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Darkest Excellence. - 86%

hells_unicorn, December 11th, 2010

The advent of 2010 has been, to put it mildly, a turbulent time in some quarters. It is marked by a rather auspicious fit of reaching the top of the mountain one last time before yet another suicidal meltdown by former Stratovarius leader and songwriter Timo Tolkki, who somehow managed to recapture his former glory in Revolution Renaissance’s 3rd and final installment “Trinity” (which hearkened back very noticeably to the glory of “Episode”), followed by the band’s immediate breakup. Thankfully his former outfit is not marred by such erratic occurrences and is marked by a consistent measure of excellence.

The preview for the up and coming 2nd effort of the newest incarnation of Stratovarius “Darkest Hours” takes the same general road as that of the lead up to “Polaris”, plus a demo song and 2 very well performed live songs from the band’s mid-90s glory days. The character of the sound is detailed with a somewhat groovy and progressive edge, as axe man Kupiainen’s riffing style is a bit more chunky and elaborate than Tolkki’s dogmatic speed metal work. The production of both the title song and the other album track “Infernal Maze” is extremely thick and somewhat mechanical, not all that different from the practices of the current Masterplan output.

Oddly enough, the real goods for most that come upon this single/EP are the live songs and the demo version of “Darkest Hours”. The latter, by virtue of its more humble production actual resembles the old Stratovarius of the 90s that everyone seems to miss, minus the complex riffing and much more virtuosic soloing of course. Both of the live songs are flawlessly executed and utterly spellbinding, but “Black Diamond” just cuts away the rest of the album with its intensity, showcasing the band’s skills in all quarters. Between the fancy keyboard cadenza that Jens Johansson pulls out at the beginning and the tight as hell performance of the song itself, one is led to ponder whether this would be what Dream Theater would sound like if they played power metal.

This is one of those cases where, in spite of this being simply a preview of things to come, the single is probably almost as essential of a purchase as the album that it is preceding. Barring a later compilation release carrying the 3 additional tracks on here, which most core fans will obviously not want to wait for, this, is the only place where these songs can be found and understood for their majesty. If anything in Stratovarius’ past has ever appealed to you, it is a pretty safe bet that this will too.

Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on December 11, 2010.

Understood. They are fully back. - 94%

PowerDaso, November 26th, 2010

Stratovarius, as every fan of theirs would know, went through lots of drama and even split-up a few years before their previous endeavor, Polaris, was released. Their long-time guitarist and composer Timo Tolkki left the band to start Revolution Renaissance which was bound to end and later on 2010 start another band, this time a supergroup, called Symfonia. Most people thought that Stratovarius was just hopeless now, since they didn't have their creative core, but they prooved everyone wrong with Polaris. The question actually was if they would be able to keep going as strong as they did with such an excellent album. Well, having musicians considered among the best in power metal, they obviously could. A slight proof of the strenght they were bound to propel is this single, Darkest Hours.

On Polaris the band faced progress and the comeback of several important elements on their music. As for Darkest Hours, the deal is that they did both the things they had done in earlier, Tolkki-era albums and stuff similar to Polaris. Infernal Maze, one of the songs in the single, holds several similarities to the Stratovarius we all know from works like Visions or Destiny. It might seem an original, more progressive-like song on the very beginning because it actually starts with Kotipelto singing along, but it will eventually enter that familiar, dark sounding Stratovarius. The song also keeps some new elements, like more integration of the keyboards and giving more bending melodies to the guitar instead of fast picking. It will also feature Kotipelto singing in the high pitched, sky-high soaring way that he is known for. In both of the new tracks we see the usual elements of Stratovarius, like Jens playing his harpsichord-patched keyboard, which I consider to be good since it mantains the nostalgia of previous works. Porra's bass was set to sound louder than before, pretty much deserved for his skill, both in solo sections (for Infernal Maze) and intros (for Darkest Hours). The solos tend to be as neoclassical as they have been before, while Matias and Jens are not afraid to shred their instruments up, I would like to mention Infernal Maze's keyboard solo is nothing but jaw-dropping. The drum patterns are the usuals for Stratovarius since they still keep the same riff structure they have always had.

This single also contains some live performances of old songs. I feel this was another way to show that Stratovarius is not dead at all. They played both Against the Wind and their famous Black Diamond in here, and I must say they don't dissapoint. Against the Wind has more than anything Kotipelto singing nicely live (not to be found often) and the crowd's energy to support, while Black Diamond got a cool synthesizer solo before the actual intro, which was also changed by Jens (only for what he plays with his left hand, though, don't worry), the crowds excitement and, of course, the mastery the band has at playing this song. I like Kotipelto's performance because he could actually hold up some notes nicely. Kupiainen shows here that he has nothing to beg at Tolkki's feet, and that he can do Tolkki's playing job greatly, possibly even better than he did. Porra, again, was set really loudly. Jörg Michael gives us a mini-drum solo on Black Diamond's ending to show that he can still drum as he could before. The quality of both live performances is worthy of a live album quality, so don't be frightened for bootleg-quality.

Darkest Hours is basically the sealing proof that Stratovarius is able to keep on going without Tolkki, just locking safe what Polaris had set clearly. It is not a rather different sounding Stratovarius, for it is mostly like Polaris and may get to be a bit nostalgic and it doesn't sound like some sell-out power metal. If you still can't believe Tolkki left, just listen to this and you will stop missing him for sure. If you're not convinced, wait for Elysium or just get Polaris straight away.