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It’s a safe assumption that regardless of what came afterward, there was nowhere for Stratovarius to go but up after that hideous self-titled album they put out a few years ago. However, when competing visions come into play as to where to go next, the eventual split that occurred during the creation of this troubled opus became an inevitability. Surprisingly enough, Timo Tolkki seemed to have learned just as much as the others from the horrid mistake that the band released as an album in 2005, as “New Era” (formerly titled “Revolution Renaissance”) seems a concerted effort at turning back the clock about 10 or 12 years. But the question that tends to arise is, would this have been as good as “Polaris” if Tolkki had not split with his former band and this had been the band’s comeback album?
The problem in answering this question is that Timo essentially took the concept of Avantasia, on a smaller scale, and put out something that doesn’t sound like a singular band. Simply employing the services of Michael Kiske for the whole album would have likely achieved the best results considering that he towers over Sammet and Rantanen on here, but then again, Kiske’s status as a Christian might have come into question with him singing the hair-brained lyrics of lust in “Glorious And Divine”, let alone the pseudo-Dan Brown meets a modern version of the Aryan Heresy prose of “Burn Upon The Cross”. But in spite of Tolkki’s continuing lack of lyrical prowess, he’s taken some sizable steps back towards a respectable formula of song creation that, although pretty formulaic, is consistently easy on the ears.
To call the contents of this album formulaic would be an understatement, as most of these songs take a single signature riff with verse and chorus structure approach that is almost pop/rock in character. It sometimes takes on a nature not all that far off from Black Sabbath’s “Tyr”, though a bit more flowery and keyboard oriented, and with less of an epic feel. There’s a large collection of slower, heavier songs built off of basic riffs that get so close to that album that one wonders why Timo didn’t call up Tony Martin instead of sticking the Rod Stewart of power metal Pasi Rantanen on these songs. “We Are Magic” is a solid up tempo rocker with a really solid chorus and “Eden Is Burning” is essentially a shorter and improved version of the title song of “Infinite”, but both of them would be better served with a vocalist who didn’t sound like he’s half whispering.
While the hearkening back to older Stratovarius days are definitely on full display, things definitely pull equally if not more so in an Avantasia direction whenever Kiske or Sammet takes the lead. Both “Heroes” and “Glorious And Divine” are loaded with “Metal Opera” references, dredging up images of classics such as “Breaking Away” and “Neverland”, albeit with Tobias going it alone rather than a choir of backing vocalists filling out every crevice of the arrangement. The songs that Kiske sings on take a much slower and mellower character, in fact, the ex-Helloween veteran manages to get himself stuck on both of the album’s extremely subdued ballads and a couple of down tempo rockers, probably not all that far removed from the lighter sounding rock music he’s done on his solo albums.
Suffice to say, “Angel” and “Keep The Flame Alive” are both cut from Stratovarius’ later 90s grade of ballad work, loaded with serene keyboard lines and prose oriented lyrics, but thankfully avoiding that folksy sounding John Lennon worship that Tolkki became obsessed with on the last 4 albums with said band. But the real standout moments of his performance on here, and of the whole album for that matter, are the last two songs on here. “Last Night On Earth” is cut from that same stream of Gary Moore’s “Out In The Fields” emulations that “I Want Out” started about 20 years ago, but with a bigger keyboard emphasis and a really solid lead guitar line.
The closing title track takes another classic metal approach and brings in the line of power metal emulations of “Heaven And Hell”, albeit in the plainer “Holy Diver” meets “Headless Cross” manner that lacks a triumphant up tempo ending. It has a riffing approach that is akin to a simpler version of “Soul Of A Vagabond”, but without all of the unnecessary lyrical meandering and wandering drum fills. For some reason, in spite of the overt simplicity at work here, I just can’t get enough of this song and can see it staying in my listening rotation for a few years. Why Michael Kiske can’t bring himself to do a couple of power metal albums like this is beyond me, as I doubt too many would complain about any pro-Christianity lyrics, particularly in the fan base that makes up most of the ones that follow the bands he does guest slots for.
Getting back to the general question of would this have been a better album than “Polaris” if the original Stratovarius lineup would have finished and released it, the answer is a pretty clear no. Even when canceling out the vocal work, the music at work on here comes much closer to sounding like the 3rd installment to “The Metal Opera” that never occurred, which is the case even if you go by Tolkki‘s guitar tone which has somehow managed to completely clone what Henjo Richter put forth on “Part 2“. This is a relatively solid album and could have been even better with a more consistent vocal presence and a bit more development in the songwriting. It tends to play to those who like this style completely removed from any sense of epic or symphonic tendencies and presented in the most bare bones of fashions. Don’t expect it to have a whole lot of staying power, with perhaps a few individual exceptions, but instead something that’s good for the occasional listen.
Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on August 16, 2009.