SONATA ARCTICA – Songs Grow Their Name
Finnish metal outfit Sonata Arctica issued sixth studio full-length The Days Of Grays in September 2009, and began touring in support of the release that same month. Vocalist Tony Kakko had already devised formative track ideas for a seventh studio outing, but didn’t really know where these compositions would lead. Some of these nascent ideas were originally authored in preparation for a future solo album. Roughly 180 appearances occurred in support of The Days Of Grays across a span of over two years.
“The schedule was quite loose,” remembers Tony Kakko. “At some points we spent months at home, so I had plenty of time to write songs. On our 2011 European tour I was able to play some demos to the guys on the bus, and let them know what the next album would be like. I was pretty confident that this would be a really decent album. The whole creative process was relatively painless. There was more simple expression; I tried to keep the songs more basic if you will by having more simple structures, and go in the direction that the band started from.
“If you compare Reckoning Night (September 2004) and then the following album Unia (May 2007), the difference was quite considerable. We did some more progressive and complex songwriting, and playing and everything. In a certain way you also have that on the follow-up album The Days Of Grays, which was also fairly progressive. While we were actually recording that album, I started to feel that we had gone far enough with progressive music. It was time to take another turn, and step away from that a little bit. The step we took with Stones Grow Her Name (May 2012) is as big as the one we took with Unia. We used to be a rock band which then turned into this power metal band, and now in many ways we’ve come full circle.”
Although Stones Grow Her Name favours more straightforward song structures, the frontman is still nonetheless pleased with Sonata Arctica’s more progressive material as displayed on the likes of Unia. “Unia I still think is a very good album,” he stresses. “It was just an artistic catharsis. I wrote that album for myself spiritually. I didn’t think anything about what the fans would think; it was just all about me and the band, and the way we could continue with the band. Our first album was Ecliptica (November 1999) and we’ve been morphing and changing our style slowly, taking larger steps with Unia and now with Stones Grow Her Name. It’s a big step. I’m proud of all the things we have done, because our musical catalogue has started to become quite wide. We can appeal to so many different types of people and tastes with our music. I don’t know. It’s an adventure. I’ve always liked Queen a lot, and they did different things in their time.
“They were just the first band to interest me in a big way. It must’ve been about 85’, ’86 when I saw their live show on Finnish television. I had not even heard of them before that. I was 10 or 11 years old at the time, and I just fell in love with that band. They wrote fantastic music. At that point they had already released so many albums, so there was so much new for me to learn. It was my first love, so it never fades away. They still are my favourite band. They have done some great art, and then not so great art. If you take a step back and look back at your whole career and all the albums you’ve released, they’re tiny steps and make the whole band more powerful.”
Stones Grow Dead Names was floated around as a potential record title, a lyric lifted from the number ‘Alone In Heaven’. This initial idea was adapted, however. “That of course refers to a graveyard,” Tony notes. “I used a bit of artistic freedom, a bit of a poetic freedom. You can visualise headstones and so on, but that kind of name was too dark. I thought about the whole thing a little bit. A friend of mine sent me an artwork that was done in the early 90s, a picture that had this globe. I thought ‘Wow, that would be great for an album cover. If I changed the title a little bit, they would go so well together.’ I changed the title to Stones Grow Her Name. You have planet earth there, and this rotten apple-headed human figure sitting on top of it. The whole thing is telling how we – the human people – are destroying this planet slowly. The whole planet will be nothing but a tombstone at some point.”
‘Alone In Heaven’ refers to a good friend the singer lost not too long ago, a young gentleman. “It was uncalled for, and I didn’t really expect him to die,” he laments. “There are a lot of older people who are higher on the list in that category. The song isn’t really about death per se. It’s about the thought of heaven, and how different it can be for other people. My heaven would be winter; I’d have eternal winter and spring time, like we have here in Finland. It’s beautiful and clean. My best friends are summer people, and they consider my heaven to be a hell because they have summer in their form of heaven. I’m not a religious person but these kinds of things come to mind whenever things happen like that, whenever you lose someone. I started thinking ‘Well, I would actually rather be in hell if heaven was summer.’ Eternal winter would be in my heaven, and I would be alone because my friends wouldn’t like to go there with me. Then I would be without my best friends though, so I would rather be in hell with them. That’s the story of the song.”
