Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sonata Arctica: Unia (2007) Review

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.

Grade: C

Question of the Day: What are the most inconsistent albums you've heard?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Starbucks VIA Pumpkin Spice Latte Review

Companies seem more and more determined to get their pumpkin products out as early as possible with each consecutive year.  You'd think they might have an overabundance and are desperate to clear out.  Though I've only reviewed the new Pumpkin Pie Toaster Strudels (so far), a myriad of products have been spotted on shelves already, including the return of Blue Moon's Harvest Pumpkin and Ben & Jerry's Pumpkin Cheesecake, a Pumpkin Pie Dessert Delight from Extra, pumpkin-flavored Milano cookies and there's the possibility of Pumpkin Pie Oreos making their debut.
Another pumpkin product that recently appeared is an alternative to one of the most popular season items: Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte.  Though the drink has recently caught wind over the possibility of its less-than-innocuous ingredients, this isn't likely to stir up too much of a storm.  Besides, if you're that concerned, there's now a Starbucks VIA form, featuring only four listed ingredients.  

This is the first time I've tried something from the VIA line, partly due to the price.  A given, coming from said company, but it's tough to justify shelling out the same amount of money on something that, in the long run, would barely take less time than making half a pot of coffee.  Convenience and seasonal exclusivity are potential factors, however, and my curiosity soon turned to temptation.  
I wasn't expecting the packets to be as big as they were.  Normally the slips in packages like these are hardly wider than a pencil, so imagine my surprise when it felt closer to a thick highlighter.  The powder within seems to be comprised of an even distribution of blacks and whites.  I'd like to think some of the whites are grains of actual sugar, but I have my doubts.  The scent brims with a pleasantly sweet pumpkin aroma.  
After some measuring and microwaved heating (two minutes), I poured and stirred away.  Aesthetically, it's like hot chocolate with a faintly festive hue, although hot chocolate is already pretty festive whenever you drink it, but I digress.  The actual latte does a good job matching those first impressions I got in my nostrils; a prominent pumpkin flavor swells with sweetness, especially in a one-cup serving.  It honestly gets to the point where I can't even tell I'm drinking a coffee beverage.  Rather, this feels more like hot pumpkin, as opposed to pumpkin spice latte.  Speaking of which, though the pumpkin presence is unmistakable, I have trouble picking up on the spice.  An unfortunate omission, especially since I love drinks with an extra kick to them--and I'm not even referring to alcohol.
Most people who buy the Pumpkin Spice Latte, whether in actual latte form or through these VIA strips, will get their dose of a sweet, seasonal flavor.  The VIA version holds up admirably, but is severely lacking in the spice department.  Another problem is the aforementioned cost.  Although part of Starbucks' reputation is their high price point, this ultimately does nothing to soften the blow it'll leave on your wallet.  If you're curious and can snag these at a discounted price ($6 would be pushing it), then by all means, festive-ize your summer while you can.  But at $7+ a package, these are hardly a welcome, convenient bargain.  
Where I Bought It: Walgreens

Price: $7.99

Grade: C

Question of the Day: What Starbucks products do you think are worth their high cost?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Sonata Arctica: Reckoning Night (2004) Review

Less time doesn't necessarily mean less quality.  Some bands have points in their careers where they promptly release new material, to the point of unleashing LP's within two years of each other.  In Sonata Arctica's case, they brought a reckoning merely 19 months after presenting Winterheart's Guild.  Until this point, these Finlanders built themselves around a mostly melodic sound.  Said aspect is still present on Reckoning Night, but at its side is a certain, newfound aggression, giving this particular chapter in Sonata Arctica's catalogue a definitive edge. 

