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Music Review

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Artist: Stratovarius
RRP: £13.99
Available 18 May 2009

Stratovarius, hailing from Finland, has been around since 1985, and was among the first bands to be labelled under the sub-genre Symphonic Power Metal - due to their classical, baroque influences. Of course, they didn’t always have this sound. Their first release was Fright Night in 1989, but it wasn’t until Episode (1996), four releases later, that they found their distinctive niche.

Guitarist Timo Tolkki became the main driving force behind the band, and their popularity steadily increased. Arguably their best two CD releases were Visions and Destiny, in 1997 and 1998 respectively, the latter of which offered us fusions of styles we hadn’t really heard together before. The two studio follow-ups, Infinite and Intermission, whilst not as innovative, maintained a strong cohesion. Elements - Parts 1 & 2 (both 2003) were, for me at least, much too pretentiously proggy and experimental, losing them some of their die-hard fans. To make matters worse the band suffered severe financial problems culminating in (controlling) helmsman Tolkki leaving the fold. New CD Polaris is their fourteenth release, and the first since the self-titled Stratovarius four years ago. So the big question is: Is there life after Timo Tolkki?

The answer is a resounding yes. After replacing Tolkki with young guitarist Matias Kupiainen, the band disappeared into the Finnish forest and (a contradiction in terms) concentrated on relaxing and having fun. The plan seems to have worked, as Stratovarius have regained much of their zest and vitality along with a return to their strongest sound.

Although not one of my favourite groups I have the utmost respect for them, as they were one of the first foreign metal bands, big in Europe and Scandinavia, to test the water in the UK in the nineties at a time when Brit Pop and Indie bands ruled the roost and the consensus was that England (who after all did invent Heavy Metal in the first place) was no longer interested in Metal. Their first visit over here shocked and delighted them to the core when they saw just how many people turned up. Although not playing the stadium-size places they do in their own part of the world, they have played progressively larger venues over here ever since.

So, what about the Polaris CD itself? I was initially disappointed to receive only a promotional disc. This shows a distinct lack of respect for the reviewer. However, rather than getting a mere one minute from each song, which offers no hope of absorbing song structures, in this case the whole CD is intact apart from the occasional fading-up and down to prevent pirate copying, so my faith was partially restored. It’s important to note, particularly for any existing fan, that the first listen proved unremarkable. Perhaps it was because I had recently played both True and Black/Folk metal, and had to be put in the right frame of mind again to listen to my favoured Power Metal, but only on the repeat listen did the exuberance and invention of the material assert itself.

Polaris kicks-off at breakneck speed with 'Deep Unknown', and is followed by 'Falling Star', a slightly more moderately paced song with driving guitar and keyboard melodies. 'King of Nothing' is the only track I'm not keen on as it's a return to that pretentious prog-style. 'Forever is Today' is by far the outstanding song, epitomising Stratovarius at their very best. There are two obligatory power ballads, 'Winter Skies' and the excellent 'Somehow Precious'. 'Part 2' of 'Emancipation Suite' sounds a little like David Bowie's 'The Width of a Circle' from his Ziggy Stardust days, which is no bad thing, and we finish with 'When Mountains Fall', an acoustic ballad.

As you might expect after the exit of guitarist Timo Tolkki, the instrumentals are balanced slightly in favour of Jans Johansson’s keyboards, rather than being evenly weighted. However, new guitarist Matias Kupiainen is obviously talented and no shrinking violet. When he does let rip, you begin to wonder who Tolkki was anyway. Timo Kotipelto’s vocals are instantly recognisable and as strong as ever. Here we get a nice mix of light and shade, as eleven tracks of intensive high-pitched warbling would soon grate.

Polaris is by no means Stratovarius’s greatest work, but it is their best release since 2001, and puts them firmly back where they should be.


Ty Power

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