Sonata Arctica have long melded the art-rock esthetic of the late ‘60s and ‘70s with the acrobatic instrumentation of the ‘80s. The premiere Nordic power metal ensemble, the quintet dropped jaws with 1999’s Eliptica and 2001’s Silence, and 2003’s Winterheart’s Guild and became Finland’s answer to Dream Theater.
The 2000’s saw Sonata promote the expansive albums For the Sake of Revenge, Unia, and Days of Grays with marathon global tours. The guys became veterans of the festival circuit, notching key stops at Wacken Open Air, Tavastia, Noisegate, Ankkarock, and Metal Fest Hungary. The band even snaked through the United States a couple times.
Today, the five-piece band remains anchored by singer / keyboardist Tony Kakko and drummer Tommy Portimo. Guitarist Elias Viljanen took over for Jani Liimatainen in 2008, and bassist Pasi Kauppinen replaced Marco Paasikoski in mid-2013. Fleet-fingered keyboardist Henrik “Henka” Klingenberg has been in the pack since 2002, bringing added finesse and melody to an already dexterous and musically adventurous group.
Sonata’s latest album, Pariah’s Child (available March 28th on Nuclear Blast), furthers their creative vision with audacious ten new tracks. The music’s as exciting and chops-laden as ever: The songs are loaded with ample guitar and synthesizer histrionics—fluid legato, graceful slurs, and colorful 16th-note bursts—to sate fans of Vai, Malmsteen, Ruddess, and other speed-demon instrumental assassins. Kakko’s dynamic vocal range continues to serve his intriguing lyrical whimsy, and the formidable rhythm combo of Portimo and Kauppipen keep Arctica’s engine pumping.
The hour-long epic begins with the triumphant “The Wolves Die Young,” a Tolkein-worthy tale draped in Celtic melodies and Wagnerian vocals. Portimo unleashes a percussive fury while Kauppinen winds Billy Sheehan-like low grooves and trebly fills through the mix. “Running Lights” veers in the opposite direction, with guitarist Viljanen riffing through a white-knuckle ode to car culture. “Take One Breath” is a pretty, carpe diem-charged ballad that benefits from keyboard wiz Klingengberg’s lilting piano intro and intermezzo.
Lead-off single “Cloud Factory” is an unapologetically bubbly, upbeat rocker wherein adults conjure fantastical origins for the cumulonimbus formations beheld by a curious child. Guitars and keyboards whirl together for a vaporous hook as Kakko belts over the top.
“Blood” sees Sonata return to long-form storytelling with a sanguine tale of the family hearth, parental roles, and the age-old struggle of trust versus denial. “What Did You Do In The War, Dad?” is a haunting, theatrical vignette that borrows a page from the Roger Waters playbook: A son questions his father’s sadness, unable to grasp the soul-deep repercussions of post-combat trauma and the burden of battlefield guilt.
“Why can’t you smile when the children sing?” the boy ponders. “You say I’m too young to know.”
The quintet’s sense of humor reemerges with “Half a Marathon Man,” in which Kakko’s idle alter-ego is bypassed by an elderly runner who encourages him to get moving and take life by the balls. Kauppinen’s bass propels the rhythm, pedaling over Portimo’s stick syncopations—evoking the cyclic motion of calves and sneakers overtaking pavement. Kakko turns the table on depression with “X Marks the Spot” by bouncing from the persona of a brooding man who “thought of packing it in” to the blowhard evangelist who metaphorically grabs him by the neck.
“Birds like you fly straight up to heaven,” comes the gospel-tinged testimony. “Or they slowly float away.”
The disc’s shortest track, “Love,” is a piano-sprinkled sonnet scrutinizing an emotion “where rules don’t apply” before Viljanen stomps his distortion pedal and takes the music into power-ballad territory. Conversely, Pariah’s piece-de-resistance, the ten-minute “Larger Than Life” summons the virtuosic skills of all Sonata members for a sweeping progressive finale that cautions against wearing masks and wasting time: Kakko’s aged thespian descends the stage and—in King Lear fashion—laments having pretended so long and warns a younger actor to have a little fun with the script.
“I forgot to make a life,” the bard bemoans. “Sometimes we just want to play.”
Sonata Arctica will be playing all year, thank you very much, and will cast its magic spell on Cleveland with a gig at the Agora Ballroom on September 16, 2014.
