Sonata Arctica – All About SynergySunday, 25th September 2016
Change is good according to vocalist and main songwriter Tony Kakko of Finnish power metal act Sonata Arctica – and who am I to disagree? Sure many miss the early days of the band when they were off to the speed races and creating a landmark release for their generation in 1999’s Ecliptica – but even back then as “Blank File” and “Kingdom for a Heart” kept the adrenaline pumping, the band also had that tender/ emotional side with “Replica” and “Letter to Dana”. Over two decades and now nine studio albums, natural life experiences and wisdom allows the band to delve deeper into other realms that fancy their tastes – incorporating progressive, symphonic, folk, pop, and bluegrass elements when called for.
The ninth studio album, ironically titled The Ninth Hour, will be another one sure to stir up debate among all legions of Sonata Arctica followers. Just take a look at the comments under the first lyric video “Closer to an Animal” on YouTube and you’ll see everything from praise to beyond boring thoughts – proving that stagnation is not in the band’s vocabulary. Those who love the thunderous double bass and lightning fast keyboard runs with power guitars should beam at “Rise a Night” and “Fairytale”, but others who enjoy the more explorative and dramatic side will find “We Are What We Are” and the ten-minute plus “White Pearl, Black Oceans Part II – By the Grace of the Ocean” ideal. Aiming to please themselves first, it’s not like they’ve strayed completely off the power course and gone all Pink Bubbles Go Ape on us.
Taking the chance to converse with Tony about the new album, we also delve deeper into the diverse North American tour packages the band has been a part of lately (this early go around with Leaves Eyes and Omnium Gatherum in support), as well as the impressive cover art, more love of Queen talk, and his feelings regarding proper monetary compensation to musicians for streaming services in today’s digital music consumption model.
Dead Rhetoric: The Ninth Hour is the ninth studio album for Sonata Arctica. Would you say at this point in your career the art of exploring new horizons or takes on the established style intrigues and drives you more and in turn leads each record into fresh terrain?
Tony Kakko: Music is just a great adventure, and I take every album as it comes. I really don’t plan beforehand all that much. On the previous album Pariah’s Child I did think that this next album would be heavier or more metal- and that did nothing really good because I don’t think this album is quite that, although it’s well in line with the previous one. I don’t think it’s getting harder with each album, I just let things happen with each album on its own weight.
Dead Rhetoric: Have you always planned on doing sequels to previous album songs “Don’t Say a Word” and “White Pearl, Black Oceans” – or did this just develop organically for the new album?
Kakko: “White Pearl, Black Oceans Part 2” only came to be around the springtime. I had been playing around with the idea that would be fun to return and continue the story one day, but I actually killed the two main characters at the end of the first part – so it wasn’t the easiest starting point. It was unplanned, although I had the idea for it. And then with the “Don’t Say a Word” sequel, it’s part of a Juliet saga that’s been going on ever since our second album- and probably will continue in the future. It’s always nice to go back to that weird world, sequels or prequels to each other. It gives me the freedom to explore the dark side of metal, in not like a heavy way- it makes the whole song stand out in a theatrical, odd, and weird way. I can pretty much do whatever I like within those boundaries that the saga offers, so it’s always fun to go back. It’s not something that I aim to do with every album, it either happens or it doesn’t happen. I don’t have a sequel or the next step ready for every album. It was the time to bring two things back.
Dead Rhetoric: Was it a challenge to create an epic song, or do you find it harder to create shorter songs versus the longer ones?
Kakko: In some ways the long songs are easier because you don’t have so much emphasis on being compact and getting really striking at a formula. Songs where you have a verse, the pre-chorus, the chorus and the solo, chorus, or a modulation at the end- that’s harder versus writing a really long song that gives you the act together- you can paint much more and get into the atmosphere of the song. It depends, sometimes a short song can be easy as well- out of the blue somehow. I don’t really have a preference for which one I’d rather do.
Dead Rhetoric: It seems like being on tour with Nightwish may have influenced a couple of the newer whistle/flute-oriented influences for “We Are What We Are” – do you find that you get just as inspired by veteran bands on tour as you do reaching into your own collective well of early influences to fuel your songwriting – as there are certainly more Queen affinities too it seems this time out?
Kakko: Nightwish… of course. I had that song that Troy from Nightwish is actually playing on, “We Are What We Are”- that was the only demo I had with me on that North American tour. I played it to Tuomas (Holopainen) and Troy (Donockley) and I asked Troy if he would be willing to record something on it, and he was. That was fantastic and hence building a bridge to Nightwish in that sense… emphasizing that the song definitely has a little bit of Nightwish vibe to it. We have always played in the same sandbox of influences between us and Nightwish- especially when we introduce any symphonic elements or similar instruments as a flute or a whistle into a song, of course people immediately start paying attention to that and start asking me questions if I’m influenced by that. That’s not necessarily the case- I have a really wide variety of influences: classical, jazz, even black metal and everything in between. It’s like picking here and there- so everything sort of influences me. And of course the early influences like Queen- that was my first love musically. The first band that I really admitted and acknowledged that I liked a lot. They had a major impact on my musical growth, it has always been there and maybe it’s more evident on some albums rather than others- if you hear it on this one, that maybe it is so. I’m still kind of a little close to the album in the creative process, ask me in a year and maybe I’ll be a little wiser.
