SONATA ARCTICA – Pakkahuone, Tampere, 22.08.2015

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Finnish melodic metal institution Sonata Arctica has been busy touring throughout 2014 and 2015. Since the start of the 15th anniversary tour in January last year, they’ve played over 150 shows, including a bunch of dates where the band played Ecliptica in full. The Pariah’s Child tour cycle finally came to an end on August 22nd at Pakkahuone in Tampere. Since the show was advertised as a special performance, I thought “why not?” and decided to go, though I’d already seen Sonata at Tampere-talo last year and at Pakkahuone in January.

In addition to the aforementioned two shows, the band also played at South Park last year and had a support slot at Nightwish’s stadium concert just a month earlier, so those living in Tampere had plenty of opportunities to get their fix of Tony Kakko (vocals) and co. Although I remember Pakkahuone being a little fuller back in January, plenty of ever-faithful Sonata fans showed up for the big night. The hip-hop event, Blockfest – headlined by superstar Cheek – took place on the same day in Tampere, but apart from a few casual listeners who have heard a song or two on the radio, I doubt Sonata Arctica lost any potential customers, as the band (generally) appeals to a totally different kind of audience. The metal festival Saarihelvetti was also held on the same day, but it focused on more aggressive types of bands, so Pakkahuone was the obvious venue of choice for power metal fans that night.

At 20:00 the intro tape started rolling and the crowd was treated to a special guest right away, as actor Jaakko Koskinen, the preacher from “X Marks the Spot” on the latest album, walked behind a pulpit with the letter X on it. He recited the speech that has been part of the “Can Can Jaakolla” intro this summer, talking about rock n’ roll just like in the song he appears on. I had expected him to make an appearance, as he’s from Tampere and back in January he came out on stage for the outro tape speech, but his role would turn out to be a lot bigger this time.

Finally the members of Sonata Arctica entered the stage and kicked things off with “White Pearl, Black Oceans.” This tragic tale of a lighthouse keeper is one of my personal favorite songs from the band, but I’m afraid it’s not a good live show opener. Every time Tony Kakko prompted the audience members to clap their hands, a tempo change would follow after 10-20 seconds and bring the clapping to a halt. A straightforward up-tempo song would’ve worked better at the start, but maybe the band wanted to try a different approach after opening so many shows with “The Wolves Die Young.”

Jaakko Koskinen returned and the band proceeded to play “X Marks the Spot with him.” However, he was clearly miming, probably for the sake of revenge convenience – perhaps the band hadn’t wanted to mess with the backing tracks, or maybe his voice wouldn’t have been audible enough if he’d tried to speak over the instrumentation. Nevertheless, finally we could see the preacher in action!

The final spoken word part, however, wasn’t taped, and the preacher went on to tell us that back in 1999 a band from Northern Finland made an album of real rock n’ roll called Ecliptica and we would hear it in its entirety. This was the biggest surprise of the night for me. After all, this was supposed to be the final show in support of Pariah’s Child. I didn’t mind, though, and neither did the rest of the audience, as the energy level in the venue went up immediately when Tommy Portimo played the classic drum intro that “Blank File” starts with. Pulling off the vocals even in the lower key the song is played in nowadays is no easy task, but Kakko did a good job and even went for the high notes in the second verse and chorus, instead of lowering the melodies like in 2011 when I last heard the tune live. Also, the sound quality hadn’t been great for the first two songs, as the guitar had been overpowered by the backing tracks, but this was remedied because there weren’t really any backing tracks when Ecliptica started. Unfortunately, the unnecessary amount of reverb on the snare didn’t go away.

They confirmed that this would be an exclusive Finnish performance of Ecliptica and the last time they’re playing the album front to back. Crowd pleasers like “My Land” and “Replica” remain popular to this day, but even the rarely-played songs at the end of the album were met with approval from the crowd – my personal highlight was the nuclear war epic “Destruction Preventer,” which I’d wanted to hear live for a long time. Kakko’s scream before the final chorus was impressive! Ecliptica isn’t my favorite Sonata Arctica album, but I have plenty of fond memories of it, so the performance was a sweet nostalgia trip for me. The songs also translate well into a live setting, as they’re not as layered and complex as the newer stuff.

There was a funny moment during “FullMoon” when Kakko sang “knock on the door” and knocked on the head of a photographer in the photo pit. “Unopened” ended with an extended outro, during which Kakko introduced the band members and they played solos – Elias Viljanen (guitars) threw in the main riff of “Seek and Destroy” by Metallica into his solo.
Preacher Koskinen made a few more appearances on stage between some of the songs, reading bits from “the scriptures,” AKA the official Sonata Arctica biography. After the Ecliptica set, he said the band would be back briefly and there would be “more rock n’ roll.” He also stayed true to his role by making the audience shout “hallelujah” and “amen” multiple times.

