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This was my first 2011 release and I must say I started off the year very well! Stratovarius have never been known for consistency, which a lot of people tend to peg on former band leader/guitarist Timo Tolkki, but since he's left the band they have found their own sound and very much delivered on their last album, Polaris. I think all of the Strato fans (me included) were more than happy with that release and worried about how the guys would be able to continue to hold the quality high this late into their career.
Well, wonder no more, Strato fans. Elysium is released on January 12, 2011, and it's even better than Polaris! The band's 13th studio album starts off with a couple very standard Strato tracks, one of which being the first single, Darkest Hours. It's a bit heavier than previous Strato singles, but it's still very straight-forward with a memorable chorus. It's no Hunting High And Low or Eagleheart, but it gets the job done and starts off the album right. The real punch in the nuts comes on track 3 with Infernal Maze. The old Strato returns with shades of modern progressive flourishes among the neo-classical soloing and it's downright amazing. If Rhapsody Of Fire rediscovered and reinvented themselves with Reign Of Terror last year, then Infernal Maze is that song for Stratovarius in 2011.
The sound of this album tends to range somewhere between Stratovarius' work on Destiny and the Elements albums; specifically Elements Part 1. There is a large focus on lyrical content and Timo Kotipelto's vocals, and it's especially evident in songs like Fairness Justified, Liftime In A Moment and Move The Mountain. This isn't the cheesy Strato you might be used to from the past decade or so, but instead it is a band who have been born again through adversity and are coming into their own once again. There's a lot of maturity in the songwriting, with ample prudence.
I'm especially fond of Jens Johansson's new place in the mix, providing more of a backdrop at times than being right up front. He plays the solos and leads where needed and not just because it's expected of him. Also, Timo Kotipelto's vocals sound even better than on the last album. He's never forcing the high notes and the recording quality is more like his solo work than anything he's done with Strato. Jorg puts in a solid performance on drums, as usual. Nothing flashy, but definitely spot-on and complimentary to the music. Lauri Porra is an excellent bassist and he gets a few moments to shine on this album, though his place in the music is very much overshadowed by the vocals and the guitars.
The guitars are the real surprise here. Matias Kupiainen definitely fills the shoes left by Timo Tolkki, and even improves upon the formula by adding his own style into the neo-classical mix. There's more of a musician's vibe to the recording and it lends a credibility the band has been missing since the old days on Dreamspace. No more neo-classical-for-the-sake-of-it sections are present, nor are there needless solos. The guitars (and keyboards) shine in that they've become a part of the band and not the diva instrument anymore.
However, the guitars and keyboards definitely do get their chances to show off some masturbatory prowess. Event Horizon is the fastest-paced, old-school Strato song of the album and it's easily another classic along the lines of Speed Of Light or Against The Wind. It's fast and neo-classical... and that's about it. Fans of the Visions/Episode era will definitely love this track and I can tell you it's something else to hear this sound come from Strato again. Check out this song if you wanna hear a blast from the past!
The countdown at the end of Event Horizon leads right into the final track and longest song of the album, Elysium. Weighing in at just over 18 minutes, this song is a journey which wraps up the album as a whole and makes me wonder if this whole thing is meant to be a loose concept. The direct link in album art to Polaris is interesting, but the way this album is edited together, especially the second half, leads one to believe that the songs are supposed to be played back-to-back. They all flow into each other and it's definitely interesting to wonder at the intentions of it all. You'd probably have to ask the band to be sure, but it definitely feels like it. Elysium is a beautiful song and embraces the new Strato sound completely with lots of progressive sections and atmosphere built around Kotipelto's powerful vocal sections. All of the instruments get a chance to shine and it closes the album very strongly.
Overall, I'd say this album is the best the band have done since Destiny. If Polaris was at the same quality as Infinite/Elements, then this definitely raised the bar higher. Stratovarius have made themselves a legitimate contributor to the power metal scene once again and reclaimed their throne as the best Finnish power metal band. A whole new generation of fans are going to come out of this new Strato and I'm glad to see/hear it. Great job, Strato and keep up the beautiful songwriting!