Dead Rhetoric: What aspects of Queen’s music really intrigue you through the years?
Kakko: I suppose the biggest thing that Queen brought and sort of programmed in me is the melodies, the song structures, and the variety of music styles that they have on their albums. They’ve done just about anything and everything available at the time. Disco, pop- and that’s something that we’ve scraped at a little bit. I’m not really shy about introducing something totally different and weird on our music- we have had bluegrass aspects on our previous albums and such weird things that might throw people off but these are just like one-of-a-kind oddities that I enjoy putting on these albums, making the albums richer in some ways.
Dead Rhetoric: Explain the concept behind the artwork for the new album – and how important you believe the medium is to painting a picture for what listeners can expect?
Kakko: On the cover we have this utopian landscape with the human technology and nature all in harmony. In the middle we have this hourglass contraption thing, with a knob in the middle there underneath and with arrows. The knob kind of represents everything that we are doing here to destroy this planet, polluting and everything to make things worse. Eventually if we keep meddling with that button too much it might tilt the hourglass in one direction or another and hence you end up choosing one of those alternatives for utopia, dystopia on the left side of the cup and on the right side you have nature, just nature and no human elements because we have annihilated ourselves and nature has had a chance of healing itself. That’s the basic idea behind the album cover.
The name The Ninth Hour of course it rings all sorts of Biblical bells in people’s minds. It derives from that but that wasn’t my original starting point when I started thinking of a name. The first thought was about this being our ninth album and ninth hour, that might be okay- but first of all, is this corny? And what does it really mean, because I’m not a very religious person. Of course I started studying it and it really didn’t feel what I thought and the contraption, the cover idea. But then there was this one line, it’s something that I took from the Bible ‘God only wants people to sacrifice and repent on the ninth hour’. That applies to this moment where we are living in many cases. We need to make some sacrifices to enable and allow nature to survive us. It’s not necessarily anything big but still people will consider this as sacrifices. And then the repenting part, we will be sorry for some of the choices our previous generations have done and already lost so much that this planet has to offer. There is still a chance that if we do things right we can make the right way and reach utopia one glorious day.
Dead Rhetoric: I also enjoyed the lyrics to the song “Life”, where the words seem to tackle the fact that maybe people aren’t necessarily living their life to the fullest, and they are existing rather than just living, is this accurate?
Kakko: That’s one way of seeing it, and one of the other ideas is people are depressed for such stupid reasons. They are stubborn to reach out and go out and see people, get friends and enjoy life. I think that life is so much better when you have friends to spend time with and share it with. So take your thoughts and mine to combine them, and you have “Life” in a nutshell.
Dead Rhetoric: You mention in the bio dealing occasionally with politics in a semi-tongue in cheek manner with some of the lyrics, especially given the endless chest of wonders with the current US political election. How do you view what’s going on, and does it worry you in the long term with other leaders of the world?
Kakko: Well, ah. Some prospects that are available at the moment in North America seem like a tiny dictator getting the reigns over a huge country (laughs). There are two ways you can approach that. You can find a lot of humor in that this might be really entertaining first of all. But you could be serious and this could drastically backfire as well. I trust that whatever happens things will even out and everything will be fine. Because… I don’t want to die! (laughs) That would be nice for us to continue to tour North America without anyone closing the borders, I really love touring there. It’s really tongue in cheek, but there is a seed of truth and mystery and conspiracy there on that particular song as well. It’s something that shouldn’t be taken necessarily seriously, but then again there are things and then there are things.
Dead Rhetoric: Would you say at this point in your career when it comes to Sonata Arctica at live shows, you are starting to see multiple generations of followers into the band- including ones from the very start? And how do you feel being an influence on younger musicians?
Kakko: Yes, this actually happens a lot. When we were like twenty-something, or in the case of Tommy (Portimo) our drummer he was 14 when we started the band. Our first shows when we started Sonata Arctica he was too young to enter the audience side of the venues. A lot of the fans that we had then, they are naturally grown-ups now as well. Hence we have developed and moved along musically and they have developed with us- and with their changing and altering tastes in music. It starts to look like these people are starting to bring their own kids to our shows- and sometimes even their own parents, in the best case we have three generations of Sonata Arctica fans in one room. It’s heartwarming and simply wonderful, gives us a lot of hope in the future, that there will be a lot of music for us to play as well.
It still feels kind of odd to be considered (an influence). This band was started on December 22nd, and this year we will be a 21-year old band. We have released so many albums already and toured the world many times, so of course people have heard our music and there is no way you cannot influence some young musicians but it still feels weird. I don’t feel that I’m that old to influence some people. I fear the responsibility maybe in some ways. It takes a little bit of adjusting to do for myself- when you reach the point where someone comes to you and tells you they want to release a tribute album for Sonata Arctica, that sort of throws you off a bit. After a tiny adjustment period it’s the biggest homage you can actually get, it’s an honor and fantastic. And hearing the different variety of bands that we’ve influenced on that album- it’s amazingly fantastic. It shows you how creative this younger generation of musicians really are, bravely doing something totally different out of our songs. There’s one version of “8th Commandment” from the first album that’s barely recognizable by Disposable, a really, really younger sounding Lemmy singing over a hardcore/punk band, it’s fantastic. I’m proud of the fact we’ve been able to function as an influence, not all bands from Kemi, Finland can say that.
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