TONY KAKKO On SONATA ARCTICA's Return To Power Metal On 'Clear Cold Beyond': 'It Was Like Riding A Bike'

February 27, 2024

By David E. Gehlke

Finland's SONATA ARCTICA were on a four-album winning streak by the time the touring cycle for 2004's "Reckoning Night" concluded. With countrymen STRATOVARIUS consumed by lineup instability, SONATA ARCTICA stepped up to the plate with a series of LPs that were shamelessly fast, over-the-top, symphonic, sometimes happy and sometimes dark. There was no middle ground with SONATA ARCTICA — you either fell for frontman Tony Kakko's multi-layered vocal acrobatics, typewriter drums and dominant keyboards or you didn't. But no matter one's feelings toward SONATA ARCTICA, halfway through the 2000s, they appeared poised for a long, fruitful career delivering speedy power metal.

2007's "Unia" changed all that when Kakko decided to slow down the tempos for a more rock-oriented style that produced mixed results. SONATA ARCTICA stayed on that course for another five studio albums that had their moments, but none compared to their all-guns-blazing beginnings. But after two acoustic albums, 25th-anniversary shows and the pandemic, Kakko has decided to bring SONATA ARCTICA back to where they belong with "Clear Cold Beyond", an album that purposely returns to the band's late '90s/early '00s period. Unlike most efforts of this variety, "Clear Cold Beyond" is quite good, even brilliant at times, which was on the agenda when BLABBERMOUTH.NET caught up with Kakko to discuss his band's long, winding road back to the style they do better than most.

Blabbermouth: Thinking back more than 15 years after the fact, was moving away from the original SONATA ARCTICA sound into what you did on "Unia" more difficult than you let on?

Tony: "The change was in the air with the previous album, 'Reckoning Night'. It was slightly different from the first three albums. We had a super-long tour with 'Reckoning Night'. We did close to 180 or 200 shows. Everybody felt a little burnt out after the tour. It was too much too fast going into the studio, hitting the road, then going back into the studio at such a fast pace. Looking back, it would have been a good time to take a tiny break and maybe release a solo project instead of making this huge change with 'Unia'. [Laughs] It was all me. The rest of the guys didn't understand what I was doing. I considered it a catharsis, an artistic freedom kind of thing. I don't think it was the smartest business move. We were on the rise and the band was doing really well. Then I went and came up with an album that was so drastically different and controversial. It was probably not a smart thing. I think I also had a tiny bit of burnout. I should have taken a break. It was unintentional when it came to planning what we did, but it was something I allowed myself to go and do. In hindsight, yeah, it has a bunch of artsy, great songs. I love 'Unia'. A lot of people consider it our best album — probably those who found SONATA ARCTICA with that album. It's very different from anything else we released."

Blabbermouth: Reading between the lines, it sounds like you weren't inspired to write the fast, melodic stuff anymore, right?

Tony: "Absolutely. I was fighting against the whole idea of SONATA ARCTICA being power metal. I didn't consider us power metal, or at least in the pure form, when you compare us to other bands in that style. It was some kind of mutiny on my part. [Laughs] I needed to do something that pleases me and allows me to do something different and that I love to do for a living. I let my imagination go wild, let the music stream, and put it out there for people to hear what I have in mind. When you are in a position where you are making a living with what you do, you shouldn't start playing around with it that much. It might turn out drastically, awfully wrong. Then you might lose your livelihood. As advice for all those bands and songwriters who plan on doing something drastic, I think it's best you direct that kind of ambition to your solo project."

Blabbermouth: Do you enjoy bands like AC/DC and MOTÖRHEAD, who essentially maintained the same style throughout their careers?

Tony: "Those two bands have never been my biggest love, but they all have great songs. If I were to make my top 100 songs of all time, both bands would have a few songs on that list. They've never been my favorite bands. Somehow, I always admired and loved bands that are a little bit bold with what they do, like QUEEN. I don't like and love everything they've done. They have their weird moments here and there, like the 'Jazz' album. [Laughs] That was a little bit weird and not my cup of tea—I liked maybe one or two songs. That was embedded in my musical genes that this adventure might be okay to do, and the band may survive. The 'Unia' album was a big concern before its release by our management and label. It seems like we survived. We're still here! [Laughs]"

Blabbermouth: If we want to get philosophical, then, Tony, what did you learn about yourself along this journey?

Tony: "I like to make things complicated. [Laughs] But doing the 'Unia' album, I was asserting myself. I learned a lot. On the following albums, we had much better orchestrations. I think 'Unia' was the first one where I tried to use orchestration in the songs and I don't think it was executed properly. It was all me. I learned that I do not have to do everything by myself. I can work with people who are very good at what they do and have them handle the bits I can't do. It lets me concentrate on the things I know I can do. That's what I learned. I was trying to do everything on that album. That was the best lesson."

Blabbermouth: If we move over to "Clear Cold Beyond", when was your first inkling that it was time to return to your original style?

Tony: "There were three factors. The first one, our previous album, 'Talviyö', turned out much softer than we thought. Currently, we do not have any songs from that album in our setlist, which is wrong. We should go back to that album. There are great songs there; I love the music. The production was a little off. It was too soft. For a different kind of band, it might serve a purpose, but when you are trying to be a power metal band, or people consider you a power metal band, you should try to sound like one. That album doesn't sound like power metal. It would have turned out much better if we had mixed it the same way as 'Clear Cold Beyond'. Secondly, the acoustic albums ['Acoustic Adventures Volume One And Two']. It's been something we've been dreaming of doing for such a long time. We got it out of our system. We also had a long ten-week tour playing those songs and at the end of the tour, we were very much super-ready to do something totally different. [Laughs] Last, playing these 25th-anniversary shows — the band started in '95 or '96. We were doing festivals and bringing back many of those early SONATA ARCTICA power metal songs and also 'Don't Say A Word', a song that isn't strictly 'power metal,' but is something very fundamentally SONATA ARCTICA, which some people consider our best song. We did a 'Greatest Hits' setlist and it was wonderful. We got so much energy from people to see how people love what we are doing and how much people love the early SONATA ARCTICA. All those things put together gave us the feeling that this is what we wanted to have. Also, when you go and play metal festivals and you're playing a setlist that is power metal, although back in the day, I didn't consider us as belonging there with all the black metal bands. We were always the odd bird. [Laughs] Now, at an older age, I have this sense of belonging once again, as we were playing these festivals, and we were part of the metal family. It felt good to be part of something. During these years, we've been searching ourselves musically and playing very much softer material. We want to belong on these festivals."

Blabbermouth: What was the new song that broke the ice for you? "First In Line"?

Tony: "Actually, it was one of the songs we recorded, but I wasn't happy with the lyrics and some of the arrangements. We left it off. I'm going to fix it, and it will be on the next album, which is a nice thing to have something ready for the follow-up. And it's a speedy, power metal song. That's what I started with. I was trying to write those songs that have been missing. 'California' was one of the early ones. I already had the idea of 'California falls into the sea.'"

Blabbermouth: My first thought was that it was related to the climate.

Tony: "[Laughs] I had the idea [sings melody] first and that may happen someday, but I saw this 'science facts' kind of thing that said it was physically impossible to slide into the ocean like a sci-fi movie because of the continental plates are moving in the wrong direction for it to happen. I hope that it's correct. That's what I'm basing the whole song on! I'm using 'California falls into the sea' in the same sense as 'When cows fly.' It's about a relationship. Like, when some person is using you, pretending that they love you and want to be with you, but they're trying to get another person or thing that's not you. You realize it and let them know that 'I'll be yours when California falls into the sea.' I knew people would hear that line — it's repeated again and again and again in the song. [Laughs] It's a catchy line. That may be the only thing people hear. It will be misunderstood, but that's also the case with [Bruce Springsteen's] 'Born In The U.S.A.'"

Blabbermouth: Did you have to re-train yourself on how to write songs like this?

Tony: "It was like riding a bike. I had a few wobbly moments, but it was easy getting into the groove. They were very much fun to write. I don't necessarily enjoy listening to this music by other people, but it's a lot of fun to do. [Laughs] It's easy to start doodling around with progressions and melodies, and all of a sudden, you have a happy-sounding power metal song that you can lace with tragic lyrics. It comes very easy for me."

Blabbermouth: How did your voice hold up when singing the early material while on tour?

Tony: "We've had to lower the key of the songs since they were crazy high. I was unable to sing those live, even when I was younger. It was a struggle to sing them in the studio, but that was because we were very raw, especially on the first album. We were picked off the street. I had played shows, but no actual heavy metal shows where I had to sing high constantly, and the shows had much more meaning than some demo band. I didn't have my own voice. I was trying to be Timo Kotipelto [STRATOVARIUS]. I tried to mimic his sound by being very loud and high. That's not really at all my natural range, which is quite a few steps down. I don't really love how I sound when I'm singing very high. I lack something from up there. I like it when I can do rasps, like a little bit of screaming, more rock and roll. That's a lot of fun. I love that. A little bit lower, like a mid-range, that's where I consider my voice works best. I used my meager vocal abilities and did some nice tricks here and there. These early songs are a pain in the ass to do live, but I manage. Age usually lowers your range naturally. I can definitely sing lower than I did when I was younger, but I can still get up high. But it's a matter of taking care of yourself and trying to stay fit and it's getting increasingly difficult when you're reaching 50. It's totally different from the time when you were 30, I can tell you."

Blabbermouth: Ten years ago, you did the 15th anniversary of "Ecliptica". We're now at 25 years of that album. You've often talked about how you just did SONATA ARCTICA for fun when you started. Has your longevity come as a surprise?

Tony: "When you are 20-something, you don't think this far ahead. When you are in a band, you imagine you'll be doing something different, but at the same time, you hope it will be your career where you can retire from it or die with your boots on. [Laughs] It's still a surprise. I had my difficult moments. Let me tell you: The coronavirus was awful, but for me, I was one of the lucky people. I did not lose anybody. It allowed me to rest and sort of get myself in order and have the break that I've been trying to have for many, many releases. I didn't say it out loud, but if there was anything else that I wanted to do other than this, every time I wanted to go on tour was a pain in the ass, and I hated it at some point. Suddenly, after I started to hope to get a break, here came the pandemic. In the future, I need to be careful what I wish for, but it's one of the reasons we are still here and SONATA ARCTICA is coming back strong."

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