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There is a very prevalent, and most likely unintentionally so, formula to the so-called pivotal albums the define the most influential figures in the development of European power metal. Be it the massive changeover that occurred with the merger of Helloween with Michael Kiske, which resulted in a very different and ultimately cleaner and more mainstream friendly sound, or other similar advents such as the Kai Hansen taking over the reigns in Gamma Ray and taking said band in the opposite direction, or even states side with the introduction of Matt Barlow to the Iced Earth brand or Kamelot importing Kahn‘s services from faraway Norway. When approaching albums such as “Keepers I”, “Burnt Offerings, “Siege Perilous” and “Land Of The Free”, it is a good idea to keep in mind where the band was before the introduction of the new singer, and also how often the new singer will be the only really sizable divergence from the older sound.
Such is the story of Stratovarius’ “Fourth Dimension”, an album that introduces us to the dynamic and high end vocal gymnastics of Timo Kotipelto, yet otherwise is more of a reassertion of the older sound heard on “Twilight Time” and “Dreamspace”. The real essence of what is considered the stereotypical Stratovarius sound did not really emerge until “Episode” with the Jens Johansson and Jorg Michael, both of who are much more prone towards battling Tolkki’s guitars for prominence rather than being content to play support for them and the vocals. In essence, this is an album where the tracks listen more like the works of a songwriter rather than a composer, though one shouldn’t be too quick to gloss over an obvious homage to Malmsteen’s brand of shred happy instrumental work as heard on the band’s title song “Stratovarius”.
The breakdown of this album is notably conventional by 80s standards, and equally informed by the slower, darker sounds of Accept and Ozzy Osbourne as they are by the quick and triumphant speed metal of Helloween. Of particular note is the deep and mystical “Winter”, listening like an ultra-atmospheric answer to Ozzy’s “Diary Of A Madman”, and showcasing a younger Timo Tolkki who was still playing melodically, but wasn’t quite as boxed in to a formulaic structure as came to be the case with after “Destiny”. The other ballad “Nightfall” comes a bit more into a vintage 80s leather toting style of ballad in the mode of Accept circa “Metal Heart”, and particularly shines during the somber and looming chorus. Nevertheless, when hearing the fast moving speeders the occupy the first two tracks on this album, a reminder of “Keepers” era Helloween gone keyboard happy ala “Hands Of Time” meshed with the harder edged character of “We Are The Future” comes about.
There are a few subtle hints at Stratovarius’ coming conventional sound littered on a few choice songs here. “We Hold The Key” takes on many of the attributes of a typical Timo Tolkki epic mid tempo song with a pacing very similar to “Soul Of A Vagabond” and “Infinite”, yet with the youthful freshness and energy of an early to mid 80s “Heaven And Hell” homage. The principle keyboard theme is a dead giveaway of an emerging anthem-based approach to longer songs that has since been rendered cliché by Tolkki himself over the past 16 years. At the same time, the faster and flashier meshing of lead guitar and baroque harpsichord sounds that tends to embody a number of later Stratovarius cookers also makes an appearance in “Lord Of The Wasteland”, all but signally the eventual arrival of both “Black Diamond” and “Legions”.
What truly makes this album unique from the rest of this band’s catalog is how curiously the older and oncoming newer ideas merge together. My favorite song on here, and perhaps the only truly overt throwback to the 80s era that this band came out of is “Galaxies”. This song was one of two that originally introduced me to the band (the other was “Hands Of Time”) and it was enticing primarily because of its shameless similarities to Malmsteen and Europe, two outfits that I had been immersed in since my teens after coming off of my grunge craze. The principle keyboard line is very cliché and in your face, but the song is just way too catchy to pass up. By contrast, the album takes a bit of a nosedive in what can only be described as an odd attempt at meshing proto-industrial influences with traditional heavy metal in “030366”. The song is hyper-repetitive to the point of sheer hypnosis, and much of the song almost sounds like its rhythmically in Morse Code.
While a bit muddled stylistically at times, this is an album that is equally as worthy of consumption by fans of Stratovarius as their more renowned albums from the later 90s. An appreciation of the albums where Timo Tolkki was pulling lead vocal duties is all but an absolutely prerequisite however, as the songwriting is definitely still well within the 80s heavy metal paradigm and hasn’t fully materialized into the neo-classical machine that was apparent with Jens tearing up the ivories. The two eras are compatible for most, but perhaps not for all, and its easy to see why some who like “Episode” and “Visions” might not regard this as highly, in much the same respect that many fans of Barlow era Iced Earth might not regard the older, more riff happy “Burnt Offerings” to their more popular offerings.
