Artist: Sonata Arctica
Label: Nuclear Blast
Major stylistic shifts are often frowned upon in the metal scene. Sonata Arctica got to experience this first-hand in 2007 upon the release of their fifth album, Unia, which was a departure from their power metal roots and a leap into a more ambitious and complex direction. After 2 years of heavy touring in support of the preceding album, Reckoning Night (2004), frontman and songwriter Tony Kakko was sick and tired of up-tempo and ultra-melodic songs and felt that making a radical change would be the only way for the band to survive, and the rest of the members agreed to make a different album. While various people – including Kakko himself – have named Unia the band’s finest hour, after 10 years it still seems to be a divisive record among the fans, and the split with guitarist and founding member Jani Liimatainen that took place a couple of months after the album’s release has only fueled the “old vs. new” arguments. Unia started a chapter that some could not get behind, but for others it only marked the beginning of their musical journey with Sonata Arctica – I belong to the latter group.
[ed: this review has been backdated from 06.2017]
Listen along if you like:
Unia was my first Sonata album back in early 2008 – having heard “Paid in Full” on the radio and liked it, I decided to shell out some cash to buy the record. After my first listen, I was weirded out, yet intrigued, as I’d never heard of progressive music before, so the notion of not being able to recall what each song had sounded like was new to me. At first the only tracks I ‘got’ were the first two – “In Black and White” and the aforementioned “Paid in Full” – but something about the album fascinated me and drew me in, and after multiple listens Unia slowly but surely started to open up to me.
Kicking off the game with the two catchiest and most traditional Sonata songs may be misleading, but there are some links to the past to be found on other tunes as well, either lyrical or musical. “Caleb” – possibly my favorite SA song ever – is a prologue to the stalker saga, the previous parts of which included “The End of This Chapter” and “Don’t Say a Word.” The hard-hitting farewell message to Liimatainen, “It Won’t Fade” – another all-time favorite – continues the canon of wolf songs, which the band has had on almost every album. “Under Your Tree,” on the other hand, is a classic Sonata ballad in vein of “The Misery”, while “The Harvest” is just as fast as some of SA’s previous double-kick anthems, albeit more aggressive, and shifts in and out of a lighter acoustic interlude effortlessly – a testament to the band’s genius. “Good Enough Is Good Enough”, however, is a total departure from the Sonata sound, as the only instrumentation comes from strings and piano, and the cool-as-hell “Fly with the Black Swan” plays with interesting and complex rhythms, which you sadly don’t hear too often in the band’s music.
While relistening to Unia recently, it struck me that Kakko took his skills as a musical and lyrical storyteller to the next level on the album. The prime example of this is the horribly named but brilliant and adventurous “My Dream’s But a Drop of Fuel for a Nightmare,” which navigates through various moods, enhanced by strings, as the narrator falls asleep and experiences all kinds of bad omens. The way “Under Your Tree” describes the loss of a pet (or child?) by going through quiet melancholy, aching grief, and finally an attempt to let go is moving, and in “Caleb” the title character’s release of pent-up rage is complemented by Liimatainen’s furious solo. Then there’s the post-apocalyptic atmosphere of “The Worlds Forgotten, the Words Forbidden” – although it’s a rather short song, the music and lyrics paint a unique kind of picture together that no other SA song has managed to match. The music and lyrics just go perfectly hand-in-hand on these tracks, which is not always an easy feat to achieve, although the band came close on the more progressive Reckoning Night tracks like “The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Real Puppet” and “White Pearl, Black Oceans.” Kakko’s lyrics have almost never been particularly light, but in the past the upbeat music on tunes like “Victoria’s Secret” and “Kingdom for a Heart” managed to mask them somehow. Maybe Unia’s more in-your-face gloom and aggression is one of the reasons old fans had a hard time getting into it?
Besides the fact that the songs on Unia are not as fast and immediately catchy as on its precedessors, the balance between the instruments changed as well, since Tony Kakko’s vocals were pushed even more to the foreground, and there are loads of vocal layers in vein of his favorite band, Queen – as Kakko himself has stated, the freedom of recording vocals at home gave him room to experiment and lay down as many as hundreds of tracks on some songs. He sings in a more comfortable and natural register than previously, having gotten over his need to be the next Timo Kotipelto [Stratovarius], his English pronunciation is better than before, and he even reveals new sides to his voice on “The Harvest” and the quirky “The Vice.”
Guitar and keyboard solos, which used to be commonplace in SA’s early power metal sound, can only be heard on about half the songs. However, each instrument serves the material, and the impact of the solos is greater exactly because there are not so many of them – Henrik Klingenberg‘s keyboard solo on “Paid in Full” is particularly memorable and was one of the things that made the song stick out to me and made me want to check out the band in the first place. Liimatainen’s performance on guitar is also surprisingly inspired, despite him already being mentally out of the band during the recording. The rhythm section work is more intricate and creative than previously – “The Vice” includes the underrated Marko Paasikoski‘s greatest bass lines ever, and Tommy Portimo shows that he’s not all about speed, as his imaginative drumming and varied beats elevate even a track like “For the Sake of Revenge” that wouldn’t necessarily be too special otherwise. Guest musician Peter Engberg‘s exotic instruments such as bouzouki also contribute to the experimental feel of the album and add some interesting sounds.
Last, but not least, Unia is easily the best-produced Sonata Arctica album – while I love the band’s music, it feels like they have a hard time getting a sound that I have no reservations about whatsoever. The previous releases (apart from 2001’s Silence) have a slightly thin and plastic early noughties sound that’s a little bit dated by now, and they seem to be aiming for something similar with the latest two records, while on Stones Grow Her Name (2012) and especially The Days of Grays (2009) the guitars sound too muddy. On Unia they got everything right: the guitar tone is thick and heavy, the drums sound natural and powerful, and the bass is distinct enough. No instrument buries the others, even though there are lots of vocals and keyboards, but there are also subtle details that you’ll find yourself noticing even after years of listening to the album, which makes it so fun to revisit time and again.
Unia will always have a very special place in my heart for being my introduction to Sonata Arctica and showing me that music doesn’t have to be straightforward to be good, which was a moment of revelation to me and later on led me into the world of progressive metal and rock. I had heard some long songs by Nightwish before, but they were typically one-offs on albums that were otherwise quite easy to grasp, whereas Unia was a tougher pill to swallow on the whole, yet ended up being a very rewarding listen that still speaks to me after all these years. Even discounting the nostalgia factor, I consider Unia Tony Kakko’s coming-of-age as a songwriter and the point where everything just clicked for Sonata. While Reckoning Night was the album on which they finally stepped out of Stratovarius’ shadow, it was Unia that solidified the band’s identity and made them a totally unique band within the whole metal scene.
Rating: 10/10, 5 stars
1. In Black and White
2. Paid in Full
3. For the Sake of Revenge
4. It Won’t Fade
5. Under Your Tree
7. The Vice
8. My Dream’s But a Drop of Fuel for a Nightmare
9. The Harvest
10. The Worlds Forgotten, the Words Forbidden
11. Fly with the Black Swan
12. Good Enough Is Good Enough