The band, which is scheduled to tour here in July, is part of a wave of Finnish metal that is having an increasing influence on international rock. Last year, the Finnish 'monster metal' group Lordi even won the Eurovision song contest, a pan-European music competition that is usually won by fluffy pop acts.
"I actually live in a small town outside Kemi with a population of 11,000," the band's vocalist and songwriter Tony Kakko explained on a recent visit to Tokyo. "There is a lot of nature available and that is, for me, a great source of inspiration. When I'm looking out of the window I can see trees and, through the winter, snow, and birds. Even rabbits can run through my yard."
Such an idyllic scene hardly sounds like the backdrop one would associate with metal, a genre that arose in the late 1970s and ’80s when British bands like Judas Priest and Motorhead fused a punk sensibility onto the earlier template of bluesy heavy rock, pioneered by the likes Led Zepplin, upping the tempo and the volume. In its British and US incarnations, metal usually strove to be big, bad and nasty, although often with surprisingly melodic depths and musicians capable of great virtuosity. From the 1980s onwards, as the genre became internationally successful, it started to develop distinct subgenres, including thrash, gothic, power, and even folk metal.
From Finland bands, like the awesome death metal band Sentenced, with bone crunching riffs and doom-laden lyrics, started to gain increasing international attention, giving Finnish metal a hard, dark, and heavy image that resonated easily with Finland's wider image as an inhospitable land of frozen wastes and dark forests. But even Sentenced, who split in 2005, occasionally showed a rich melodic side, something that has become more apparent with Finnish power metal bands like Apocalyptica, Stratovarius and Children of Bodom
Sonata Arctica's latest album Unia, is another step in this direction, showcasing the more melodic and virtuoso qualities of power metal, a style which seeks to retain the epic feel of earlier metal but with a cleaner, tenor vocal style, more upbeat lyrics, and a symphonic context for the music.
"A lot of people seem to mention a Queen influence in our music," Kakko comments. "Queen have always been the biggest band for me, and with this album I think we're moving more in that direction."
Although still heavier than Queen, Sonata's music with its unexpected changes of key and rhythms, its complex harmonies, and instrumental virtuosity, including interwoven guitar and keyboard lines, as well as solos, has much in common with Queen's over-the-top masterpiece Bohemian Rhapsody, one of the 'busiest' pieces of music in rock history. At first listening, some of the songs on Unia may strike the listener as unnecessarily elaborate.
"Yeh," Kakko agrees. "It takes some time to get the hang of it. It's melodic, theatrical, and in some parts heavy. You need to listen many times to understand what is happening on the album, and then give it some time to breathe, and then listen again, because your mind can only hear certain things at first. When you give it some time and listen to the songs again you can hear the other things that are happening there."
Although Finnish metal still gets a mixed reception in other parts of the World, one place it can be sure of a particularly warm welcome is Japan, where fans can't get enough. Indeed, the reason for Kakko’s visit was to attend Creativeman’s Finland Fest 2007, headlined by Stratovarious and Apocalyptica. In 2004 Timo Kotipelto, the Stratovarius vocalist attempted to explain the appeal of Finnish metal for Japanese fans.
"One thing you don't hear mentioned very often is the fact that the Japanese and Finnish languages share a lot of the same sounds," he told Finnish Music Quarterly. "The Japanese kind of like this. It's also true that a good many Japanese still have a sort of negative set towards the Americans because of World War II. Many of them prefer to look for things they like from Europe."
Kakko, who sings in English, sees the appeal more as a case of emotional resonance with the music.
"With Finnish people we have this Slavic type of melancholy, which leads to melancholy melodies," he said. "We grow up in that way, and it seems to kind of appeal to Japanese people as well."
1st of June, 2007
International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun