Review: Dark Sarah – The Puzzle
Written by Brett Kihlmire
Symphonic metal has been a pleasure of mine for a little over a decade now, and as I age I find that I enjoy it more than other forms of metal. This is largely due to the grandiose style symphonic bands deliver and one band that truly hits the mark is Finland’s Dark Sarah.
Like any serious symphonic metal album, The Puzzle begins with an introduction track. In this case it’s called ‘Breathe’ and the track opens with strings, piano and synths before slowly gliding into the epic majesty that is this genre. The orchestra does well to pique my interest and the guitars serve only to enhance this feeling. The song truly comes into its own, however, when it all slows down and starts anew with vocalist Heidi Parviainen entering the fray for a few moments.
‘Island in the Mist’ kicks off with a nice riff and bass line followed shortly by epic synths and a strong drum beat. Parviainen enters with her soft-spoken vocal style at about 35 seconds and things continue relatively similar to the beginning until some horns change things up. This track is really driven by the rhythms with the synths providing atmosphere while Parviainen’s slowly draws you in until she hits those high notes. It is when that operatic power kicks in that I know this band is on the level. Unfortunately, the song doesn’t quite deliver as it doesn’t experiment too much. Fortunately, this is just the beginning.
Starting out with a catchy synth and eastern-influenced atmosphere, ‘Little Men’ gets my blood flowing quick with sharp riffs, bass lines and strong drumming. The best part about this song is the versatility of Parviainen’s voice. Her ability to blend a soft style with operatic power that doesn’t ruin the atmosphere created by the synths is wonderful. As well, the occasional rumbling of the double bass pedal really kicks things up a notch. Two full songs in and I can say that this album doesn’t short us the theatrical side of things.
Starting slow but with a bit more technicality from the guitars this time around, ‘Ash Grove’ soon picks up with a nice power metal feel made possible by a fast tempo and soaring vocals. The use of backing vocalists really helps set this one apart even further, but it truly cements itself as the best yet with a gnarly guitar solo that guitar guys were likely craving up to this point.
Opening with a flute and harp, ‘For the Birds’ has a distinctive folk style that blends quite well with the outstanding bass lines and sharp riffs. Once more Parviainen’s voice fits the music perfectly. On the flip side, however, the track is a little underwhelming. It’s not bad, but it just doesn’t hit the spot like some of the tracks that precede and succeed it. Of course, this is an integral element in the story being told on this concept album, so be sure not to skip it on your first few listens even if you don’t quite dig it.
‘Deeper and Deeper’ picks things up with a bit heavier style. The high fantasy synths play a large part giving the track plenty of wonder and whimsy as Parviainen carries on the story. This one strikes a little closer to home for me thanks to the increased power from the entire band, but especially the vocals. Of course, the best is still yet to come and it’s closer than you might think.
‘Dance with the Dragon’ is one of the most standout tracks on the entire album. The duet between JP Leppäluoto and Heidi Parviainen is simply magical. The emotion in Parviainen’s voice is at its finest and the power belted out by both singers gives me chills. While the rest of the music is largely reserved, save for a slight uptick in tempo later on, it works perfectly with the dynamic vocal performance. To make things all the better, there’s a sweet guitar solo too.
After such a powerful song ‘Cliffhanger’ is sort of a letdown. It’s by no means a bad tune at all; it’s just unfortunately placed after ‘Dance with the Dragon.’ The reason for it being a letdown is that ‘Dance with the Dragon’ was such a powerful song and the peak of the album. Of course, ‘Cliffhanger’ has its merits. Parviainen’s voice is as beautiful as ever and her lyrics are touching, and the synths create a gorgeous atmosphere while the rhythm section adds just enough metal to keep this ballad rocking.
‘Aquarium’ starts off a bit slowly with a quiet piano and a soft vocal performance. Things quickly heat up with a fast approaching riff and rhythm. This song quickly turns into a real banger with hard-hitting drums and those entrancing synths felt throughout the album. And though this song surely stands on its own two feet, it’s the inclusion of Delain’s Charlotte Wessels that really drives this one to the top of the list. Wessels’ powerful performance compliments Parviainen extremely well giving this album a revived freshness. And then there’s the technicality of the drums and the guitars. Dark Sarah really kicked things up in this one making for one of the best tracks on the album.
‘Rain’ returns to the folksy style experienced earlier in the album. From the beginning it’s a nice ending to a superb album, especially when Parviainen begins serenading us one last time with her angelic voice. If you’re looking for a banger, however, this one isn’t going to satisfy. This is ballad but fear not, for this is THE ballad. Epic strings, wind instruments, a reserved rhythm section and acoustic guitar give this track so much character that you’d be hard pressed not to enjoy it. Well, that’s all true until about two minutes and 45 seconds in when things get a bit heavy, but not so much to destroy the fragile ballad spirit. In fact, the solo late in the track really adds to the character of the track and if you listen closely there’s actually a second singer – that’s former Xandria vocalist Manuela Kraller returning as Fate.
After listening to this album on repeat for several hours I have to say that this is a shining example of what symphonic metal can be. Rather than toy around with genre clichés like the “Beauty and the Beast” vocals or overdoing the orchestral sampling so much that everything gets drowned out Dark Sarah shakes things up a bit. The duets were well done, the story is compelling, especially the characters portrayed by guest vocalists, and the music has an awesome theatrical feel. In many ways, The Puzzle is a cut above much of the symphonic metal albums put out this year and is sure satisfy the most hardcore of symphonic fans. That being said, I’m looking forward to what the band will give us next. 8.5/10