In discussing Stones Grow Her Name, Tony stated that Sonata Arctica had introduced new elements and styles ‘to keep the music alive.’ “There are some songs that have this kind of 80s vibe to them, and you can hear maybe Aerosmith and ZZ Top even (laughs), and that kind of stuff,” he clarifies. “80s rock; that’s the era of my musical upbringing. I’ve always listened to Queen, but then there are the real new elements of course. I’ve always been a big fan of bluegrass. By chance, I started fooling around with my keyboard and I came across this banjo sound. All of a sudden I had a whole song, ‘Cinderblox’. ‘Cinderblox’ is a story about a dude who’s calling his girlfriend from jail, and telling her that if one day he gets out of jail he’s probably gonna end up back in jail because of the girlfriend. Originally she got him inside. All these dudes are in jail for the same thing, because they’ve all been influenced by her in some way. It reminds me of country music in some way, where you have some weird human relationship stories going on (laughs), and that kind of thing.
“’Cinderblox’ is something totally new that we’ve never done before, using banjos and violins to play this hillbilly thing. It’s the most fun song on the whole album I think.”
The mainman’s favourite Queen full-length differs from moment to moment. “It used to be The Works (February 1984), but at the moment I’m listening to Queen’s first album (self-titled, July 1973),” he divulges. “It’s my favourite at the moment. In the beginning when I was getting to know Queen, I didn’t like their first albums at all. It was somehow too weird, because I liked all these songs like ‘Radio Ga Ga’ and ‘I Want To Break Free’ and that kind of stuff from The Works and then A Kind Of Magic (June 1986). I actually didn’t listen to Queen for almost ten years, and I didn’t hear their music anywhere too much. Then I started going through their albums though like Queen, Queen II (March 1974), and Sheer Heart Attack (November 1974), and I realised these fantastic new things that I never knew how to appreciate. My musical tastes had changed and it was fantastic to find new things in the band I had always loved and still do, from their old albums. They’ve still done some works that I’m not totally into, but maybe one day I will see the greatness in those works as well.
“Hot Space (May 1982), that kind of stuff (laughs). Some of the band even didn’t appreciate that side step, but even those kinds of albums have pure Queen tracks – normal Queen. For us I know that Unia was that kind of weird side step, and it might be that Stones Grow Her Name will be another side step. You never know, but definitely it’s an easier one. I would say that I suddenly realised not too long back that the circle has closed, and we are so much closer to our starting point and the idea that we had back in 1996 when the band was started. This album was so close to that idea.”
Two ballads were penned for inclusion on Stones Grow Her Name, namely ‘Don’t Be Mean’ and ‘Tonight I Dance Alone’. “Both of those songs are pretty simple, because we aren’t filling these ballads with too many layers of keyboards or any such things,” Tony critiques. “They are simple. With the whole album, we tried to refrain from the song structures of Unia and The Days Of Grays. Both of these ballads are simple and plain, and they function quite well if you just played them on acoustic guitar. I think that’s a really important thing, but with both of these ballads it was actually hard to choose which one would end up on the album and which would be the bonus track. We’ve got a violin and everything on ‘Don’t Be Mean’, so we thought that that one had to be on the actual album.
“I wanted to have both of them on the main album, but the other one proved to be more of a bonus track. I think ‘Don’t Be Mean’ was in good shape in early 2010 already though. It was a song that I had played around with for a year; every now and then I’d work on it. It’s a beautiful song, I think. It’s about break ups and such things. People don’t have to be mean, and sometimes it can be easier if people aren’t together anymore. It’s about that side of human relationships.”
