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I was thoroughly amazed when Stratovarius released Polaris. The first album with new contributing band members Lauri Porra and Matias Kupiainen proved that Stratovarius absolutely did not need Tolkki anymore, and that his songwriting and publicity shenanigans had grown tiresome over the last decade.
Consider Elysium an improvement over Polaris in every way.
Matias Kupiainen's abilities on the guitar are frighteningly good. His tone is superb and he just has an amazing command of his instrument. He is easily one of the best talents I have seen in recent years, and he's only 27 (as of the time this review is being written). He shreds tastefully and knows when to lay off the fretboard pyrotechnics, but won't hesitate to kick you in the teeth with a blistering solo.
Matias did the majority of musical and lyrical contributions to Elysium. He fits right at home with the band musically - it has that Stratovarius sound with a slightly progressive edge, something fresh and invigorating that the band has desperately needed for years. Songs like Under Flaming Skies and Infernal Maze are mostly done in the traditional Stratovarius format, but with a new presentation - Under Flaming Skies with its almost middle eastern flair (harmonic minor melodies, perhaps?), and Infernal Maze with its haunting, theatrical introduction before ripping into speedy double bass and meedly meedly. At the same time, however, neoclassical solo duels between the keyboard and guitar are still present. The song Event Horizon shows that Matias can easily match Tolkki's ability to shred melodically and keep up with Jens's fast fingers.
Lauri Porra continues to amaze me. His contribution, Lifetime In A Moment, adds some haunting choir work, with some simple yet beautiful vocal melodies. A chugging guitar riff over a slow pounding drum rhythm gives this song such a beautiful, somber atmosphere. Although in live performances, Lauri tears the shit out of his bass when he solos, we see none of that in his songwriting, which is one reason I'm so impressed with his work. He has a very restrained, simplistic yet complex approach to songwriting, and the result is just a fascinating work of art. His bass work on this album is interesting, and the fact that it's actually audible is a big plus.
Jorg Michael's drumming is as it's always been, though it's not nearly as straightforward and predictable as in the past. Jens still uses the classic Stratovarius lead synth patch and harpsichord effects, but for the first time we finally hear a new synth lead in the lovely ballad Move the Mountain. Written again by Matias, but not nearly as cheesy as When Mountains Fall, Timo Kotipelto gives possibly his best performance on the album here with some wonderful lyrics and amazing melodies over minimal acoustic guitar and piano work. It gradually builds into a gorgeous, dreamlike synth solo by Jens with the new patch and steadily falls back into a simple piano interlude before ending with a chorus that can only be described as heartfelt and magical.
Concerning Timo Kotipelto, although many fans have been worried about his voice over the last few years, Elysium proves he still has a lot left to give. While he may not have the power or range of his younger self, he still has a hell of a voice. He proves he can still keep up with the band on tracks like Darkest Hours and Event Horizon, but I think where he really shines is on the slower songs like Fairness Justified, Lifetime In A Moment, and of course Move the Mountain. The only flaw in his performance would be the high notes in the end of the title track, where it sounds as if he's almost struggling to sustain them and could fool one into thinking it's autotuned due to his tendency to scoop the notes in falsetto.
But the title track is where it all comes together and Matias cements his place in the band. The 18 minute monster, written over a course of 8 months by the young star, is where the band shines. Three six-minute movements come together to create the song, each part with its own beautiful moments. Each member of the band shows off a great amount of talent and skill here, even the bass. Restrained yet powerful at times, fast yet elegant in others, it's a wonderful song with everything the band has to offer - soothing acoustic passages, double bass choruses, lightning fast keyboard-guitar solos, and soaring vocals from Kotipelto. What more could you want from the pioneers of this style of power metal?
Elysium took what Polaris did and polished it into a musical diamond. The ballads are better, the fast songs are more intense, and the sound is just gorgeous. The band sounds tighter than on Polaris and this album proves it. I urge anyone who was turned off by Polaris's sound to give Elysium a listen. It's a solid album with much more cohesive songwriting and amazing musical talent. In my opinion, Elysium is already a contender for 2011 album of the year, even in January. It'll take a lot to beat this one.