Guitarist Elias Viljanen
Making a return appearance at Winnipeg, located in the geographic center of Canada, Finland's Sonata Arctica drove 26 hours straight from London, Ontario, to make it to the gig, according to charismatic lead singer Tony Kakko.
The doors at the West End Cultural Centre, a renovated church lauded as one of the best live rooms in Western Canada, were supposed to open at 7:15 pm, but a few minutes after I arrived, the promoters were posting notices that the band was running late and one of the opening acts, North Carolina's Sanctity, had canceled.
I wasn't sure if I should sit in my car to thwart the barely tolerable cold weather, head to a cafe, or just stand outside and be among the first in line, practically guaranteeing myself access to one of the few seats. I ran into a friend who I often see at classic rock and metal shows, and we opted to stay in the small line up. He had seen them before and we both marveled that such a quality band would have to return to a venue that sounds great but holds less than 400 people.
Ticketmaster lists them as having 311 seats, but I wasn't sure if the gig had more people since there were no more than 50 chairs available, with everybody else standing. Clearly, a lot of metal fans just don't know about them - or fellow Finnish power metal kings, Stratovarius, who also sold out their last show in Winnipeg, appearing at the same venue.
The local opening act, Port Amoral, was actually pretty decent, with crunchy, Iron Maiden-ish guitars and a lead singer who does not rely exclusively on "cookie monster" vocals. They exited the stage around 9:15. I ran into another friend who shares my broad taste in music. I mentioned to him that I sometimes just show up around 10 pm or later for shows at this venue rather than have to sit around twiddling my thumbs for three hours. He said the headliners would likely begin at 10:45, while I was hoping for 10 pm. He was right. Next time, I'm showing up late.
The crowd was packed so tightly that the promoters actually forced people to back away from the front of the stage. Whenever the lights flicked off and on or a roadie appeared on stage, audience members cheered in anticipation. After several false starts, the band finally took to the stage.
Rarely have I seen such an affectionate welcome for a band. It was like the crowd was greeting an old friend, and sure enough, when surveyed by singer Tony Kakko, many fans acknowledged that they had seen the band before. The opening tune was "Black and White," the first song on their most recent release, 2007's Unia.
I was surprised to see what appeared to be a keytar, being played by Henrik Klingenberg, who also happens to bear a resemblance to Lars Ulrich. I had assumed a regular keyboard would be used, given the intricacies of the band's music, but the music didn't suffer at all.
Goateed Tony Kakko was very chatty with the audience and is quite simply one of the most fun front men in metal today. Sonata Arctica's music tends to be uplifting and occasionally romantic, and the set was peppered with blazing, flawless, unstoppable power metal tracks, power ballads, and songs that were between the two in tempo but were sometimes not terribly memorable to me. Ever since I heard they were coming to town a few months ago, I have listened to Sonata Artica more so than any other band, so I was fairly familiar with the standout material.
It was actually fun to watch the fans get whipped into a ferocious mosh whenever the band played a fast tune, and then watch the same group, mostly teenage guys, gently sway their arms back and forth during the ballads. One guy in front of me turned out to be a neck-snapping manic, and I feared he would collide skulls with an unsuspecting fan. At one point, he just went ballistic during yet another gloriously executed power metal piece, and a diminutive fan and I exchanged glances of surprise as we deftly stepped away from him. I avoided the pit by being on the left side of the stage, but once in a while I was almost "caught in a mosh."
The band's strengths lie in their musicianship and brilliant songs. New lead guitarist Elias Viljanen was excellent, but I would have appreciated hearing more of his guitar in the mix. Drummer Tommy Portimo looked as if he could be the elf Legolas from Lord of the Rings with his blond locks, and he almost unexpectedly caused a fight on the floor after tossing out his drum sticks. The fans were reaching to the sky to grab a stick, but it bounced several feet back and the crowd almost seemed to move as one entity as they stumbled over backwards, frantic to grasp the souvenir. A few kids pounced on the stick and a struggle ensued.
It's astonishing how something so insignificant can mean so much to a fan. Had it landed safely in my hands, I would have just given it away to the nearest kid. In the end, the victor, drumstick clenched protectively to his chest, stuck out his hand to the kid who lost the prize. This pretty much summed up the mood of the evening, lots of fun with very little heavy attitude or negativity.
As a treat, the band played one of their classics for the first time in a long time, the juggernaut "Wolf & Raven," from the 2001 album Silence. For me, other gems played included "Replica," "8th Commandment," and "Black Sheep." Missing from the set were some tracks I really wanted to hear like "Weballergy," "San Sebastian," and "Blank File," all incredibly fast, superbly written power metal pillars from their catalogue. These are the tracks I include on mixed CDs when I want to introduce friends to their music.
Not all of the band's songs were memorable. In fact, I think they played too many that did not win the crowd over. Some of the ballads left me cold, but the well-known material was met with more unbridled enthusiasm than I expected. On several songs, Kakko pointed his microphone to the audience and they sang out in unison, which pleasantly surprised me. The band also played for 75 minutes, possibly cut short due to the illness guitarist Elias Viljanen was suffering from, as he mentioned on his blog:
"02/08/08 Thunder Bay/ Winnipeg
I'm still sick. At noon I had to get out of bed because we had a shower room in a hotel. We were in a city called Thunder Bay. It was very nice to get cleaned up. Then we headed for Winnipeg. We were afraid that we wouldn't be on time because of the bad weather. It wouldn't be nice to cancel. Finally we were there around 10 pm. It was a close call. The show was sold out. Not nice to perform while you have fever. Well, we met some fans after the show again."
I can only hope Sonata Arctica continues to tour as they are bound to increase their fan base considerably due to their live shows. They need to weed out the weaker material and just not record such songs so they don't feel obligated to play them when promoting new albums.
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