The guys returned with acoustic instruments and played their most famous song, “Tallulah.” This performance was rather comical, as Henrik Klingenberg (keyboards) started the song in the wrong key and Kakko cracked up right before the first chorus, letting the audience take over the vocals. The best part of the acoustic set though, was “Black Sheep.” I find this song rather stale and overplayed, but the new arrangement was a lot of fun and breathed new life into the tune. After “Shamandalie” and “Cloud Factory,” the band took another break to let the roadies do their job, while Koskinen once again kept the audience entertained.

The last part of the show was the opposite of the nostalgic Ecliptica set, as it focused on Pariah’s Child. Although the band had already played for more than an hour and a half, the crowd wasn’t drained yet, and “Blood” and “The Wolves Die Young” were well-received. I could see both of these songs becoming future setlist staples, and to me “Blood” has already become a Sonata Arctica classic. “Love,” on the other hand, is way too sugary for my taste, but the message of this ballad seems to hit home for quite a few fans, as several couples were holding each other and two happy lovebirds were even dancing.

“What Did You Do in the War, Dad?” was the last selection from “Pariah’s Child.” Kakko’s stiff and mechanical hand-waving on it has become a phenomenon of its own, and fans seem to have embraced it. “I Have a Right” was up next. I wish this uninteresting tune would’ve been dropped from the setlist in favor of, say, “Mary-Lou,” which got played on the European Ecliptica dates in the spring, but judging by the number of fists I saw in the air during it, it’s not going anywhere in the near future.

After this, Kakko gave a long repeat performance of his speech from the Nightwish Ratina gig where he thanked the attendees for buying tickets and keeping live music alive, as well as the band’s crew for making everything work on stage every night. The show was closed with the traditional duo of “Don’t Say a Word” and the “Vodka” outro. During the latter, a crew member came on stage with a vodka bottle and gave each member a sip from it – the band’s plea “we need some vodka” was finally answered after all these years! To end the world tour in an old-school rock manner, Klingenberg smashed his keytar onto the stage. After the band’s exit, Koskinen gave one more speech and also thanked the crowd in Finnish.

This 2½-hour spectacle was the longest Sonata Arctica concert ever. Can there be a better way to close a world tour? Jaakko Koskinen’s presence made the event a one-of-a-kind experience, and the Ecliptica set and the acoustic songs were a neat treat as well. The band members played energetically, making funny faces, interacting with each other, and moving around on stage. Aside from the “Tallulah” mishaps and Kakko forgetting or altering a few lines in some songs, there were no clear signs of road fatigue.

The only major complaint I have is that Kakko’s banter and song introductions were pretty similar to the things he said at the January show and the Nightwish show, which makes them feel scripted and predictable. He even acknowledged the repetition himself before “Destruction Preventer,” when he asked how many people had been at Ratina a month earlier (quite a few hands were raised) and then said, “Well, then you’ve heard this story already….” I could also complain about the fact that not a single song was played from my favorite albums, Unia and The Days of Grays, but considering the structure of the show, it would’ve been impossible to have every album represented in the setlist.

Based on the shows I witnessed during the Pariah’s Child tour cycle, it’s safe to say that Sonata Arctica is a better live band than ever before. The addition of Pasi Kauppinen (bass) and shaking up the setlist has visibly revitalized the band. Kakko said their next performances in Finland will take place during the festival season next year and after that they’ll start touring in support of a new album. Count me in among those who are curiously awaiting the next chapter!

Setlist:
1. Intro: Can-Can Jaakolla (Jaakko Koskinen)
2. White Pearl, Black Oceans
3. X Marks the Spot (Jaakko Koskinen)
Ecliptica
4. Blank File
5. My Land
6. 8th Commandment
7. Replica
8. Kingdom for a Heart
9. FullMoon
10. Letter to Dana
11. Unopened
12. Picturing the Past
13. Destruction Preventer
Acoustic
14. Tallulah
15. Black Sheep
16. Shamandalie
17. Cloud Factory
18. Blood
19. The Wolves Die Young
20. Love
21. What Did You Do in the War, Dad?
22. I Have a Right
23. Don’t Say a Work
24. Outro: Vodka

Text: Ville Karttunen | Ed: Amy Wiseman

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