Power metal pioneer Stratovarius’ twelth studio album Polaris basically shocked the fans in 2009, bringing forth a powerful line-up after the departure of long-time guitarist and composer Timo Tolkki, who left the band in a big feud in 2008. Polaris was a refreshing new album, stepping on new grounds of progressive metal and techno, and meanwhile continuing the twenty-year tradition that made band famous to begin with – technically challenging yet extremely melodic, uplifting songs with heart and emotion.
2011′s Elysium, the second album with the new line-up, is probably even better. The album highlights on melodic hits such as Darkest Hours and Event Horizon as well as the beautiful ballad Move the Mountain and the epic and emotional 18-minute title track as well as the beautiful Lifetime in a Moment. The album perfectly balances all that we have learned to expect from Stratovarius, and it even brings a bunch of new stuff to the table.
Released in late November of 2010 alongside “Infernal Maze”, Darkest Hours is another one of the many Stratovarius hits and singles that wouldn’t grow on me immediately, alongside especially the Polaris single “Deep Unknown”. While growing on me eventually and becoming a pretty strong track, “Darkest Hours” stays somewhat of a medicore track, though it is indeed a good listen.
2. Under Flaming Skies (03:51)
An interesting track with some unique riffs and melodies, even though I hoped for a return of the Arabic (?) theme in the intro. The solo is good but I can’t help but feel that the song would have worked better with a slower C-passage before the final chorus.
3. Infernal Maze (05:32)
Infernal Maze was perhaps a bad choice for a pre-album single release (alongside “Darkest Hours”), because of its epic and extremely non-singley arrangement, but to me this is a golden song. It reminds me of many of Stratovarius classical epics, alongside the newer, progressive and neo-classical themes of Polaris, especially “Emancipation Suite”. The song gets a grip on both an emotional and technical level, bringing up speed in perfect balance with slower tempos and excellent guitar and keyboard work. It grows a lot in just five and a half minute, and it does really impress me.
4. Fairness Justified (04:20)
The beginning of this semi-ballad sounds a bit off right after “Infernal Maze”, but it works. The choir chorus works unexpectedly well, even though it feels a bit sudden and maybe even forced upon the listener. Alike “Under Flaming Skies”, I think the chorus is better suited for a more epic track, where it can be built in additional two or three slower minutes before the first chorus.
5. The Game Never Ends (03:54)
The Game Never Ends sounds (at least on first listen) a little too much like old school HammerFall for my taste. Power metal is good and HammerFall is okay, but this kind of thing has been done. Hopefully it will grow on me on subsequent listens. The ending keyboard solo is pretty cool though.
6. Lifetime in a Moment (06:39)
The second longer track on the album (after “Infernal Maze”) is less progressive and more of the traditional epic style, even though it does incorporate some nice new age reminiscent sounds and some techno work after the choruses. Starting out with an interesting choir introduction, it moves into a calmer piece and escalates perfectly as the chorus kicks in just before the three-minute mark. The guitar riffs in the chorus stick out like they seldom do in Stratovarius music, and it works. The guitar solo, alongside several solos on the album, is a bit disappointing and too generic for my taste, and so it also fails to bring the song up properly before the third and final chorus, but it is still okay. The song reminds me of “King of Nothing”, one of my favorite tracks from Polaris, but I think I might start to prefer this.
7. Move the Mountain (05:34)
Move the Mountain is the first proper ballad on the album, seeing as even though both “Fairness Justified” and “Lifetime in a Moment” has ballad elements but I wouldn’t count either as a full and proper ballad. This is a good thing, really, and something I love in music with special arrangements (bands that come to mind include both Devil Doll and My Dying Bride) is how they seldom have real ballads, but they incorporate it well into the music making more songs have a whole new dimension. Kind of like the old-school episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama often ending on a heart-felt tone even though the episode overall is comedy.
I think vocalist Timo Kotipelto brings in some amazing vocals in here, especially in the heart-felt verses. Keyboardist Jens Johansson – one of my all-time favorites – brings in the first really amazing solo on the album at 3:00 – 3:56 until he also brings some beautiful piano melodies when the song moves into a bridge. I was previously disappointed with some of the songs lacking a proper bridge (especially “Lifetime in a Moment” which ended all too soon), but this kind of makes up for it.
8. Event Horizon (4:24)
Wow! This song kicks off wonderfully well with some strange noices and voices moving into a neo-classical keyboard section before the first verse. And you know what I said about the lack of good solos? I take it all back. This song is filled with great riffs and solos, even though the vocal sections (on first listen) don’t sound that extraordinary. This is definitely a live song, and I can’t wait to see this live in the future.
9. Elysium (18:14)
Basic summary: This song is pretty damn awesome. It is epic and emotional and everything one could want from an 18-minute track from a technical and wonderful band like Stratovarius. It contains three different choruses, all extremely good, and it has some wonderful riffing, solos, picking and vocal melodies, with all instrumentalists as well as vocalist Timo Kotipelto on the top of their trade. I wrote down my thoughts while listening to it the first time, and you can see them here below.
[00:00] The big album epic… I was really looking forward to this. Stratovarius generally bring great longer tracks (many bands do, the longer tracks works good for great composers who need longer time to fully achieve their dream), and I’m pretty sure this is their longest yet – popular bands in general don’t deliver tracks above the 12-minute mark or so, with a few exceptions.
[01:06] The track starts out promising with keyboards and some full band work before being joined by a choir. Nice and epic.
[04:00] The song works into a verse with Kotipelto’s agonised vocals, and then moves into a chorus, a cool mixture of guitar riffing, bass lines, keyboard picking and some guitar melody. Then comes a guitar / keyboard battle solo, and it’s a quite nice one. Why did they save all good solos for the final three songs?
[06:01] The chorus returns a second time, before the song falls into a strange mid-section with cool effects, slow drums and some guitar riffing, moving into a heavier section.
[07:48] Drums and bass lines are joined by Kotipelto’s vocals, and it moves into some new chorus before a guitar solo kicks off, and he repeats the verse.
[11:00] Another great guitar solo! The chorus really starts making an impression the second (or is it the third?) time around, and I realise how emotional the song is on a deeper level.
[13:32] The song moves into a section like its introduction, and it really sits well after the chorus. Kotipelto’s voice works extremely well in with the instruments, and its more varied and emotional than, dare I say, ever before.
[16:52] An instrumental, semi-techno section comes and brings the song up even further, before a choir kicks in and with it kicks some serious ass, followed by the solo. I’m somehow reminded by one of my absolute favorite Strato songs, “Mother Gaia”, but I can’t tell why. The song then moves into repeated chorus originating in the acoustic section (see 13:32) and it works oh so well. As always, I don’t listen much to the lyrics on first listen, but as soon as I get the actual album and not the Spotify version in my hands I will surely listen through it again with the booklet in my hands.
[18:13] And it ends.