When I first listened to this album after the courageous, diversified and simply brilliant "Dreamspace", I felt highly disappointed about this record. Instead of Tolkki, an ordinary power metal singer with a clear and high pitched voice performed here. The exotic elements had mostly been taken away to be replaced by usual European power metal riffs with a slightly epic touch. The magic and atmosphere of the previous album wasn't present on this record. I really took me some time to accept this album and find an approach to it but when it finally worked, I really began to appreciate it.
But from a general point of view without comparing the record to the brilliant "Dreamspace", this album is still one of the better ones in the band's discography. Most of the songs have a very epic touch and invite to dream and relax by listening to this record. With the rather ordinary power metal songs "Against the wind" and "Distant skies", the album has a rather weak opening, but the second half of the album is eventually really good. The first enjoyable song is the atmospheric" Galaxies" that has some very charismatic keyboard sounds that have been copied by Edguy for their "Vain glory opera" album. The ethereal "Winter" also has a very strong and epic introduction that creates an interesting atmosphere. In fact, the mostly silent, atmospheric and sometimes folk orientated intros are one of the strongest points of the entire record. The album gets better and better with each new song.
The album eventually develops a quite unique and epic atmosphere and is very powerful in its calmer moments and overlong tracks such as “Nightfall” and isn't the usual average European power metal album that I was afraid to discover after the first two songs. The album is different from the previous stuff because it is lighter and very dreamy and one discovers a completely new style of the band. Maybe it was finally the good decision to move away from the previous record because the band simply couldn't have realized a better effort in that direction.
Beside this fact, there is still one big surprise on the album that has slightly reminiscences to the previous record. "030366" is a truly unique and weird masterpiece of a song with many electronically elements, weird vocal effects and a dominating and pounding bass guitar. This song is a welcome change of style and still fits to the album because of its epic structure but doesn't sound like anything I have ever heard before. It's without a doubt the best and most original song on this record in my opinion and shows that the band's courage and creativity hasn't passed by entirely. They decided to head for a new direction but they didn't entirely forget about their past.
That's why this album is finally one of the better ones in the band's discography. If you like soft and epic power metal, you will adore this album. If you are looking for traditional up tempo and kitsch power metal, you will adore the first two songs. If you are looking for innovating and progressive parts, you should listen to "030366". If you are somewhat annoyed by the stereotypical voice of the new singer, there is an excellent instrumental called "Stratovarius" on the record which would be worth a try. In the end, this album doesn't entirely satisfy any one, but may partially please to any kind of listener.
Believe it or not, but there was actually a time when Stratovarius did not either completely blow ass, or steal every little single idea from somewhere in their back catalogue. At this point in their career, Stratovarius is still a young and progressing band, and by that I mean that they are still evolving musically between albums as opposed to being stuck in a rut as will be the case in the future. Also, this album marks the arrival of the excellent Timo Kotipelto on vocals and is therefore regarded as a career milestone for them. As I do not own the releases with Tolkii on vocals, I won't be reviewing those (at least not in the near future) and instead do every full-length studio output with Kotipelto on vocals.
In case you're only familiar with Stratovarius of recent times, this album can be described as a younger and "rawer" version of that, as the production and musicianship aren't quite as strong as what will be later (most notably due to drummer Toumo Lassila, being not really bad at all, just a little weak in comparison to the godly Jörg Michael who will be with us the following year), but that certainly does not add up to a generally weaker album - for one, there is notably more substance to the riffage here than that of the keyboard-symphony wankfest of 'Elements Pt.I'. Otherwise, this isn't ALL too far removed from later outputs, as the unmistakable heavy guitar tone of Timo Tolkii is there alright and so is also a good deal of the band's style that they're known for today. Sort of a Helloween power/speed metal sound mixed with the neo-classical, semi-progressive leanings of Yngwie Malmsteen leading to what will later be known as "the Finnish sound", something Stratovarius can arguably be held solely responsible for.
