Written by Westin
Sonja – Loud Arriver
> Heavy Metal
> Pennsylvania, US
> Releases September 23
> Cruz Del Sur Music
Let it be known that I am a defender of the faith – the new wave of traditional heavy metal (sometimes referred to as NWOTHM, but I don’t think it flows well like NWOBHM) has been ongoing for over a decade now, spearheaded by bands like Visigoth and Cauldron, and I love it. I am absolutely far too young to have lived through the original wave in the late 70s through the mid-80s, and an unfortunate number of the bands from those eras have either faded from existence or slipped into an uninteresting monotony of uninspired releases. An injection of new blood is always vital, with labels like Cruz Del Sur and Dying Victims at the forefront of promoting new bands to carry the flag of the traditional metal sound.
One of those awesome new bands is Sonja from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Sonja is Ben Brand on bass, Grzesiek Czapla on drums, and Melissa Moore as guitarist and singer. If you recognize Melissa’s name, you might remember her as a former member of a different well-known black metal band; but (in the band’s own words) “Melissa Moore was fired from Texas black metallers Absu in 2017. When she came out as transgender to her bandmates, she figured she would have their support in this most vulnerable moment of her life. Instead, every member of Absu but one shunned her. Moore was dismissed via text message under the claim she had ‘fired herself’ with ‘her decision.’” The one member of that band who did not turn on Melissa was Grzesiek, the touring drummer, so the rest of them can get absolutely fucking bent.
Loud Arriver is aptly titled – this is a powerful statement to deliver on a debut record. Being a three-piece already sets Sonja apart, meaning there are no dueling guitars or doubled up harmonies that have become almost clichéd parts of NWOTHM and power metal bands. This relatively minimal instrumental approach feels like it nails part of what makes Black Sabbath so enduring – there is a powerful and simple elegance in playing exactly the right number of instruments. This means that the bass is clearly audible and pairs perfectly with the drumming while the guitars and vocals soar over the top while it all mixes well and still each section sounds distinct.
Also to that note, the production on Loud Arriver is great and mirrors the band setup – simple, straightforward and effective. The guitars sound clean and bright and I can feel the strings in a way that really lends energy to the songs. The bass and drums work perfectly in tandem to deliver punchy and rhythmic mids that keep everything feeling groovin’. Melissa’s voice is coated in several layers of reverb, which really lends itself to a retro vibe that I’ll discuss more later, but I have mixed feelings on its success. I don’t think reverb is inherently bad and there’re a lot of cool things you can do with it, and on a lot of the songs it really works, so I think the band know what they’re doing. But from the perspective of a listener sitting through the entire album this production approach of throwing so much reverb on clean singing can leave something to be desired in the final mix – there are vocal moments that can feel flat and unnecessarily separate from the otherwise very lively and cohesive soundscape being crafted here.
I think a good example of this is in the post-bridge chorus (or maybe it is the bridge, I’m sorry I don’t understand song structure) of “Wanting Me Dead” – Melissa’s vocal delivery and enunciation of “She’s gonna start killing people / Only way that she’s gonna survive” is great, but the mix ends up making the final listening experience kind of cold and less impactful partly because the lyrics are a little unclear in the mix but also because it buries a lot of potential emotional tone that could lend itself to elevating that section. Melissa is a good singer, but she might be a great one, I just can’t exactly tell you which because of that reverb. This is one of my only gripes with the album, as a band like Sonja in a genre like this really needs to, in my opinion, deliver heavily on vocals since the singer does so much work to make any particular band great versus being just okay. I think Melissa does good work on Loud Arriver, but she’s very close to being up another level and I would love to hear her take a slightly warmer vocal approach in the future.
The retro vibe I discussed earlier is incredibly powerful throughout the album, as the production helps immensely, but even without that the songwriting also lends itself to this vibe. I cannot emphasize enough how damn good of a songwriter Melissa is; “Pink Fog” and “Wanting Me Dead” are my favourite songs on the album – I’m listening to these songs and they sound like they exist perfectly in that nebulous void that sits between nostalgic fog and the actual musical style that embodied that late 70’s to early 80’s transitionary period where heavy metal was learning what separated it from hard rock and glam. She’s also a great guitarist, and Loud Arriver is packed full of too many fantastic riffs, licks, and gallops to name a favourite, and there are also a good number of slower and moodier sections, like the opening and verse to the title track that closes the album, that really highlight Melissa can value a hold-back approach to make the later release even stronger. That said, I do wish there were more solos on the album, I just really want to hear her let loose more and show off, we know she can and she deserves to and I want to hear Sonja go over the top.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Sonja’s Loud Arriver is a hot new addition to the growing ranks of fantastic trad metal standard bearers. Whether you want four-on-the-floor or you prefer to air guitar, this album is a fun and tight way to appreciate some great music makers. Melissa Moore is a great new face of the scene and you should expect great things from this band.