Unia is a strange case of deja vu. Thanks to Reckoning Night, Sonata Arctica had yet another superb album to follow up. Their previous transition from virtuosity (Silence) brought them to a point of modest divergence (Winterheart's Guild). And yet, as if to prove their ever-changing nature, Tony Kakko and company made their first drastic, stylistic shift in 2007. Reckoning Night may have been a sign of changes to come, but that didn't soften the jarring, experimental vibe which succeeded it.
The opening minutes present much of what has changed, though the fourth track, "It Won't Fade," serves as the first true indication of Unia's consistent inconsistencies. The progressive hints on Reckoning Night are finally given a bit of emphasis, with "It Won't Fade" and "My Dream's But a Drop of Fuel For a Nightmare" taking the most chances. Both tracks love to play with the listener's expectations, sometimes spontaneously switching their mood and beat. It's during points like these that Unia slips out of its symphonic and power metal shoes, stumbling barefoot onto a different piece of land.
Reinforcing this loss of former identity is an appropriate reduction of keyboards, often to the point of negligence. When they are distinguishable, it's during intros and other brief segments. Sonata Arctica fans know how much said instrument plays a part in their music, so to hear the keyboards by not hearing them is, in and of itself, alienating. The band seemed to be aware of this, which is why the first three tracks feel transitional. As much as it sounds like the single it is, "Paid In Full"'s simple, catchy rhythm is tough to resist, especially once the final minute sinks its teeth deep into your cranium. This style isn't replicated by any other track, but Unia isn't above softening its sound. Quite the contrary; half of the album is comprised by slower, ballad-esque moments. Both "For the Sake of Revenge" and "Under Your Tree" are effective for similar reasons; neither feel like they're trying to stretch beyond their reach. Some might shrug their shoulders at an abundance of slow tracks from Sonata Arctica, but in a field equally ridden with tonal time bombs, they prove to be welcoming.
Another way Unia differs from its predecessors is with its lack of standout tracks. There are moments that work well, both short and long, yet they're executed with tipsiness. "The Harvest" starts promisingly, but ultimately slumps due to Tony Kakko's harsh vocals and an awkward, momentary descent. Both of the album's highlights (in their entirety) appear within the first half. "Caleb" ends up being the moment of glory, exposing Unia's best qualities. And go figure, this is one of the few tracks to receive complements from the very instrument they decided to otherwise de-emphasize. This is the kind of predicament Unia confines itself to.
The direction Sonata Arctica took for their fifth album isn't a blindsided departure, but the same can't be said for its scattershot nature. Unia has many good aspects in place, but rather than hit the ball running with them, they pace and juggle about like an inexperienced waitress. If there's any decisiveness to find, it's a gradual progression into even darker territory, albeit within the album's own context. Unfortunately, when these moments do arrive, they feel conflicted within themselves. The same holds true when Unia is regarded comprehensively and is, ultimately, the real deal-breaker.
Question of the Day: What are the most inconsistent albums you've heard?