Making this disc differ *musically* from later outputs is its considerable amount of Queensrÿche influence - a handful of songs later on in their catalogue carries it too ("Kiss of Judas", "Dreamweaver", etc.), but it's much more frequent and overt on this album. It can be argued that the Keeper albums (another obvious influence on this band) carried heavy influence from the Queensrÿche EP, but in this album we see more of a 'Warning'/'Rage for Order' influence more than anything else, with more melody, prog and intricacy rather than the EP's balls-out, energetic speed metal approach to things. This is evident in this album being less lenient on speed metal of the variety that most of us know Stratovarius by; really only three songs here are in the style of "Black Diamond" & co. Hell, even the production reminds more of 'Operation: Mindcrime' than anything else, mostly in the echoic, "metallic" (literally) guitar distortion and that distinctly odd mix of the drums.
To the songs, then...the epic and mid-paced "We Hold the Key" is the best song on here. It borrows that amazing build up effect seen in Qr's "Take Hold of the Flame" - from light acoustic part, with low-key vocals and no drums to suddenly BOOM ("Now I see...") - drums, over-the-top vocals and heavy guitar riff descends. Maybe not QUITE as effective as "Take hold...AAAAAAHHH!", but be so sure that very little is. Also, that song doesn't have that awesome majestic low horns intro section - little bit cheesy due to keyboards sounding more than a little cheap, but still effective; it works. Gawd, I swear there is a pinch - just a pinch - of Crimson Glory thrown in a little here and there on the album too; it's mostly detectable in those lighter parts, being extremely solid and atmospheric in the same way as that band. In this song even the verse riff is of CG's style, with its "slow gallop" and heavy use of harmonics. Now when I think of it, the structure and general melody of this song is actually somewhat comparable to the song "Lonely" on 'Transcendence'...for example, the "Lonely in love..." vocal bit just as that song really kicks in compared to the "Now I see..." thingie when the Stratovarius song does the same. This stuff is VERY far removed from anything we will see from this band in the future, and since they're doing this particular style so well, it is actually rather interesting to hear.
Also different by today's Stratovarius standards is the semi-balladic "Galaxies", and this is in fact really damn cool as well, and catchy. The verse is just total fun with the bass following the simple "pop" 1-2 beat with single note slapping (think the middle section of Accept's "Living for Tonite", but without all the moaning), and the chorus is so happy I swear it sounds like ABBA or maybe Blondie or some other 70's/80's disco/pop artist I can't quite put my finger on and features an absurdly cool galloping bass line. It may annoy you slightly if you're a strict metal fan (or just not a fan of that side of pop), but I personally rank it among the top tracks on here. On a sidenote, the intro is TOTALLY that of Edguy's "Vain Glory Opera", but that song is '98 and this is '95 - it's so incredibly damn similar that I do suspect Edguy actually ripping off this band.
As for songs that DO resemble the present day Strato sound, opener "Against the Wind" is the most notable one, featuring an extremely Jens Johansson-sounding fast keyboard solo (he won't actually join until the next album) - though surprisingly, it is hardly among the album's real top highlights. The opening riff is just excellent; pure speed metal bliss, but the rest is just a bit...sub-par. I'm probably comparing it too much to later works, I know, but nonetheless the vocal lines are just kinda lame in the verse and the drums are very badly off in sound, the hi-hat in particular. Second track "Distant Skies" is more constant double-bass mashing and is in a similar vein, but much better - the chorus is perfectly soaring and truly displays Kotipelto's vocal talents, even though he hasn't really found his niche yet on this album. "Lord of the Wasteland" is more familiarly fast stuff and even has the typical Stratovarius trait of Kotipelto repeating the song title for us right after the chorus, just when the main riff comes back. Nothing special that would normally be worth noting in a song, it's just that Stratovarius has ridden this trick, along with many, MANY other ones right into the ground by now (the very goddamn problem with this band, right there), so I thought it would be of interest of pointing out for that reason.
Other highlights: "Stratovarius"; an insanely damn cool instrumental shifting nicely from regular speedy fare with Timo shreddin' it up Yngwie style, to a short little silly "choir" interlude in the middle before the heavy guitars slowly come creeping back in...leading up to an eeeevil bassline (or is that a piano?) with a guitar+choir effect beautifully layered on top - the atmosphere is truly stunning here; must be heard to be believed. I also love that little keyboard intro - I keep picturing this cute little ghost hovering around in the air every time I listen to it, dunno why exactly. "Nightfall" is more stuff in the Queensrÿche/Crimson Glory vein - the lighter parts here really bring that second band to mind, being slow yet not quite balladic in nature; "atmospheric" seems like a much more fitting word. The best part is the mega-soaring and *soothing* chorus with Koti showing off his lower register quite well - it has a perfect "nightly" mood to fit the title properly. "Twilight Symphony" is another not so typical track for Stratovarius like so many other tracks on here are like - but offered is nonetheless more epic solidity, very excellent vocal work and a particularly nifty, swift keyboard main riff, first popping up at 0.36. Stupid little full-stop violin break or whatever at 3.02 and a little dragged out towards the end as well, but I can manage. Outro piece "Call of the Wilderness" ain't bad either, but is sort of a waste and would've done better serving as an intro/outro to an actual song, preferably something epic.
