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Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of Stratovarius. The last 7-8 years for all involved within Stratovarius has very much been like a soap opera; with the central villain being Timo Tolkki. But unlike Stefano DiMera (I admit, I used to watch “Days of our Lives” when I was a young tack), Tolkki has left the picture for good, forming the unsuccessful Revolution Renaissance and now Symfonia. The turmoil has not gone unnoticed however, with bassist Jari Kainulainen leaving the band (joining Evergrey) and also frontman Timo Kotipelto and drummer Jorg Michael at one stage being fired from the band. Tolkki eventually stepped aside and the remaining members have continued on as Stratovarius (Tolkki signed over the rights to the name and back catalogue), and released the solid ‘Polaris’ back in 2009.
It was a different sounding Strato, with new members Matias Kupiainen (guitar) and Lauri Porra (bass) brought in to fill the gaps and contribute to the song-writing. Fans were somewhat happy with the output of the new album (expectations were probably much lower with all things considered) and in reality; the release was probably their most consistent since ‘Infinite’, back in 2000. Fast forward two years and Stratovarius are back with their 13th full-length release entitled ‘Elysium’. With some time for all the members to gel properly after ‘Polaris’, and the soap opera style antics now a few years behind them, most fans were expecting an album quite worthy of the name Stratovarius.
Knowing that Strato’s peak was achieved back in the mid to late 90’s, this new era of Stratovarius is not making a grab for 90’s glory. That was ruled out when ‘Polaris’ was released. The first big promising factor for Strato and ‘Elysium’ is that both Matias Kupiainen and Lauri Porra have firmly entrenched themselves into the band, both members writing the majority of the tracks with the help of Timo Kotipelto. Matias sounds right at home on the new album, delivering a knockout guitar performance containing groove, creative riffs, hooks and shredding. Of course the three veterans Kotipelto, Michael and Jens Johansson add their usual commendable performances, particularly Kotipelto who seems to have much more freedom than before and it really comes through well and clear in his vocals.
Stratovarius have maintained their epic feel from the previous disc, despite the majority of their tracks not being fast-paced. In this uncharted territory the band has drifted into, they certainly have done very well for themselves. The majority of the tracks are pretty much straight-forward in terms of song-writing, however with very effective and creative collaborations between the guitars and keyboards, not to mention the strong vocal arrangements; particularly during the typical Strato-style uplifting choruses.
The album opener “Darkest Hours” is quite simple yet catchy, but it is the chorus and the keys which stand out the most. There’s nothing over the top here, just effective and easy on the ears. The same can be said for other standout tracks on the album, including the intricate and bombastic “Fairness Justified” and the quicker “Under Flaming Skies”. There is a hint of old classic Strato on the track “The Game Never Ends”, with pummelling double bass drumming from Jorg Michael and brilliant guitar work from Kupiainen; the track is one of the best on the album and easily could have slotted right into any of Strato’s 90’s releases. “Lifetime in a Moment” is a slower song with a chugging driving beat, lead by Porra and Michael. Kotipelto’s voice on this track is outstanding, his emotional and melodic soaring vocals penning this one in as another top track.
The opus on this release is undoubtedly the album closer and title track, “Elysium”. Very grandiose and epic, clocking in at 18 minutes in length, it is the longest track Strato have done since “Elements” from the ‘Elements – Part 1’ album. It’s also one of the best Stratovarius tracks, period, where the entire 18 minutes (three sections of six minutes each) is filled with emotional vocals and excellent musicianship from all involved. It ranges from fast passages to acoustic parts, all intricate, soothing and elegant at the same time. It’s not a track where 4-5 minutes or so of it is wasted on an intro and/or an outro; in fact the vocals come in very quickly and continues on in grand and epic style til the final seconds tick down. It is with “Elysium” where the inspiration and exuberance really peaks for the entire album and the song is a spectacular way to complete the disc.
A return to form tag can be used here for this release. The members of Stratovarius have endured some hardships as of late, so to produce an album of the quality such as this one must be quite satisfying for them. The loss of Tolkki and his distracting erratic behaviour has done these guys a massive favour and it shows in what the band has been able to create together, as a collective group. Although ‘Elysium’ is not the best album the Finnish quintet have released, it is (in my opinion) an improvement over the tentative ‘Polaris’ and should persuade those old Strato fans to possibly rejoin the flock.
Originally reviewed for www.themetalforge.com