‘Wildfire, Part: II – One With The Mountain’ and ‘Wildfire, Part: III – Wildfire Town, Population: 0’ conclude Stones Grow Her Name, their predecessor in ’Wildfire’ being featured on Reckoning Night. “The original ‘Wildfire’ had a theme that I liked very much, and still do,” the vocalist enthuses. “I wanted to use it again, and get more out of it somehow. The only way I could actually re-enter and take this idea back was to name the follow-up song ‘Wildfire, Part: II’, or something in the same vein. You can hear it in the beginning of ‘Wildfire, Part: II’, where you have this band playing the melody and the theme. It was just fun. I loved playing with that idea; I can come up with a lot of ideas around that idea, and the story has somehow got into me. It’s about this guy who’s part of a family who’s somehow at one with nature and getting abused by the townspeople, and how the whole thing develops from there. Suddenly I had an eight-minute song almost ready, and also I had another song that was starting to shape up pretty long. It was at that point I realised there was more than five minutes of playing and nowhere near completion, so I knew that it would be a long one.
“We couldn’t have two songs eight minutes in length on the album, so we kind of combined these songs into one long song which ends the album. ‘Wildfire, Part: III’ came to be as well. I think it’s a fantastic entity, the whole thing – ‘Wildfire’, ‘Wildfire, Part: II’, and ‘Wildfire, Part: III’. People hate this one guy because of the family name, because their name is known to be somehow bad and evil. People are fearing the family name for the wrong reasons, and this guy gets frustrated from all that abuse and goes to jail. In ‘Wildfire, Part: II’, the guy starts evolving from a bad thing to something between a human and an animal. The idea that I’m expressing with those two songs is the fact that we’re only destroying this planet to leave one day, and that’s a fact. We’re developing better technology, skills, and our ways enough to be able to jump on the next planet, and destroy that planet as well. It’s a part of human nature, I suppose.”
‘Wildfire, Part: IV’ is unlikely to be on the cards, however. “I think it’s enough,” Tony reckons. “Of course with that kind of idea, you can expand it and write a whole album about it. I’m not sure. I’m pleased with the way the story concludes. I don’t see any reason why I should continue the story, but then again, I’ve been known to continue stories on many, many albums.”
‘One-Two-Three-Fall’ acts as Stones Grow Her Name’s Japanese bonus track. “It’s a track with lots of guitar and keyboard soloing and stuff,” the lyricist tells. “It’s a song suitable for Japan, I think.”
The record was mixed at Sonic Pump Studios by Mikko Karmila. “It was mixed in a different studio, and that was his choice,” Tony reveals. “We wanted to make the whole album sound organic, and somehow still sound good after 20 or 30 years. Of course it’s difficult in this genre of music when you are forced to use synthesisers and such things. You have to be careful when you choose the sounds, so that they still sound good after a long, long time. At certain points in our career even there have been some so-called ‘hip’ keyboard sounds where for me as a professional musician, it bugs to me to know that a certain song has been tainted by that and that keyboard from that and that period. It doesn’t sound all that good anymore.
“It’s better to try to find an ageless sound that will also function well in the future. I think in some ways we’ve found that with this album. Also by our choice of stripping the arrangements down quite a bit, we didn’t use much orchestration, tried to keep the number of keyboards as minimal as possible, and lifted the guitar in the mix. That’s the right thing to do if you’re talking about rock music; the guitars should be up there really high in the mix.”
Three music videos will be issued to promote Stones Grow Her Name. “‘I Have A Right’ is one of them, and is the first single,” the frontman begins. “‘I Have A Right’ is about bringing up your children to be decent people, and how you shouldn’t teach your children certain bad values. They have hated something so much that they have taught their children to hate it. We shouldn’t forward all this emotional baggage, and the burdens that we have from past generations shouldn’t be forwarded to our children just because that’s always how it’s been. We should teach them to think individually, and encourage them to be good people.
“The other two music videos we need to shoot more material for, one of which will be for ‘Alone In Heaven’. We are releasing them later this year.”