Weak songs: "Winter" is a ballad and definitely above the norm for Stratovarius ballads, but still just a bit boring and dragged out at six and a half minutes. Finally, "030366", which is actually the most overtly 'ryche-esque track on the album. It's clearly trying to be the song "NM 156" or something off 'Rage for Order', due to having similar mechanical/robotic effects; however, here these effects just dominate far too much, to a degree that the song stops making any sort of sense musically. Really, really awful lyrics too. It's rather frustrating, because there IS actually good song material here - the intro has great interaction between rhythm and lead guitar and those vocal lines that come in after the silly verses ("Don't try to run...") are standard Kotipelto soaring ownage - but on the whole the song is a real fucking loser. Oh well, not to be taken too seriously I suppose.
This review has turned out a bit long, sure, but as this is in my opinion the most "notable" entry of the (ongoing) Kotipelto era, it naturally deserves more writing space than usual. Expect future Strato reviews done by me to turn out shorter. As there is only one real bloody loser of a track here, this album definitely ranks itself damn near the top, as future releases, discounting the directly following 'Episode', will have far worse struggles with the whole inconsistency problem. For now, they are ruling in a decent manner (cue UltraBoris, 'Epidemic of Violence' review, sorry, but I just love him for describing things in those really rare ways), and I also gotta give them a point for being historically totally indispensable for the current movement of power metal. Funny that both all of power metal and Stratovarius itself seemingly have fallen in similar ruts during the past five years or so...but that's all for later discussion.
Highly, highly recommended.
With the addition of Timo Kotipelto as their amazing vocalist, Stratovarius has become the Kings of Power Metal, and this fantastic album announces the beginning of their reign.
The fantastic Power Metal starts at the beginning and doesn't stop until the last note. The opening song, Against the Wind, is also the best one on here and is definitely a Stratovarius classic, sporting killer opening riffs moving into a steady 1-2 beat while Timo belts out some fantastic-sounding vocals including a truly inspirational chorus.
Next up is Distant Skies, which features fantastic original riffs and guitar playing in general and great vocals. Following this is Galaxies, which is a fantastic ballad with beautiful vocals by Kotipelto and great guitar riffs and keyboard playing. The next track is Winter, which is an epic ballad with soaring vocals and riffage and drum work calculated to kcik ass in a very epic sort of way.
The preceding paragraph describes three of the five styles of songs you will hear over and over again on Stratovarius albums. The fourth is the bouncier opener track which doesn't emphasize riffage or technical prowess as much as super catchy vocals and made-for-singalong choruses, traits that often make them the most popular and well-known Stratovarius albums. The fifth style is the raging instrumentals that, to be honest and frank, blow the shit out of Yngwie's stuff. Kill me if you must, but I think Timo Tolkki's guitar work far outclasses the self-titled Guitar Virtuoso.
I explain all this to you because this album marks the beginning of an amazing era for Stratovarius, and it helps if you know what's ahead. As for this album, the combination of great guitar work, strong keyboard and drum work and incredible vocals make for an excellent album that has no real weaknesses. Buy it, and get ready, because it gets eveb better from here on.
The transition from Timo Tolkki to Timo Koltipelto proved to be a wise choice. Tolkki rivals Yngwie in how he plays on this and all Stratovarius albums. They both have similar styles. Koltipelto easily proves why he is in the band in the opening track "Against the Wind". The very last verse of the song ends with a scream so high pitched, that i'm not sure if Michael Kiske or Geoff Tate could ever go that high. Songwriting on this album needs some improvement. Distant Skies has a great riff, but lacks compelling lyrics and 030366 seems like something that a teenage mallcore fan could make up in his sleep. One of the brightest spots of this album is the band named instrumental "Stratovarius". If you don't believe that Tolkki is even close to Yngwie, then check this song out! The album may have a few songs that you'll always skip, but its a pretty decent place to start your Stratovarius collection.