Album Review: Sonata Arctica - Stones Grow Her Name
Recent years have been awkward for power metal and its fans. Guitar Hero opened the door for a renaissance of the genre, with Dragonforce making it cool to play happy, major-key metal. Despite the opportunity being presented, the genre has instead seen countless bands taking a turn away from tradition, injecting large doses of classic metal and hard rock into their sound. Always unappreciated in the eyes of most metal fans, the bands did little to take advantage of their chance in the spotlight, ironically by moving in more commercial directions. Sonata Arctica was one of those bands that shifted their sound, taming the metal aspects and embracing a more subtle and subdued sound. “Unia”, the first album to diverge from the blueprint, was controversial, and divided the fanbase. Some embraced the band's new approach to songwriting, while others wanted another dose of familiar comfort. “Stones Grow Her Name”, the third album in this second era of Sonata Arctica, will not be able to bridge the chasm.
“Only The Broken Hearts” starts off promisingly, a short burst of energy with a memorable chorus that while feeling a bit underdeveloped as a song, is immensely enjoyable. It is also an outlier, as the rest of the album quickly makes it clear that straight power metal is not the band's interest anymore. “Shitload O' Money” takes a rock attitude on Queen, combining several aspects that shouldn't go together, but manage to gel into a competent piece. Lyrically, it cries to be listened to on headphones rather than speakers, a slightly embarrassing detour.
Singer Tony Kakko is one of the more talented frontmen to grace a power metal band, but something about the sound of the entire album feels off. Never a genre of subtlety, Kakko's performance still manages to overact and over-emote to the point of distraction at times. 'More is more' seems to be the mantra, not realizing that too much can be just as dangerous as not enough. Likewise, the guitars attempt to prove the metal credentials of the band, but instead of providing a heavy backdrop for the songs, the tone buzzes through the album with an unfortunate grain. By trying to be as heavy as possible with songs that don't call for that approach, the band has sabotaged their own success.
Sabotage is an appropriate word to use, because the details of the performance distract from what is a good collection of songs. The band embraces songwriting as an art, turning in an album of diverse material, showing a deft touch with multiple approaches to their melodic metal sound. “I Have A Right” is a glorious track with a beautiful melody that Kakko wisely refrains from over-singing. The song is allowed to breathe, and as a result it stands out as a clear example of the talent Sonata Arctica possesses. “Alone In Heaven” manages to carry an epic weight, despite only running four and a half minutes, while the two-part “Wildfire” (Parts II and III, for those keeping score) throws every influence into the mix to conjure up a progressive soundscape and a fitting end to the album. They even throw in an oddball with “Cinderblox”, an unlikely pairing of metal and elements of bluegrass. It doesn't quite work, but is still an interesting experiment.
Ultimately, the criticisms of “Stones Grow Her Name” are personal, and many will embrace the over-the-top aspects of the album. What shouldn't be lost is that underneath the surface concerns, the songs are good, and songs are what ultimately matter the most.