Sonata Arctica – The Days of Grays (2009)

(this review is completely ignorant to the bonus symphonic CD or the bonus tracks. It’s just the 12 original tracks)

To me, Sonata Arctica has always been the power metal band. They were, together with Nightwish and Within Temptation, what brought me into both heavy metal music and classical music in circa 2005 – 2006. Since then, I have heard literary hundreds, if not thousands, of bands. Among these are Stratovarius and Helloween, two of the first power metal bands in the 1980’s and onwards. When I first heard Stratovarius, I though ”oh – so that’s where it comes from”. And yes, it is obvious – Sonata’s 1999 debut Ecliptica was more or less a tribute to Stratovarius. There is basically no orginiality, although there are some really good tracks (including ”FullMoon”, ”Letter to Dana” and ”Kingdom For a Heart”).

Both Silence (2001) and Winterheart’s Guild (2003) were MUCH more original, with several truly unique songs. The band, though, started to get bored with this style that more or less was a big tribute to the 1980’s power metal band. All this resulted in the more progressive Reckoning Night of 2004, an album that I’ve never really been that fond to. There is a lot of ”purer” heavy metal – ”Misplaced”, ”Ain’t Your Fairytale”, ”Wildfire” – and a lot of freakish let’s-have-fun-and-play-our-asses-of in ”The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Real Puppet”. This latter new angle was also a great part of their next album, 2007’s Unia. Unia was their first album to take a completely different direction, away from the general power metal and into a field of… can I call it progressive metal? I don’t think I can. It is a type of melodic metal, with influences from classical music, power metal, thrash metal, progressive metal, classical rock, psychedelic rock… It was something I had never heard before. At first I didn’t really like Unia, but I listened it through a few times… and it’s incredible.

The Days of Grays was the successor of Unia, and I was really worried. What could this lead to? Would it be another great turn, maybe into thrash or doom? Would it follow Unia closely – maybe too closely? Or would it be a turn back into the power metal field? It turned out I was wrong altogether.

The album kicks off with an instrumental intro – something I am a big fan of as long as it is good and not just something thrown in. And that’s absolutely not Everything Fades to Gray (Instrumental), which leads perfectly into the album’s epic, the wonderful Deathaura. This eight-minute track is a bit disappointed to me, actually, since Sonata usually has so great epics (”The Power of One”, ”The End of This Chapter”, ”Caleb”, ”White Pearl, Black Oceans”), but I suppose I’m just constantly annoyed by the same thing; it is too fast. I would not mind at all if it was mixed into being played for a total of 15 och 20 minutes… Because as it is it’s just too fast, too much reminding of Wildfire. It’s okay for a minute at the time, but going fast as hell in eight minutes?

The second track is also the first single – The Last Amazing Grays – and is a beautiful semi-ballad about dying proud and with dignity. I actually cried the first time I heard it (when the single was leaked), although it’s now quite overplayed (I think it’s about 80 plays according to Last.fm, the single edit included).

Flag in the Ground is the third track and the second single. If you prefer the old school Sonata, this is the song you’ll like on Days of Grays. The song is a remake of the unreleased song ”BlackOut” from the band’s early demos. It’s a really catchy tune with an epic bridge and finale – ”I put the flag in the ground / Screaming and shouting, I’ve never been so proud, love / I make my way into the great unknown / Land by the river and a newbuilt home / Every night when I’m looking at the fullmoon rising / I hold you and know that we are free.”

My favorite songs on the album are probably ”Juliet” and ”The Truth is Out There”. Juliet is both a big allusion to the famous Shakespeare play / the Italian legend of Romeo and Juliet, as well as the fourth and (I think) last episode in the Caleb tale (”Don’t Say a Word”; ”The End of This Chapter”; ”Caleb”). And it’s wonderful! It’s so beautiful, so sad, so epic! ”These are my final lines, I used all my nine lives / My soul reason to die; there’s no life without you”. And The Truth is Out There… what can I say? So incredibly original and… well… strange but great at the same time. I really love it’s atmosphere, and it’s lyrics linked constantly with the great TV series The X Files.

What I missed on Unia was the ballads. On the earlier albums, there were lots of wonderful guitar-based ballads such as Letter to Dana and Shamandalie, but this sort of dropped out with Unia. With Days of Grays, it’s a bit different; there ARE two ballads, if not quite different to the original type. Breathing is actually one of my new favorite songs with Sonata. It is very melancholic and epic, and reminds me of Draw Me. As if the World Wasn’t Ending is different, it is a bit more… well… I don’t know. It is not a bad song, but it’s not excellent either. It is somewhere in the middle, just your standard ballad.

What can I say about The Days of Grays as a conclusion? It is great! Go buy it! At this point, it is honestly my favorite Sonata Arctica album, very original, melodic, sad, epic… It is just wonderful. Try it out, but be careful not to judge it too early; I didn’t like it at all until the third or fourth listen.

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