Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sonata Arctica - Stones Grow Her Name (2012)

Akin to many of you, I was a huge fan of Sonata Arctica years ago, but have gradually lost interest as the years rolled on. Ecliptica was a masterful piece of power metal, and their next few outings were certainly not lacking for potency, but the later offerings have not really grabbed me. To be fair, I will not decree, like so many others, that the band have grown uninteresting simply because they have abandoned the sphere of power metal. No, I am not nearly so petty or close-minded, as even though I prefer their more traditional offerings by a long shot, it is not simply because they have shifted stylistically. Indeed, I encourage growth in any artist who feels the impetus to do so, but I will only continue to be interested, obviously, if the result ends up steering in a compelling direction. This, in essence, is where I find inherent fault in this newest offering from Finnish power-pop icons Sonata Arctica. It’s not so much the fact that they have changed, but the inevitable result in such a mutation, an airy, flowery product that flounders in its attempt at super-stardom. To put it simply, in an attempt to be as palatable as possible, Sonata Arctica have effectively eradicated most of the flavors that made them such a compelling snack to begin with.

Right out the gate we have a prime example of the dumbed-down nature of the songwriting in Only the Broken Hearts. Though far from terrible, it remains terribly pedestrian in its quest for arena-rock, heart-throb acceptance, drowned in repetitious, flower-sniffing choruses. I like the midsection though, strangely demented in its own happy way. Shitload of Money has a certain cocaine glamour to it, and proves fairly fun, even if it repeats itself and drags on a bit much, a complaint I had with the album at large. Losing my Insanity is one of the better tracks, a good galloping song with some dreamy synths and a more legitimate power metal atmosphere than the rest of the album, even if it succumbs to incessant chorus repetition that negates a portion of its impact. Somewhere Close to You is similar, but has a fun rhythmic stomp to it that provides a fine counterpoint to the Shakespearian romance of the lyrical matter, and is perhaps the best track on the album.

I Have a Right, however, is absolutely sickening. My stomach has a tendency to literally churn when presented with music of such unsubstantial, sugary texture. It’s an endless repetition of sap and lame, flowery sensibilities that fail to evoke any emotional impact beyond repulsion, despite the noble message intended. This is the essence of the disease that has infected Sonata Arctica, fluffy and glittery and pink, without innovation, solely hanging on the strength of unsettling pop hooks, a glittery prima donna that lacks in plain old soul.

Alone in Heaven fares a bit better, with a bit of darkness creeping into its fairy tale overcoat, though it’s still far from greatness, without much strength behind its simplistic, dreamy grasp towards the stars. The Day is like the narrative of some lame romantic soap opera, though it flows quite well, and it’s tragic, upbeat nature is admittedly infectious, even if it’s completely embarrassing. Cinderbox is a hokey, okie, hillbilly stargazer of a song that succeeds in capturing its desired Western flavor, but Kakko’s vocal inflections make it sound overwhelmingly silly during the pre-chorus, almost clownish, unfortunately dragging the whole affair into laughable, if somewhat endearing, stupidity. Don’t Be Mean also falls flat, its all-too-obvious balladic nature lacking the desired poignancy, and would likely fail in any circumstance beyond my turning into a 14 year old girl, with Tony’s mug plastered on my school notebook. Not a likely scenario. The Wildfire songs that close the album attempt a more varied, progressive nature than the continuous pop-dream sterility of the album proper, and they are some of the better cuts, but it feels like too little too late.

Barring a few truly awful moments, I wouldn’t really call Stones Grow Her Name a bad album, though it is quite a middling expedition, at length. I don't really like the majority of it, but it's not really that bad, if that makes sense. It's really, really not my thing. Indeed, I fear my soul is just too slathered in misanthropy to be able to enjoy such rainbow-sparkled melodrama, even the well-constructed bits. It’s too poppy, too flashy, and in the end, too empty. That, coming from a man who enjoys the flash of Children of Bodom, and the emotional hooks of In Flames and Nightwish, and the condemnation grows even bolder. It doesn’t offend outright (besides I Have a Right, whose sparkling unicorn sap dribbles into my worst fucking nightmares), and it’s lightly enjoyable at times, but it produces nothing I’m going to want to revisit in a week, let alone in a year. The sole exception is Somewhere Close to You, the only song I fully enjoy.

I must clarify; I have no problem with pop if it’s done well. Indeed, I enjoy a good amount of rather sugary music, and I grew up worshiping groups like The Cure and AFI. If the band had brought the bombastic, memorable power of their early performances into this more conventional, succinct shell, I would be ecstatic. As it stands, though, Stones Grow Her Name isn’t much more than a pink, bubbly ride through a field of ineffective fluff, about as nutritious and satisfying as a ball of cotton candy, with roughly as much weight. Upon reflection, the fact that it still is identifiably Sonata Arctica likely makes my opinion much more lenient, as it’s a band I’ve long enjoyed, sort of an odd juxtaposition to my unfettered loathing of new Morbid Angel. I want to like it, I really do. At length, though, as a fan of heartfelt, interesting music, this barely gets a pass. It might contain just enough legitimate Sonata Arctica to be worth a bargain bin purchase, and some fans will likely find a bit of value tucked within its inoffensive folds, especially if they have a stomach for melodramatic simplicity, but the majority of you need not apply. If, however, your idea of fun music is horrifying swill like Kelly Clarkson or Adam Lambert, this might just be that badass new album you’ve been waiting for.

4.5 / 10 - Don't Forget to Fluff Your Unicorn