Sonata Arctica – The Days Of Grays
Reviewed by Andrew Senkus
Once in a great while an album comes along in the life of a listener and changes said life forever. The change may not be drastic, true, as it could simply entail that the album in question is listened to often and with eagerness; on the other hand, it may mean that the album helps the listener open up an internal pathway unexplored previously, changing not only his or her listening habits, but his or her perception all together. It could mean a great deal of things, indeed, and these potentially intimate variables are going to vary from person to person, just as these perfect albums are, likewise, going to vary. The Days Of Grays, Sonata Arctica’s sixth opus, is one such life-changing album that most favorably entered my existence. I had returned home from a memorable and spiritual journey to Alaska and was more than eager and excited to finally get my hands on the next Sonata Arctica album, because the two-year wait between Unia and The Days Of Grays might as well have been five years. Having been only previously familiar with The Days Of Grays’ sole power metal offering – “Flag In The Ground” – I was a bit unsure as to what to expect from the album as a whole. When I finally did get the CD and eagerly put it into my Walkman with sweaty palms and a racing heart I was, even as a fanboy, rather oblivious and unprepared for the brilliance that awaited me …
It seems I needed only about two minutes into “Everything Fades To Gray” to realize and understand something very special was at work within The Days Of Grays. The way the piano and strings weave a nighttime tapestry of cold wonder and astral sorrow was something I hadn’t quite heard from the Finns before, though it was still undoubtedly stamped “Sonata Arctica” a thousand times over. Fast-forward another five minutes or so into about three-quarters of “Deathaura”, and I knew this album was going to transcend the term “special”. For me, this was, quite simply, pure and unadulterated magic. Do I sound like a fanboy yet?
All right, first things first. The Days Of Grays sounds like a natural follow-up to Unia musically, this is true. The guitars are heavy, the keyboards progressive, and the adventurous vocal stylings are ever-present. Indeed, Tony Kakko’s ability to conjure up vocal melodies and arrangements seems virtually unmatched in metal today… just give a listen to “Juliet” or “The Truth Is Out There” if you want operatic complexity amidst a modern progressive metal tune. It’s not exactly comparable to what other metal artists were doing at the time (or since), but it works and it works extraordinarily well. Sonata Arctica, at this point in its career, was undoubtedly using the voice as an instrument in of itself, allowing it to truly live and breathe on its own instead of being chained down to following guitars and/or keyboards, as is common within the melodic metal pantheon.
Where The Days Of Grays really differs from the rest of Sonata Arctica’s catalog is in its presentation of ideas, both sonically and thematically. Sonata Arctica, despite being poorly labelled as “flowery” in its early days by those uninitiated, has always explored its fair share of pessimistic, negative, and woeful themes. This can be seen on Ecliptica, Pariah’s Child, and everything in-between. So what is it, then, that makes The Days Of Grays particularly different? Is it the especially nocturnal aura the album possesses? Is it the themes themselves blossoming into something bleaker than usual? Perhaps it’s the complicated, piano-laden compositions and arrangements that pull at our particularly blackened heartstrings? Even I, a self-proclaimed Sonata Arctica connoisseur, cannot quite pinpoint exactly why The Days Of Grays is, umm, what it is. But, believe me, it is just that (confused yet?).
The only glimpse of light one gets throughout the duration of The Days Of Grays is from the album’s fourth cut, the briefly aforementioned “Flag In The Ground”. This song is pure power metal through-and-through, and is thematically the only song that isn’t saturated in doom and gloom. While it may seem somewhat out of place at first glance, its inclusion is ultimately imperative for the album to properly function as a whole. It’s almost like that little light at the end of life’s dank tunnel that we can never quite reach, even though we’re sure it’s there. Other than the previously mentioned piece’s glee, we’re given a palette of all kinds of lovely themes to be found throughout The Days Of Grays: disintegrating and/or unrequited love, corporate conspiracy, aging, death, and, you guessed it, even The X-Files. It seems the sun of San Sebastian was indeed too hot for us, and what better cover can one find from it than being within an all-encompassing, ever-expanding nighttime landscape?
As for the song-writing, The Days Of Grays is slightly more progressive than Unia, though not so much so that it sounds like a different band or even a different “era” per se. Songs like “The Dead Skin”, “No Dream Can Heal A Broken Heart”, and “Juliet” all take the traditional song structure and turn it over on its head without abandoning it altogether. Recurring musical themes and choruses are present throughout The Days Of Grays, yes, but expect them to sound a little bit “off” at first because, well, they are. It is also noteworthy to mention how I feel it was a very wise decision on the band’s part to “bookend” the album with two versions of “Everything Fades To Gray” which, as I mentioned earlier, is a mesmerizing piece of music. The band begins the journey and ends the journey in the same fashion, perhaps implying that we are indeed enveloped by night, and that it’s followed only by another instead of a hopeful, glistening daybreak? However you may interpret it, it’s an incredibly effective approach.
All-in-all I’d say that The Days Of Grays is the band’s most accomplished, definitive, and paradoxically well-rounded effort to date. Sure, there’s one other album by the band that rivals it in my own subjective universe but, (somewhat) objectively speaking, I’d say that The Days Of Grays is Sonata Arctica’s most raw, exposed album. It really showcases the band’s quirks and talents in such a way that no album within their catalog has done before or since. Despite this, however, I would not suggest it for the Sonata Arctica newcomer as it’s a bit unfriendly at first, and is even more morose than the Finns usually are (which is kind of saying a lot). For the Sonata Arctica fan, however, there is a seemingly endless banquet of deliciousness to be found within the depths of The Days Of Grays that will assuredly reward anyone brave enough to tread said depths for more than a listen or two. A perfect album? A perfect album.
Oh, and by the way, how many of you have found the wolf on the album’s cover?
5 // 5