Whether you dive right in with "Misplaced" or stumble upon the clear-cut "White Pearl, Black Oceans," chances are you'll get a song that demonstrates precisely how things have been tweaked.  For most metal bands--especially power metal--this applies-to-all concept is a given.  But when coming from a band who previously stuck to a relatively routine sound, you'd expect most changes to be reserved for one or two tracks.  Not so much the case with Reckoning Night; the stakes are raised for the better part of the album's runtime.  The guitars, for instance, are often more thrash than they are power.  Even the trademark keyboards sound different.  Rather than strictly aiming for epic, serene or upbeat melodies, Reckoning Night strikes darkly, complemented by a tone that leans towards being comically morbid.  And though that root word (comic) tends to be a detrimental quality of power metal, here the realization laughs dead in the face of such a concept.  

This sort of nature is carried out all the more by Reckoning Night's lyrics.  Although Sonata Arctica have always been upper class songwriters compared to their peers, this is where their words began taking center stage.  The return of Nik Van-Eckmann is certainly a factor in this, making his eerie presence distinct before "Wildfire" truly begins.  What's clear when reading Sonata Arctica's lyrics is that time and effort was wisely spent.  Not only is there more content than you'd find in most epic-length tracks, but every line is written with a sense of prowess.  Subject matter turns melancholic on "Shamandalie," one of the group's more effective ballads, as well as the catchy, intoxicating "My Selene."  However, most of the themes are calculated and of a twisted nature, such as the revenge depicted on "Don't Say a Word" and "Wildfire," two of the album's many highlights.  

Singling out Reckoning Night's less impressive moments is easier than narrowing down standout tracks.  The only real slumps are "Blinded No More" and "The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Real Puppet."  With "Blinded No More,"  there's hardly a compelling bit to find, much less past the first minute.  It doesn't help that it follows the comparatively bombastic "Misplaced," either.  As for "The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Real Puppet," it does a marginally better job at maintaining the listener's attention, if only thanks to a more prominent use of whimsical keyboards.  Thankfully, the surrounding tracks are far more engaging, demonstrating that the darker direction initiated on Winterheart's Guild wasn't a blind move.  The music instead avoids sounding overwrought, as it might have if the band had maintained their admittedly extravagant style from Silence.  

Reckoning Night isn't quite the masterpiece some have labeled it as.  That said, it gets damn close to clenching such an honor.  Sonata Arctica had finally secured their stake as a force to watch out for, taking power metal basics and modifying them with various touches.  The final product is a solid, competent emulation of subgenres, offering something for nearly all metal fans.  And if you like your power metal with a darker, thrashier edge, then there's no reason to put this album off any longer.

Grade: B

Question of the Day: What are your favorite genre-defining albums?

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Sonata Arctica: Winterheart's Guild (2003) Review

Moving though Sonata Arctica's discography after Silence is an interesting experience.  The band's sophomoric effort worked so effectively, it began to feel like a spoiling affair.  In the span of just two albums, the Finnish act found an outfit of comfort and appeal.  It was as if the turn of the century brought the fluke of a metal band immediately reaching their peak.  Of course, anyone acquainted with Sonata Arctica's history knows this isn't necessarily the case.  But at the time, listener's couldn't be blamed if they held some degree of skepticism heading into Winterheart's Guild.  Truth be told, such doubts wouldn't have been completely unfounded, either.

Winterheart's Guild sees Sonata Arctica separate a bit from their grandiose side and gravitate towards a bleaker shade, evidenced most prominently on "Gravenimage."  A track like this would normally escalate on either Silence or Ecliptica, but here it turns to wallowing.  That's not to say the grand, cheesy qualities characteristic of Sonata Arctica and their respective genre(s) were abandoned, they were just present without drawing as much attention.  One of the few outright flamboyant moments is a comical shift in "Champagne Bath," turning it from a track of promise to a moment of disconcertment.  If only this bridge had been used on "The Misery" or "Broken," where the damage would've been easier to ignore.  Otherwise, Winterheart's Guild offers few moments of surprise.

