REVIEW: Sonata Arctica, Freedom Call @ o2 Academy Islington, London 01/05/2015

It isn’t often that I make the trip down to our cesspit of a capital city. Very rarely so just for one gig, and even then it has to be something special. To see Ecliptica performed in full however I would have chewed both of my legs off and crawled through the streets of London spouting Tory propaganda all the way to the o2 Academy in Islington. It was my first time here and what a queue there was upon my arrival, snaking through the neighbouring shopping centre and filled with 800 enthused power metal zealots that made up this sold out show. On top of the already special show that was promised before us all courtesy of Finnish Power Metal gods Sonata Arctica, support was looking like more than enough to turn up early for with Twilight Force starting proceedings before Freedom Call delivered their own majestic set. The car was parked in an extremely questionable nearby garage, our stomachs were full of low quality battery farmed meats enough to see us through the three hours ahead, it was high time that we got in there. “To Ecliptica, and bey…” No, I won’t go there.

First up, and playing for an already packed house, was Twilight Force. Now I must admit to only hearing the band in passing before the show, but from what I could tell they had some very nice artwork and so may well be worth watching. This logic hasn’t failed me before. Harking back to a time when the epic, symphonic side of Power Metal reigned supreme, Twilight Force brought forth, more than anything else, an incredibly fun show. LARP style costumes, technical proficiency and a huge helping of crowd interaction made for a short but impactful set that undoubtedly gained them more than a few new fans. Watching a band like this made me miss the impish side of Power Metal from years gone by, where myths and maidens took priority over heartbreak and betrayal. I have since enjoyed listening to their debut album immensely and I’ll be on the lookout for them again in the future.

Onto the second act of the night and into much more familiar territory, it was now time for Freedom Call. I’ve been a big fan for years but I’ve only ever managed to catch them once at an early morning slot at Bloodstock where me and about 16 others tried our best to create a worthy atmosphere. Tonight they were deservedly playing for a sold out crowd, and I had high hopes. Those hopes quickly turned into reality as I noticed a pattern forming. 'Flying High', 'Bleeding Heart', 'Metal Invasion', 'Island of Dreams'. They were performing the entirety of Eternity, their classic release from 2002. I'm sure this wasn't news to everybody else, and I later found out that it was part of their re-release of the album, but I had no idea and so couldn't believe my luck. Fronted by what is surely Germany's happiest man, Freedom Call made their way through the album, albeit in random order, with all of the charm, charisma, camaraderie and polished musicianship that you would expect from a band that is coming up on 18 years in the game. Sadly I wasn’t completely right about the setlist as one of my favourite ballads in ‘Turn Back Time’ was missing, but they did manage to finish on two powerhouse, attested crowd pleasers. ‘Warriors’ brought the crowd together in unison during the epic chorus, and finally ‘Land of Light’ set the place into a near frenzy before the German’s bowed out gracefully after what was a hugely enjoyable set. And to think this wasn’t even our headliner!

After a swift and efficient turnaround, something that was a running theme throughout the night, the time had come to tick a huge to-do off the Power Metal bucket list. The sold out o2 Academy in Islington chanted for their favourite Finns. They were ready for Ecliptica! As the intro music started to fade in, I braced myself for what I thought was the obligatory new album track opener, and as the instrumental music went on I continued to subscribe to this theory. Once the intro was done however, I was both shocked and elated to hear them crank into ‘White Pearl, Black Oceans’, a track that stands as one of my all-time favourites from throughout the discography and one that I didn’t think I’d ever get to see live due its length of almost 10 minutes. This length actually proved to be a double blessing as due to a packed media guestlist we were only allowed 2 songs each to take photos, and I was in the first group which meant that I had that entire time to shoot in the first song alone. It was unfair on the others, but as I was surrounded by a majority of sour faced London hipsters so I saw it as a victory for The North. The aforementioned track from Sonata Arctica’s newest release Pariah’s Child came next, and once ‘X Marks the Spot’ was done I bowed out and took my place in the crowd with the others ready for the 1999 classic to begin.

