a pattern set in and I began to understand what Kakko was aiming for. It presents a sicker side of Sonata, with an aggression delivered not through the performance but through the composition. The song grates, it even sounds jarring at times. Although having almost a sing-along melody, it is an intensely discordant composition, and leaves the listener with an overall feeling of unpleasantness, which I can only assume is deliberate. The amount of appreciation this will elicit is, obviously, dependant on your personal preferences.

The second half of the album is slightly less remarkable than the first, as mentioned before. Whether this is because of the outstanding quality of the first songs or simply an artistic choice by the band I do not know. The songs are still excellent; the chorus on The Dead Skin is brilliantly infectious without falling into superficiality; Juliet is quite a beautiful anthem, resorting to the dynamic emotionality used in Deathaura (albeit on a smaller scale); both No Dream Can Heal A Broken Heart and As If The World Wasn’t Ending are powerful and passionate mini-symphonies in their own right, making use again of unorthodox use of instruments and song writing- As If The World Wasn’t Ending and The Truth Is Out There in particular have piano lines quite reminiscent of baroque music; and Everything Fades To Gray is a wonderful closer to the album, drawing upon the simplistic lines from the introduction (which now seems more like an overture) to create a far deeper and beautifully euphonic piece.

Special mention must be given to the lyrics. Tony Kakko again earns his place as my absolute favourite lyricist in Metal. His stories are touching and his poetry is passionate. His lyrics also work very well with the musical structure of the song, adapting verbal descriptions to the atmosphere evoked by the music at that point. Pay attention to the stage-whispered “I’m paralyzed but you are still alive” in Juliet, that line always sends shivers down my spine.

So to conclude: I fucking love this album. It’s not a return to form, as some were expecting. It’s Sonata in their new comfort zone. Accept it for what it is and enjoy the absurd musical talent offered here. The album is majestic, epic, romantic, despairing, and hopeful; it is an amalgam of emotions delivered flawlessly by superb musicians. It is not their best, but I don’t think any band hopes of ever producing something at the level of Ecliptica or Silence. It is a credit to their desire to produce art that Sonata have evolved away from that style and are still attempting to improve themselves and their music rather than become a shell of former glories.

Killing Songs :
Deathaura, The Last Amazing Grays, Flag In The Ground, The Dead Skin, Juliet, Everything Fades To Gray
Elias quoted 95 / 100
Chris quoted 93 / 100
Other albums by Sonata Arctica that we have reviewed:
Sonata Arctica - The Ninth Hour reviewed by Jared and quoted 70 / 100
Sonata Arctica - Pariah's Child reviewed by Joel and quoted 85 / 100
Sonata Arctica - Stones Grow Her Name reviewed by Cory and quoted 71 / 100
Sonata Arctica - Unia reviewed by Chris and quoted 55 / 100
Sonata Arctica - For The Sake Of Revenge (DVD/CD) reviewed by Marty and quoted no quote
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