Friday, 21 November 2014

Sonata Arctica "Ecliptica Revisited: 15th Anniversary Edition" Review

...Well, this album has taken a drubbing in recent times, hasn't it? Wherever I look to see comments on this album, all of them basically say the same basic thing: "This isn't as good as the original, it sucks, RIP Sonata".

Woah, woah, woah, hold your fucking horses, guys: the original is still out there and this was not an attempt to replace it in the slightest. You don't have to like this re-recording, but I fail to see where all of the anguished screams of "RUINED FOREVER!" are coming from and why people are treating this as the final betrayal from the band when there were far more valid targets for this, you know, there is an album like Stones Grow Her Name out there which is just downright indefensible (and makes me wish I was allowed to purchase and own a flamethrower, as the punishment for this album deserves to be more severe than being condemned to gather dust in my record collection...and I can't be assed to carry a sledgehammer halfway across town), and that's not even touching the snoozefests (to me) that were Unia and The Days Of Grays. To borrow (and very slightly rephrase) something from Yahtzee's review of Aliens: Colonial Marines, your sweetums has been putting it out for a good while, guys. The betrayal ship has sailed, circumnavigated the globe and returned to port laden with exotic spice: I think there's far more vile betrayals out there than THIS!

Hey, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery! And at least I attribute my sources properly...

Anyway, I think the important thing that most people seem to have forgotten in their determination to obliterate this album is that, technically, they're destroying THE SAME ALBUM THAT THEY LOVE. Seriously, it's exactly the same material on that classic album, just in a lower tuning and with a admittedly less impressive (on some levels) vocal performance. It's the same high quality songs, just not as well performed and with a different (I don't say "worse" because I found the original version of Ecliptica was far too heavy on the keyboards and made the rhythm guitar nearly inaudible, so having the positions reversed is not something that I personally object to too much!) production. Even if you're judging the complete package of the album and not just the material on it, I think the word "overreaction" springs to mind, and the fact that even professional critics have had this overreaction just makes me wonder whether I'm the only sane fucking reviewer out there when it comes to this album (and Exodus' Let There Be Blood, but that's a discussion for another time...)!

Now that every Sonata Arctica fan who reads this blog probably wants my head on a pike (sorry, Derek!), let's get started with the cover art, shall we? Well, I really like it! It's got the kind of feel to it that makes me think of it being a perfect way of updating an old bit of artwork. If you will, it's new, but it's old at the same time...and that's really all that I could have expected it to be like, so this is just brilliantly handled! I'm actually kind of disappointed that the band didn't make this cover art available as a poster, as I'd have seriously loved to get it on one!

Well, with that said, let's move to the album itself.

To be totally honest, most of what I could say was what I said when I looked at the re-recorded version of "Kingdom For A Heart", as just about everything is pretty much the same as it was on the original, just given a different (not necessarily worse) production job, lower (and more emotional when necessary) vocals and tuning...and that's really it. The band perform the songs with only a few variations in the quiet moments and with some slightly different vocal melodies that fit in with Tony's more natural vocal range than the Timo Kotipelto impression he was basically using on the original album. To the die hard fans, those differences are a horrific betrayal of the original songs and worthy of flaming the album to death...but, if you take the nostalgia glasses off and look at the differences with as unbiased a viewpoint as possible, the differences actually make the songs a bit better. Let's be honest, as good as the emotional moments of the songs were on the original, the band have gotten far better at those moments since then, so hearing those song now being given the more emotional moments that the band can do with ease now shows just how far the band have come. "Different" does not automatically mean "Bad", if you get the point I'm raising: there's nothing wrong with looking at the issues with a classic and fixing them, providing that what you do does actually make it better, and I feel that the band do that here. The original does has a reputation for being one of the best power metal albums out there, but that doesn't mean it's exempt from having the issues with it pointed out and rectified by either the band itself or future bands. In the majority of cases, I do feel that the band does this.

Blasphemy, I hear you cry? Well, look no further than the production to see an arguable improvement. The original production was far too keyboard heavy in the mix. Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but the guitar and bass were too far back in the mix and it could be nigh on impossible to hear them properly. In the re-recording, the keyboards are pushed back (TOO far back, if I'm totally honest) and so, at last, the guitar (and, to a lesser extent, the bass) get their chances to shine. Now, this does open up newer problems (I think that the production on the re-recording sounds a bit TOO studio sounding, if you get the point I'm raising), but, in terms of the overall mix, I feel that a real improvement has been made.

Another issue that is rectified is in the vocal performance. Now, this is going to be a very subjective point, but I personally found that Tony on the original recording had a habit of sounding like he was singing in a part of his voice that was not comfortable for him (in a few cases, audibly straining to hit the notes he was pulling off: anyone remember the part of "My Land" after the second chorus where he sounded almost off key?). While it was impressive to hear some of the high notes he was hitting, I ultimately thought that the guy was trying to sing something nearly outside of his vocal range and, while I do still like his voice from that album, his more recent singing style is more to my liking because he just sounds more comfortable singing like that. So hearing him take on the songs and NOT sounding like his voice is at risk of turning in on itself and dying was a marked improvement for me. He also has a much better English pronunciation compared to the debut, so understanding him is far easier, and his voice on the more emotional parts of the album does sound much better. That said, I do agree that his voice has deteriorated over the years, his current vocal style doesn't really fit in with the songs properly (although it's nowhere near as bad as some people like to make it out to be) and the fact that he doesn't really try to go for the highest notes properly on this album does feel a bit disappointing. However, if you were seriously expecting him to try to hit those notes, I have to ask what reality you've been living in or whether you've even bothered to listen to a Sonata Arctica album since Silence, as Tony's not been going for screams like that for a good while now, so it's not like there was no precedent to go "Well, that note's not going to happen any more"!