After a brief introduction to the album from lead singer Tony Kakko, ‘Blank File’ kicked things off, and by the time that ‘My Land’ and ‘8th Commandment’ were done everybody in the o2 that had wondered innocently to themselves whether North Finland’s finest had it in them to do the album justice had swiftly slapped themselves across the face for doing so. Next up was the stalwart flagbearer of the whole album in ‘Replica’, a song so synonymous with the band’s success that the chorus was carried by the crowd on their behalf, and following that the crushing keyboard and drum intro of ‘Kingdom for a Heart’ turned things up several notches. Hearing that intro burst in after ‘Replica’ fades out is something that just sounds so right to me having listened to the album through so many times, so it felt only natural that it happened on stage as if they were just one track together. It was bliss. The next break the band took was for Tony to explain how ‘Letter to Dana’ was the first song he ever wrote before the soft intro to the track faded in. Now I have to take a moment to talk about Tony. I have been to more gigs and festivals over the years than I could possibly count, from all kinds of genres, and I’ve seen Sonata Arctica once before on the Stones Grow Her Name tour. On that night I decided without doubt that he had the best live singing voice that I had ever heard, and this night in London he proved that wasn’t any kind of fluke. Nothing was an effort for him to reach, and he pours all of his emotion into every word as he delivers it. He is an absolute master of his craft, a modern virtuoso and a credit to the band. Now I’ll just wipe my mouth and move on.

Given the remaining tracks from Ecliptica, the rest of the gig was always going to be a bit heavier, a lot faster and much more technical that what had come before, and it was here that the rest of the band would shine. From the haunting keyboards on ‘Unopened’ to the demon speed of the guitars on ‘Picturing the Past’, everything was note perfect and in absolute synergy. Finally, Henrik Klingenberg took centre stage with his keyboard and tore the stage apart with his lightning fast solos on ‘Destruction Preventer’ before Tony brought the entire o2 back together, swaying from left to right as they chanted along and eventually saw this massive anthem out to it’s end. The band then bowed out half heartedly, knowing full well as everybody else in the room did that the album had one track to go and that they’d be back after a quick breather. Returning a few minutes later much to the surprise of nobody, more spoken word from Tony led into the last track on the album, the brilliant and epic ‘Mary Lou’. Having been listening to the acoustic version of this track on an almost non-stop loop for about 5 years, I’m always taken aback by the ferocity of the song. It’s compassionately penned verses and climactic choruses coupled with a live band at the top of their game made for a bloody great live performance, and it did the album proud.

With some spare time leftover before the 10PM curfew, the band then proceeded to move on and fill that time with a couple more songs. Now apparently somebody decided it was a good idea to buy their latest album (ok I did), so they played us one of the key tracks from that in ‘The Wolves Die Young’. I loathe it when bands play stuff of their new album if said new album is a pile of shite, but considering they had just played their first in full I was hardly about to moan about it, and besides they picked one of the better tracks at least. Not only that, but having watched live DVDs and YouTube videos of their gigs for many years I knew where things would be headed for the finale, and that finale came soon after as ‘Don’t Say a Word’ erupted from the stage, full of crowd pleasing hooks, breakneck proficiency and a thunderous core. Sadly, their time had come to an end and after thanking the crowd immensely for their support over the years in both gig tickets and album sales, the Finns bowed out into the night and left behind them a smoking stage with an awestruck crowd looking on.

To say that this was a dream come true gig for me is an understatement. Sonata Arctica have been one of my absolute favourite bands for a long time and to see them bring to life an album that has been such a part of my life for so long was just priceless. My girlfriend falling in love with the keyboard player over the course of the show on the other hand, not so much. I’d like to thank Nuclear Blast for allowing us down to London for the show, something which I hope to start making more of a regular thing. Silence played in full next year anyone?

Twitter: @BandsPlayedOn


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