Having grown to love Sonata Arctica’s last album, The Days of Grays, I hoped that the band had finally found a style in which they were comfortable, and that their next album would be a continuation of it; so what if they don’t play power metal anymore? The 2012 single “I Have a Right” effectively dashed my hopes and got me worrying: is that what their new album is going to sound like? POP? It was the complete antithesis of what made The Days of Grays special. And so, I rather tentatively began my listen of Sonata Arctica’s latest, Stones Grow Her Name, not knowing what to expect. It was fitting, in a way, because this album is going to throw people for a loop if they aren’t careful.
First, let’s go over what hasn’t changed, since none of it is really surprising anyway. Stones Grow Her Name marks the fourth album in a row in which Sonata Arctica’s mood is melancholy at best; anyone expecting a return to their earlier days of cheese-infested happy sappy stuff should probably turn elsewhere. Tony Kakko’s lyrics remain unorthodox, but his vocals are as emotional as ever, painting scenes of longing and angst as he crows, whines, and growls his way throughout tracks like “Alone in Heaven” and “The Day”. It’s safe to say that no emotiveness or lyrical creativity is lost, despite some really awful track names (“Shitload of Money?” Wildfires Part II AND III? Come on guys).
As for everything else? It’s all up in the air. After experimenting with a darker, more progressive sound on Unia and solidifying it on The Days of Grays, Sonata Arctica have changed gears yet again to incorporate more straightforward hard rock elements. Elias Viljanen is given much more leeway this time around, playing less of a “support” role than he did on The Days of Grays; good riffs are still hard to come by on this album, but Elias gets more of a chance to show off his chops in the shorter compositions, as well as being generally higher in the mix than before. That’s not to say that keyboardist Henrik Klingenberg is absent, of course; his work in the slower passages of tracks like “The Day” make the songs more than tolerable, despite Sonata Arctica’s reputation for writing really crappy ballads, so that alone would net this album some points.
It’s the experimentation, though, that ultimately makes (or breaks) Stones Grow Her Name. It’s almost as if Sonata Arctica threw all sorts of shit at the wall just to see what would stick. The album begins with a simple power-pop number in “Only the Broken Hearts (Make You Beautiful)” and ends with perhaps the most complex Sonata Arctica arrangement ever in the two-part “Wildfire” continuation. You’ve got the electronic beats to begin “Shitload of Money” and the banjo in “Cinderblox”. Make no mistake about it; Stones Grow Her Name is far from an album on which every song sounds like the previous one.
Tony Kakko’s creativity has never been in doubt, though; it’s whether the material he writes is any good or not. Stones Grow Her Name has a lot of variety (probably the most of any Sonata Arctica album to date), but it seems as if the band is going through another identity crisis. A lack of direction? Maybe, but that’s what Unia suffered from, and this album is considerably better. Inconsistency within the compositions would describe it better, I would say. It’s not just a “I like Song X, but I don’t like Song Y” sort of thing; the songs themselves are roller coasters, going from striking the perfect emotional chords one minute to wondering where the hell that lovable Finnish cheeseball band went the next. “Shitload of Money,” which is bound to be a controversial track, starts off as boring and cliché, but is saved by a catchy and tasteful clean guitar lick (of all things!), a point at which the track becomes quite enjoyable. Even the sole track that can actually be classified as power metal, “Losing My Insanity,” has its ups and downs, with an infectious chorus offsetting the out-of-place piano intro. The whole thing is just all over the map in terms of how well all of those weird elements work, to a point where choosing standout tracks is almost impossible.
If there’s anything to be drawn from Stones Grow Her Name, it’s that Sonata Arctica are going to keep evolving, and if you don’t like it…then you can just wait for their next album, I guess. This is totally respectable, and the risks they take on this album warrant a few listens, if for no reason other than finding out if you like banjo-metal or not. For the wide spectrum of elements on the album, though, I can’t help but feel that Stones Grow Her Name falls a tad short; it sets out to be an adventure in experimentation, but its inconsistent material falls somewhere in between the directionless disaster of Unia and the vast depth of The Days of Grays. Somewhat disappointing, but at the same time, I can’t tell you if you’ll dig it until you give it a serious listen.