So, thus far, it looks like the re-recording remedies the worst issues of the original album, makes the songs more emotional than they were adds a few issues which can ultimately be attributed to the effects of time (because, you know, we don't live in a place where time and space aren't important) and is ultimately better than the original album, right?

Most of the album is played in a lower tuning compared to the original album, which isn't necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but some of the songs don't quite work in the lower tunings to the extent that they did in the original tunings. Most aren't as affected as most people like to say they are (or, if they are, it's only a minor step down in quality), but some songs suffer quite noticeably from the lower tuning. In particular, "UnOpened" (which wasn't one of my favourite songs on the original album in the first place) sounds pretty dull on the re-recorded version of the album, "Picturing The Past" feels like it's lacking some enthusiasm in the chorus and "Fullmoon" feels a bit too restrained compared to the original and, even when viewed on its own and actually suffers from the more guitar heavy mix, as the end result feels like the guitar is constantly interrupting the music. I also feel that Tony's vocal performance on the chorus of this song is far too stilted for my liking (as it is on "My Land"), as he sounds like he's just singing the chorus one word at a time instead of doing it as a proper chorus. If this is what the old school metalheads mean when they say modern production sounds too tame, then...well, it's nowhere near that bad, but I feel like the big issue with this version of the song is that it lacks energy and seems a bit forced.

Actually, now I mention that, I do feel that the vocal performance by Tony is a bit lacking in terms of energy. I wouldn't say that he is on autopilot over the course of the album, as he is clearly trying to do the songs well, but I get the vibe that Tony wasn't as eager about re-recording this album as the rest of the band was, for some reason. I know he was eager to do it from interviews, but this doesn't translate across very well in his performance on the album. In fact, his most audibly enthusiastic performance is actually on the cover of Genesis' "I Can't Dance" (which is kind of bizarre to listen to, but I'm not familiar with the original song, so take my thoughts on that with a pinch of salt), not one of the re-recorded songs, which really says a lot.

Anyway, the production...well, pushing back the keyboards in the mix as far as was done does here is going to split people down the middle and, in some cases, does hurt the songs, but I feel that the only issues which hurt this album are the mastering and the drum recording. It is a bit loud in the mastering for me and I can't escape the feeling that the drums feel like they're hitting an invisible wall which shouldn't be there in the first place (which doesn't help with the feeling that the record sounds a bit too much like the product of a studio), but the rest of the album is perfectly fine.

So, what do I think of this album? Well...the big problem with this re-recording is that, while it sorts the most pressing issues from the original album, it does create a few newer ones and it feels like it's lacking some enthusiasm when it really needs it. Which puts this album in a bizarre state where I can't recommend it over the original, but can't say it's completely worth skipping at the same time. I mean, one could make the case that the whole album is pointless when the original is still out there and is basically a better version of what is on offer here, but I wouldn't call it outright bad either. The material is still very enjoyable, if lacking compared to the original album, and I do like most of the changes to the actual songs. I guess the best way to sum up this album is that it's a curiosity: if you're a huge fan of Ecliptica, then it's really interesting to listen to this and see how the band does the album today. You'll need to be open minded when approaching this album and not go into it expecting it to be a flawless recreation of Ecliptica, as not doing so will just result in this not impressing you, but, if you do, you'll probably find it a fairly acceptable listen.

When I do my rating system, I usually place Ecliptica as an 8 out of 10 (the Stratovarius worship really gets to me, the keyboard heavy mix does make me grateful for artists who can include keyboards in prominent positions in their mixes without forgetting that there are other instruments which deserve to be heard and I think there's some songs which just don't do anything for me, but the rest of the songs are really good and the performance on the record are pretty great!), so placing this on the same scale, my feeling is that this is a noticeable step down compared to the original, but it is still fairly enjoyable and the few things it does improve compared to the original, while arguably minor compared to the things which aren't as good as the original album, are enough to push it up a little bit more in my opinion. So, after some hard thought, I've come to the conclusion that my final rating is that this is a bit above an average album. Compared to the original album, it's not great, but, on its own, it's certainly not a bad listen. You might want to stick to the original album for general listening, but, as an accompaniment to going to see the band live today, it gives a far better indication of what to expect to hear, so...yeah, I guess the best way to sum this album up is "for the Sonata Arctica fan who never misses a gig by them", as this is about the closest you're going to get to hearing these songs done like the band does them now without getting a live album (none of which have all of the tracks from this album on them) or going to see them live (which has the same problem).

...That's not really high praise when put like that, is it?

Final Rating: 6 Out Of 10

Favourite Tracks: "Blank File", "8th Commandment", "Kingdom For A Heart" and "Destruction Preventer"

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