Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sonata Arctica: Stones Grow Her Name (2012) Review

Before I begin, I'd like to call upon two previously made statements during my journey through Sonata Arctica's studio albums.  In my review for Winterheart's Guild, I alluded to the fact that "moving through Sonata Arctica's discography after Silence is an interesting experience."  Less than a week later, I mentioned that "something happened" about ten minutes into The Days of Grays.  Both are vague, commonly used statements.  And yet, they're the most appropriate ones to make when regarding these Finlanders circa 2012--the same year I graduated college.  Not only had the majestic power metal band taken quite an interesting turn, but something had happened to bring them to this point; a point that, after two divisive albums, finally seemed to bring all listeners together in one collective consensus.  

Stones Grow Her Name is quite a doozie.  Fans and naysayers of Sonata Arctica were thrown for the curveball of the band's career when the album released.  The jump from Reckoning Night to Unia suddenly felt like a sidewalk stride on a skateboard.  If opener "Only the Broken Hearts (Make You Beautiful)" somehow doesn't convince you of the slip, don't worry, the following track will do the trick.  After all, with a title like "Shitload of Money," how do you expect to take things seriously?  The band do absolutely nothing to make you feel differently, either.  They embrace the silliness that comes with sinking what seriousness they once clung to.  Impressive lyrics and brooding subject matter?  Forget it.  Developing and refining their sound?  Not a chance.  Keeping a straight face while listening?  As if!

What's amusing is that, for a few minutes, Stones Grow Her Name actually functions on a guilty pleasure basis.  Those first two tracks have all the substance of an arena overflowing with cotton candy, but the flavor is so punishingly sweet.  After that, however, Stones Grow Her Name falls into the same rut as The Days of Grays.  So instead of being bad and sounding fun, they just sound bad.  I'll admit that the subject matter on "Alone in Heaven" is an interesting one, but as with the majority of the album, it exhibits no more merit than an Avenged Sevenfold song.  

"Now hold on," you might be thinking, "what about the pair of Wildfire songs?"  To that I'd ask, "what about them?"  The original "Wildfire" was self-sufficient, so other than trying to give Stones Grow Her Name a chance at actual merit, I'm not sure what purpose they actually serve.  But they've been presented, and while it's true the direction they assume is different from the preceding material, they're hardly redeeming.  A lack of consistency with the rest of the album isn't exactly a bad thing, but it does leave one to wonder why every other song couldn't have followed suit.  Even if they did, Stones Grow Her Name would probably amount to little more than a smooth transition from The Days of Grays; neither of the "Wildfire" sequels feel like proper successors to anything on Reckoning Night.

Nothing on Stones Grow Her Name captures the essence of Sonata Arctica.  Oh sure, there's dumb fun to find during the first two tracks, along with reaching towards a final goal on its two "Wildfire" entries.  Unfortunately, half of those highlights see them slash and shred away at their foundation.  If Unia was "executed with tipsiness," as I said in my review, then Stones Grow Her Name is a case of drunken battery.  

Grade: D

Question of the Day: What are some truly awful songs you can't help but enjoy?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Sonata Arctica: The Days of Grays (2009) Review

I wanted to like The Days of Grays more than Unia before hearing a single track.  My logic going in was that Unia was a slump, and that its successor's album art alone signified a step back on-course.  And based on the first eleven minutes, I thought my preconception would be fully realized.  After all, this was the band's first LP since Silence to open with a chilling keyboard intro, which also closes the album in an extended version.  Indeed, both variants of "Everything Fades to Gray" are equally effective at expressing a foreboding vibe.  But then something happened.  It wasn't immediate, but gradual, becoming more and more evident as the album continued on.  My friends, I'm referring to an overall loss of interest.

One complete hearing is all it takes to understand what's missing.  Where Unia failed to push the keyboards, The Days of Grays fails to push itself.  "Deathaura," one of the only notable tracks, is dramatic and, like its predecessor, scattered.  Although it's not the most accurate representation of the album stylistically, "Deathaura" does symbolize the kind of impression The Days of Grays will leave on you--which is none at all.  For the first time in their career, Sonata Arctica released an album with next to no memorable moments.  Even the triumphant "Flag in the Ground" does little more than sound like an empty Iron Maiden imitation.  

What's more is that each track struggles to maintain interest for more than a minute or two at a time.  By the time I gave the album a fourth listening, I found myself skipping to the next track more times than not, thereby forgoing the better part of the runtime.  "Zeroes" is particularly daunting in its opening seconds, with Kakko's vocals and the overall distortion spawning a mental/facial curdling.  Whether this or failing to incite the listener's interest is worse, especially from the likes of Sonata Arctica, is totally subjective.  Either way, The Days of Grays has plenty of both to go around.  

If The Days of Grays does one thing well, it's smoothing the sound on Unia out.  However, this proves to be simultaneously beneficial and detrimental.  The music isn't so sharp in its juxtaposed tendencies, which gives the entire album a more consistent and unified sound than the band's 2007 project.  Yet this begs a question similar to the one I posed above; do you lean towards the impulsive (Unia) or the lethargic (The Days of Grays)?  For me, the choice is obvious.

Grade: D

Question of the Day: What are some (popular) albums that failed to catch your interest?

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?