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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.