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The New Stratovarius Avoids the Sophomore Slump - 95%

Twisted_Psychology, December 7th, 2012

Originally published at http://suite101.com

I can honestly say that this is the first Stratovarius album that I’ve ever been excited for. I could never get into the material helmed by former guitarist Timo Tolkki and I only bought Polaris in 2009 to see how much damage it was going to cause. Of course, no such train-wreck ever took place and it was one of the strongest albums of that year, effectively serving as a new beginning and hinting at a bright future. Two years later, the band is still going at a steady momentum and has already put out their thirteenth studio album. But while this album was the first to top the charts in their native Finland in nearly a decade, it may also be their last with longtime drummer Jorg Michael, who is departing on a quite friendly note due to illness.

On a superficial basis, there are many tropes on here that align with the sounds of the last release and Stratovarius albums past. The keyboards and guitar constantly compete for supremacy, the vocals are high-pitched and thickly accented, a number of symphonic elements are employed, and the songwriting is almost always uplifting and enthusiastic. But while Polaris was a very direct affair with occasional nods to prog metal, Elysium does have a noticeably more progressive feel. Even the power metal tunes get some structural complexity with the opening “Darkest Hours” having a classic Dream Theater feel and “Infernal Maze” has a soft, elaborate introduction before it goes into faster paced fare. And that’s not going into the closing title track, which is the longest Stratovarius song to date with an over eighteen minute duration!

And with everything going on, the band members manage to sound pretty good though there aren’t too many dramatic deviations from their usual performances. The keyboards and vocals are among the more noteworthy contributors as Jens Johansson brings forth a variety of effects and Timo Kotipelto show off some smooth vocal lines that make up for his occasionally goofy phrasing. But the real standout member on here is guitarist Matias Kupiainen. While the guitars are the most important part of any power metal band and Polaris certainly had plenty of great guitar moments, he really comes out on his own here as both a songwriter and performer. The former is especially worth noting as he is responsible for writing more songs on here than on the previous effort, effectively making him out to be Tolkki's most fitting successor.

Going off that, there seem to be three kinds of songs at work on here. While the title track appears to be a song all its own and encompasses the rest of the album’s elements, the rest of the release seems to go between fast and mid-tempo songs. Predictably, the faster songs are the most immediate and arguably most enjoyable that the album has to offer. The previously mentioned “Darkest Hours” and “Infernal Maze” are enjoyable for their upbeat tempos and complexity, but “Under Flaming Skies” and “The Game Never Ends” are probably the most entertaining. The former is made memorable by its eastern touches while the latter is a sugary power metal run-through with a particularly memorable chorus that should make “Eagleheart” eat its heart out.

The slow songs also manage to be pretty solid. “Moment In A Lifetime” manages to be another highlight as it is a slow, dramatic track in the vein of “King Of Nothing.” In addition, the transitions on “Move the Mountain” work quite well and “Fairness Justified” seems to go between the two songs with its snail pace and uplifting chorus. As expected, the title track manages to be pretty noteworthy. While its extensive length makes it a song that I personally don’t play often, it does go through a bunch of sounds in its three-part cycle. The first part with its soaring mid-tempo melodies is probably the most memorable segment on here though the second part’s faster hooks are also quite welcome and the third part is another sweet ballad.

If Polaris was the reborn Stratovarius’ debut album, then Elysium is surely the sophomore release that thoroughly avoids the slumps that are normally associated with albums of that nature. I hate to say that Tolkki was holding them back all this time, but the success of these last two albums and the mixed feelings that have come with his own recent projects does make one think along those lines…

If you liked Polaris, then I would definitely advise you to give this album a chance if you haven’t already. I’m not sure if it’s quite as powerful but it is an enjoyable release that follows it up nicely and a lot to offer on its own terms. Hopefully this can work for a while longer; I think European power metal is starting to get its balls back!

Current Highlights:
“Under Flaming Skies”
“Infernal Maze”
“The Game Never Ends”
“Lifetime In A Moment”
“Move the Mountain”