We spoke with HENKKA by telephone last week to talk up the new album, forthcoming tour, and his own musical heritage.
CLEVELAND MUSIC EXAMINER: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, HENKKA! Are you calling from home?
EXAMINER: How’s the weather there?
HENKKA: The snow is starting to melt. It’s an early spring here. Usually we have really cold weather at this time.
EXAMINER: We’re looking forward to spring weather here. Lot of snow this year. Well, we’re calling to talk about the new Sonata Arctica album, Pariah’s Child—which will be released here in the States in just a couple weeks. Have you started touring yet?
HENKKA: We did start. It’s been fifteen years since we released our first album—our anniversary—so we already played some shows under that banner. Then we go to Latin America next week. We’ll try to play some more 15th anniversary shows, and then the actual album tour starts in April.
EXAMINER: Where and when did you record the new record, and how was the process different this time out—as opposed to Days of Grays, or Stones Grow Her Name?
HENKKA: Well, this time around we recorded in Studio 57, in Finland. It’s actually the studio built for our new bass player, Pasi. So it was really convenient. The main difference this time around was that usually, with previous albums, we’d get together and arrange the songs. Then after that, everybody goes on to whichever studio they prefer. But this time we all worked together in the same studio—like real bands do! So that was the main change. It was the first time in ten years we’ve done that, and it was really effective. So we got a lot done, and we got it done on time. That was the big thing with this album. To make it as a band.
EXAMINER: I got a chance to listen to some of the tracks. Admittedly, it’s my first real exposure to Sonata, and I like what I’m hearing. There’s heavy metal in it—but there’s a lot progressive styles at work. I’m a fan of Yes, and I can detect lots of prog arrangements. Are there concepts and themes going on, like themes with the wolf as a metaphor?
HENKKA: Yeah, we’ve used wolves as metaphor on many of our albums except the last one—Stones Grow Her Name. Somehow we forgot about it on that album. So this time we decided to bring it back, and we’ve got the wolf on the cover as well. But it’s been kind of a symbol for the band, and the wolf as a symbol for Finland. There’s a lot of nature symbols, yes. I can’t remember how many songs on which the wolf gets mentioned on this album—it’s more than once. But there’s no underlying theme that runs through the whole album. It’s more like, different short stories put together.
EXAMINER: There’s a lot of virtuosity within the band—just some fantastic playing on your part, and Pasi, and everyone. Do you record “live” as a band, or track individually?
HENKKA: No, no—not “live” [laughs]. That’d be too hard. I mean, we might be able to pull it off live now, actually, but recording that way is hard. But this was recording as a band as opposed to recording individually and sending the tracks back and forth in email. This was about everybody being present in the studio while recording. We record separately just to make sure we get the right sound. Also, with this kind of music—and for our band—the kind of groove you need is not the kind where you need to get the backing tracks down “live,” or something like that. I don’t think it’s necessary to do it that way with this type of music.
EXAMINER: The music is very complicated, lots of orchestration. A lot of different movements and suites and parts going on. But despite the complexity, you guys seem to have a good sense of humor. There’s battles going on, a choir. On one song there’s like an evangelist.
HENKKA: Then there was … and Jon Laird from Deep Purple. Those guys. Then of course Rick Wakeman and like that. Keith Emerson. So that was coming up and discovering that kind of thing was really exciting.
EXAMINER: I do hear a lot of that. Wakeman, Jens Johannsen, perhaps. I heard that kind of fluidity and dedication to melody, and finesse in performance. You are known for playing keytar, which isn’t super-popular these days, but was back then. Does it allow you to move around onstage more?
HENKKA: Yeah, I would say so. It’s a bit tricky to play. Basically, you can’t play with too hands very well. It’s not for musical reasons. I don’t use it in the studio.
EXAMINER: I saw a photo of you with a keytar where some of the keys were black—not just the sharps. Does that have meaning?
HENKKA: No, I just the colors. Usually with the white, all the keyboards have white keys. I just thought it was boring, so I color them with markers or a spray can. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes they end up looking quite funny, or not like I meant! But no, no special reason or meaning. I just thought black and white keys were boring.
EXAMINER: In the context of Sonata, when you write the music or play onstage, do you have to decide with Elias who gets which parts at what times—like, here’s the guitar so, then here’s the keyboard solo?
