A complete paradigm shift.
2014's Pariah's Child was a welcome return to form for one of Power Metal's most treasured bands, Sonata Arctica. It was catchy and to-the-point, and really hearkened back to their glory days (pre-The Days of Greys album). With this year's The Ninth Hour, however, the Finns again decided to mix it up and re-tool their style. As a result, we have an album that is a seemingly continuous ballad of sorts, retaining a slower, mellower, and unfortunately, often a boring and uninspired atmosphere throughout.
The album begins fairly well. Closer to An Animal is an engrossing first track, and sets the stage for what could have been another one of the band's classics. Life continues on with the same sense of creative thrust, with special attention paid to atmospherics. It's with the third track, Fairytale, that everything seems to kind of fall apart for them. The pacing from here-on-out moves at almost a standstill, and listeners are seldom treated to the pick-me-ups they've come to expect from the band. The guitar lines feel like a complete after-thought, and the meat of the work falls on the shoulders of frontman Tony Kakko. He does an admirable job of keeping the melodies alive, but this is quite far from being his best or most expressive work.
It's not to say it's all bad. There are a couple of guitar solos that rally hit home here and there, and the keyboards are at least composed competently. It's a good thing when a band tries to branch out and do something different, but the risk Sonata Arctica run here is isolating the bulk of their fans by doing away with most of the Metal aspects of their music and falling into a dreary lull. It isn't painful to listen to, but it often gets monotonous and quite exhausting upon reaching the end of it -- all 62 minutes of it.
Most fans will likely agree that this will be seen as one of the low points in the band's career. It's not a terrible album on the whole, but it definitely lacks the fun of their earlier albums, and the poor pacing and production keeps it from reaching the heights of its previous few releases. The Ninth Hour is for rabid fans only.
Images courtesy of Nuclear Blast Records.