Curiously missing from this particular entry is a batch of pulse-pounding tracks, similar in vein to "Blank File," "Weballergy" and "Black Sheep."  Remove "Champagne Bath" and the remaining material would be consistent enough to almost sound monotone.  Despite Winterheart's Guild's lack of exuberance, it managed to match (even succeed) its predecessors in one area: stylistic resolve.  Sonata Arctica strived for a more deliberate sound, swapping Silence's whim for method.  A few moments aside, this was, at the time, the band's most composed album. Opener "Abandoned, Pleased, Brainwashed, Exploited" paints a representative picture of the entire album, showing that the band do have some grasp of restraint.  It's a double-edge sword, since more atmosphere means less excitement.  There's less of that instant-satisfaction vibe Silence bathed itself in, which means Winterheart's Guild can benefit from repeat listenings.  At that point it begins to feel like settling into a new home as a child; you're not so certain of the shift in territory, but in time, you become acquainted and learn to accept the change in both structure and color.

Sonata Arctica altered their approach on Winterheart's Guild just enough to be distinguishable from its predecessors, but not to the point of straying from their roots.  Ecliptica made them look like a standard bouquet, while Silence allowed them to rise with sharp hues aplenty.  Winterheart's Guild, by comparison, is less florally inclined.  It's content with resting in the power metal garden as a slight variation from its siblings, one that will fascinate some and disinterest others.

Grade: C

Question of the Day: What are some albums you can't decide whether you really like or just don't care for?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sonata Arctica: Silence (2001) Review

There's something to be said about those albums that catch you off-guard, the ones that suddenly seize your attention and enamor your ears.  I certainly didn't expect to be enthralled by Silence, not after its unbecoming predecessor.  Though far from offensive, Ecliptica accomplished little more than what could be expected from a debut album, especially given the territory.  Yet Sonata Arctica managed to make me feel like a total fool in my lack of suspicion; Silence proves itself a steadfast solidification of the Finnish band's take on symphonic-infused power metal.

Nik Van-Eckmann, who'd return for Reckoning Night, introduces the album with a few spoken words.  In a matter of seconds, this eerie opening suggests what kind of force Silence will become.  Imperative to this realization is the upheaved production; Ecliptica's grating, high-pitch notes have been refined to allow a far glossier and entrancing sound to arise.  The entire band take full advantage of their resources and explore the power metal terrain with a sense of familiarity and growing wisdom.  No one in the band is out to steal the spotlight, since Silence is a truly collective effort; Mikko Harkin and Tony Kakko make a deadly combo on keyboards, reinforced by ever-enthusiastic guitar and drum work from Jani Liimatainen and Tommy Portimo, respectively.  Equally rewarding is when the band decide to collaborate vocally, showcased on damn-near every chorus.  Not only does Kakko actually sing throughout all of the songs, but the rest of the group frequently back him up.  It's this unity of vocal and instrumental work that makes Silence a quintessential example of symphonic/power metal.

Consistency is another area Silence rises not just above its predecessor, but its brethren as well.  Some songs are obviously better than others, yet the only reason one might call certain tracks drab is because the highlights shine so brightly.  After feeling like an imitation of Ecliptica for a couple full tracks, "The End of This Chapter" begins with another Nik Van-Eckmann passage before an arresting series of keyboard notes ensnare the listener.  The ensuing song is a powerful, affecting experience, be it individually or amidst surrounding tracks.  And we're treated to this in the first third of the runtime.  Yes, Silence is a meatier affair than its predecessor--by about ten minutes.  If you're wondering where the extra time went, look to the final track, "The Power of One," which eats up over eleven minutes.  It's one of the album's more conventional moments, vividly evoking the similarities between Sonata Arctica and Stratovarius.  Some will hold the album at fault for this, others will merely shrug it aside.

Two years is all it took for Sonata Arctica to show just how far a band could go with two albums.  No one ever proclaimed Ecliptica as a classic, but after being graced by Silence's elegance, it's easier to pick up on the signs.  Where one felt like a jumbling of tracks, the other manifests itself as a power metal powerhouse.  Innovation barely exists as a spice to the meat that is Silence, but the end result is simply too scrumptious to discredit.  

Grade: A

Question of the Day: What albums would you consider the antithesis of "sophomore slump"?