HENKKA: Well, when we work on the songs we’ll try to make it even so we both get in, and we both get an even amount of solos. So there’s no fighting! But we check what key the song is in and decide whether it’s more suited for guitar or keys. Some songs are trickier than others. Then we figure out between us, can we come up with some cool stuff here, or you play this and I play that, and we swap. It’s something we just talk up, and once it’s decided, we just roll with it. Sometimes should you feel okay lets do this…some stuff for example, in the new single “The Wolves Die Young,” that’s a uni-solo that I’m doing, and the next thing “Cloud Factory,” there’s a uni-solo as well. So we try to make sure we’re both there long enough.
EXAMINER: You each get a chance to get your piece in.
Watch HENKKA’s video trailer for the new Sonata Arctica album, Pariah’s Child: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fUa01uAyNTg&feature=player_embedded
EXAMINER: You’ve been doing this for 15-20 years. Do you do anything on the road to pass the time? Reading movies?
HENKKA: It’s usually exactly that, watching movies. Personally, I watch DVD or TV on the road. Because sometimes your attention span is so short that you can’t focus on anything for two hours. Especially if it’s something good you want to enjoy. We try to get out and walk and get some fresh air. Otherwise, everything is focused on doing the show or resting up for it. Or just eating and whatnot. Really concerned about wasting all this time, but that’s my way of preparing for the show: Doing as little as possible during the day and saving all your energy up for that hour-and-a-half or the two hours you go onstage.
EXAMINER: During your time with the band, do you have any crazy memories of the band or fans getting crazy or partying? Or is it pretty low-key in Sonata?
HENKKA: Well, it’s mostly about the music. And of course, there have been some crazy parties. But you know, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas!
EXAMINER: I hear you there.
HENKKA: But we’re getting older. When you’re 20, you can go out and party every night. But at this age, if you party, you definitely feel it the next day. So you have to make sure you have an off day, or you’ll have a day when you go out and have a couple beers, and that’s it. It takes a lot these days to maintain yourself for the show, so we can deliver something we can be proud of. We try to keep in shape. It’s been getting a lot calmer. Every once in a while we’ll go out.
EXAMINER: For someone starting out on keyboards or piano, like a child, would have any advice? Any recommendations, like learning to read music?
HENKKA: Learning to read is probably not a bad idea. But I think the main thing is to remember to have fun. When music stops being fun, it’s not really worth it. When you start to play, the main thing is to play with different people. It doesn’t have to be a band, especially if you’re a piano player. If someone sings, play with them. Don’t be too concerned about the musical style. Eventually you’ll know what style you want to make. But before that, or even if you know already, you should try to play anything with anybody. I think that’s how you learn your best. And also, it teaches you the most important thing in music, which is to listen.
EXAMINER: I think you make a good point about having fun. Now, with the Internet, you see these YouTube videos of these prodigy kids, 5 or 6 years old, and they’re playing these fantastic songs—but they don’t look like they’re having any fun! So hopefully they’ll get there.
HENKKA: Especially if your goal is to make your own music at some point. It’s great to practice your instrument, but at the end of the day you might not have anything to say. You don’t get the experience of …you don’t have a story to tell. For me, that’s always been very important. I want to say something with the music, not just show how great I am. So practice a little, and play a lot!
Check out the new Sonata Arctica single, “Cloud Factory:” http://www.nuclearblast.de/label/music/releases/sonata-arctica_cloud-fac...
EXAMINER: Listening to the album, I think you strike a good balance of having fun and getting the music across in a manner that’s narrative, and displays your talents. I think the record comes out in about a month in the United States. Then you guys start a world tour that’ll bring you back to Cleveland, Ohio in the fall. So we’ll catch up with you in the fall.
HENKKA: Yeah, sure! I think it’s in September, I think!
EXAMINER: Well, thank you so much for your time, HENKKA.
Pariah’s Child will be available on iTunes March 28th.
Pariah’s Child on CD, vinyl, limited editions: http://media.nuclearblast.de/shoplanding/2014/sonata-arctica/pariahs-chi...
Sonata Arctica (with Delain, Xandria) Tuesday, September 16, 2014 at Cleveland Agora (5000 Euclid Ave. Cleveland OH 44103). Tickets $17 / $20 / $50 VIP available now: http://www.ticketweb.com/t3/sale/SaleEventDetail?dispatch=loadSelectionD...