Several compositions exist that could surface as part of a Tony Kakko solo full-length. “I have quite a few songs that I like at the moment – ten or so songs – that could easily form a solo album,” he discloses. “My musical tastes are quite wide. I listen to anything from jazz to classical music to black metal, and anything and everything in between. I enjoy writing songs in all kinds of different styles; I actually enjoy exploring other styles, because it’s really a different type of songwriting style. If you start making jazz for example, comparing it to power metal or rock you need to have a different kind of approach to the whole thing. It’s really interesting. I have to say though that the next Sonata Arctica album or my own solo album will not be jazz, so no worries (laughs).
“If I wanted to though, I could somehow rework these songs into Sonata Arctica material – that kind of thing has happened before. These solo songs will be more organic, and not really that metal. The songs have really basic structures, and have beautiful melodies and such. The material could be moulded into anything, pretty much. I could even make a black metal album out of those songs if I chose to, but I don’t think so (laughs). It will maybe be a little bit more mellow, but at the moment it’s way too early to say. It depends on which direction my musical tastes and writing goes in the following year.
“At the moment I don’t have time to work on those songs, because all my time is consumed by band rehearsals and interviews. It’s a positive thing of course that people are interested in hearing what I have to say, and in what the band has been doing lately. I hope that I will find some time to get the songs ready in 2012, and hopefully start work on the recording part of it in early 2013 at some point. Otherwise it will be too late again because the Sonata Arctica circle will start again, and I will have to start writing songs for Sonata Arctica. I’ve been dreaming about releasing some kind of solo album for a good ten years already, so it would be about time.”
Tony’s solo lyrics will likely occupy the same territory which Sonata Arctica lyrics tread. “I haven’t written down one word for my solo album,” the singer jokes. “I was lying. I actually have lyrics for one song, but as they’re all written by me I think they might be in the same vein. I try to have a different approach, and try to keep the whole thing maybe more sunny and more bright and happy on my solo lyrics. Sonata Arctica is often telling stories that have no happy endings and are somehow more gloomy, though we have always been called happy metal (laughs). Even on our first album though, the lyrics were somehow always really dark.”
Sonata Arctica aside, other musical endeavours are likely in the pipeline. “Sonata Arctica will take up all our time, because going forward there will be a lot of interviews and touring,” Tony cautions. “The festival season is around the corner. I think we will be busy touring for a year and a half. I hope I get some time to write my solo songs and get the album on track somehow, but I wouldn’t be surprised if my solo ambitions get trampled by the wheels of Sonata Arctica (laughs). It would not be the first time.
“I have a few things coming up mind. None of them have been released yet though, so I’d rather keep quiet about those things. Northern Kings might get together at some point. We actually haven’t done anything, but it would be really nice to do something with them. At the moment though there’s so much work to be done on this Heavy Christmas project. I hope we do great things with it, and it includes the same people who are involved with making things happen for Northern Kings. Hopefully we will have time to concentrate on Northern Kings. Nightwish is touring constantly right now and we are doing the same thing, so it’s always about making schedules fit. Of course one thing we should do with Northern Kings is find something new to do. There are so many of these 80s and 90s pop songs which we could turn into something totally different, and it might actually be refreshing to write some original songs for Northern songs or do something out of the box. Something totally different.
“I think it would be kind of fun to combine both, and have a few original songs on the album and a few cover songs. I do like covering; there are a lot of songs that I would like to cover. It would be a bold move to do something by Queen actually, and Northern Kings is such a project that I would dare to do it with them. With Sonata Arctica though, no (laughs). It’s too much of a ‘Holy cow’ for me to do it with them, but with Northern Kings – with all these professional musicians – and a totally different kind of approach to the whole thing, it might be possible.”
Stones Grow Her Name was released on May 18th, 2012 in Europe and subsequently on the 22nd in North America, all via Nuclear Blast Records. In Japan, the album was issued on the 23rd through Avalon / Marquee.
Interview published in May 2012. All promotional photographs by Terhi Ylimainen.
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