Sonata Arctica

support Labyrinth + Triosphere
author NB date 25/03/11 venue Islington Academy, London, UK

I was continuing my Finnish odyssey at the Islington Academy (although I'm not sure if three bands constitutes an odyssey). Finally, after countless missed opportunities, tonight was my chance to see one of Sonata Arctica's acclaimed live performances. If the band's 2006 live DVD "For the Sake of Revenge" was anything to go by, the evening promised to be one of high-quality aural pleasure... and I won't keep you waiting. It was.

Actually, you will have to wait a bit, because first up were a couple of support bands from opposite extremities of Europe: Triosphere hailing from Norway and Labyrinth from Italy.

Triosphere

Rather a formal relationship is established between Triosphere and their modest audience during this short set. This outfit is a relatively young one and their inexperience is clear from their on-stage demeanour. After the first song, vocalist and bassist Ida Haukland awkwardly introduces the band and the uneasy dialogue continues in the subsequent breaks. At the end of their set everyone lines up to take a bow.

Despite this, Triosphere do give us a decent rendition of their latest tracks. The majority of these are sampled from the 2010 album "The Road Less Travelled", with the single from that album, "Human Condition", being among the best received by the assembled onlookers. The band describe themselves as progressive metal, although I would be tempted to simply place them on the heavier end of power metal as there are few innovative or technical structures to be found in their small back-catalogue. Instead, the music mainly relies on powerful, if not breath-takingly nuanced, vocal melodies from Haukland, and some generic but catchy lead guitar hooks. The overall effect is very listenable - especially the band's first single "Trinity" - but all too often the songs lapse into very boring monotone chugging riffs. Unfortunately, since the band conform to the genre norm of standing motionless, centre-stage in V-formation, and lack any audience interaction, simply playing moderately good music isn't going to win them many fans tonight.

6

Labyrinth

In stark contrast to Triosphere, Labyrinth are no newcomers. They look exactly as you would imagine a twenty-year-old, Milanese, power metal act to look: carefully groomed, middle-aged with waist-length hair and open shirts - Cassanova meets guitar virtuoso. The band's laid back attitude exudes confidence and experience. Their music is equally unsurprising; it comes across as an unashamedly retro and cheesy homage to the era in which the band formed. This stuff is so soppy it makes Symphony-X look like Nile.

When Labyrinth break into their set I'm a bit worried by the initially weak vocal offerings from front-man Roberto, but luckily this seems to be a technical hitch and before long he's crooning his saccharine vocals at full power. Although I'm no expert, what we hear tonight seems to be a varied selection stretching back into the distant depths of the bands discography and sections such as the grandiose synth intro to 1998's "New Horizons" inspire the strongest reaction in the crowd. It's a competent performance, especially from the Roland AX-7 wielding keytarist who's featured heavily in the last song of the set, "Moonlight", but stand out moments are few and far between. I think that, if you are going to play what is essentially music from a bygone era today, it's important to add something special to make an impact. Sadly, unlike tonight's headliner, Labyrinth don't really do that.

Sonata Arctica

Sonata Arctica have made a name for themselves with their unique brand of frivolous, up-tempo, keyboard heavy, fairytale power ballads. Despite several attempts, no one has come close to reproducing the style, sound or pervasive silliness of their music. Indeed, the band have had this difficulty themselves of late, with the latest two studio albums having failed to re-capture the magic of the earlier material. It seems that they are somewhat aware of this because the set-list tonight could have been hand picked by yours truly: it contains the only tracks worth listening to from the latest album and the passable ones from 2007's "Unia" along with a wide selection of my own old favourites.

The band take the stage before an impressive array of LED panels, which form only part of what turns out to be a spectacular light show for a venue of this size. The opening song, "Flag In the Ground", is prefaced by the thick orchestral backing of "Everything Fades to Gray", building up the sense of drama and the tension in the room to what, for most bands, might seem like a ridiculous and unfulfillable level of expectation. However, Sonata quickly come good on this unspoken promise with some of the most outrageously epic and over-dramatic music one can imagine, delivered with expert proficiency. The sound is incredibly clear and the playing precise. Each of the fast-paced and frivolous guitar lines is record-perfect, but the keyboard performance of Henrik Klingenberg stands out above even these. He batters out some impressive, Janne Wirman style, two-handed tapping on another AX-7, along with a collection of solos far more nuanced and interesting than anything offered by the preceding band.

However, neither the guitar nor the keyboard is the most important instrument in Sonata Arctica. The centrepiece is Tony Kakko's stunning voice. Even if the band's ridiculous lyrics and ostentatious music are not to your taste, there's no denying the talent possessed by this man. Every note is perfect, every twist and turn of the vocal line is subtle but intentional. In addition, Kakko speaks to the audience as if he and they were old friends, regaling them with stories about his, apparently beloved, Toyota Corolla. He introduces the song "Fullmoon" with a piece of crowd marshaling borrowed from Aussie comic Tim Minchin:

All the dudes in the house,

Come on and let me hear you say "AY-O".

All the ladies in the house,

Come on and let me hear you say...

I'm not good with maps,

But I have a highly developed emotional intelligence... "AY-O".

With this blithe, whimsical, unpretentious charisma along with some strange vocal exercises, Kakko bridges the gaps between songs and fully engages the crowd. Sonata's warm presence, perfect sound and songs that centre around an awe-inspiring voice add up to an act which simply outclasses the other bands on the bill tonight. It was worth the wait.

9

Setlist:

  • Flag In The Ground
  • The Last Amazing Grays
  • Juliet
  • Replica
  • Blank File
  • As If The World Wasn't Ending
  • Paid in Full
  • Victoria's Secret
  • Instrumental Paté
  • The Misery
  • Fullmoon
  • In Black and White
  • --- Encore ---
  • Caleb
  • Don't Say A Word
  • Vodka (Hava Nagila)

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