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Ever since the departure of long-standing guitarist and long-standing whackjob Timo Tolkki, Finnish metallers Stratovarius have been putting out more ambitious and darker works with each album. Their last album Elysium was really great, although it really didn’t differentiate much from the preceding Polaris. With Nemesis they’ve really stepped up to the plate and delivered probably their most ambitious album since the storied Episode - this is a work of prestige, with varied songwriting and influences.
The big theme on here seems to be reaching out and seizing power, a sort of “be all you can be” sentiment. This is an album about strength and finding new horizons. And the songwriting on here is similarly ambitious. Whereas the last album relied on simple, driving basslines, crystalline, repetitive melodies and big choruses, this one is much more dynamic, with every song bringing something new to the table, from diving progressive metal-isms in one song, to Pagan’s Mind-esque electronic passages in the next and big, epic riffs in another. This really doesn’t even sound like the same band as albums like Episode, because, frankly, it isn’t – the only remaining members from those days are Timo Koltipelto on vocals and Jens Johanssen on keyboards. New guy on the block Matias Kuipiainen has decided that this is his moment in the spotlight, as he has penned a bunch of these songs, and his guitarwork is more prominent than ever now – heavy, acrobatic and nimble work, with a rich ear for melodies. In fact, he’s pretty much eclipsed the rest of the band, songwriting-wise.
So really, this is a whole new, sleek Stratovarius; a sort of improved model of the old rusty one. Every song is heavy, loud and ambitious, and frankly, the downside to this whole thing is that there are too many different sounds between each song. The variety is nice, but the album kind of sounds like a cobble of single songs put together rather than a full album, without individual songs having anything to really do with one another.
But on the strengths of the songs alone, yeah, this is really well done. Opener “Abandon” is an all-guns-blazing speedster with triumphant choirs and cool lyrics to boot, a sort of ode to wandering the world, no strings attached. An awesome, kick-ass way to open the album. Pop single “Unbreakable” defies convention and introduces some pretty heavy-assed riffs at its climax, and the daunting “Stand My Ground” is one of their darkest songs yet. The blistering “Halcyon Days” with its electronic fluttering in the bridge and its bizarre chorus is probably the most original song on this thing, and it’s also got one of the stickiest, most addictive hooks on the whole album, too.
But really the centerpieces come after that, with “Fantasy” being the most uplifting song they’ve written in years – this is just a great tune, with some mesmeric synth hooks leading into a calm, soothing verse and a real firecracker of a chorus. For a long time in the early years of the previous decade, the Tolkki-led Stratovarius attempted songs like this through higher-pitched vocals and lyrics with more rainbows and eagles in them, but “Fantasy” is the genuine article when it comes to uplifting, high-spirit power metal. The key is in its simple presentation and soaring melodies – no extra fluff needed. This song is so good that it could cheer you up on any bad day, no matter what. A sort of definitive song as to what Stratovarius is all about.
“Out of the Fog,” with its staccato riffing and blitzkrieg-fueled high pitched chorus, is the most atypical Stratovarius song on here, as it sounds almost like a Dragonforce tune, minus the two minutes of insane soloing. But you get all the diving, weaving vocal lines and the intense tempo changes of that infamous band, only done up with a much more dramatic mood and textured vocal performance. This is a song about a soldier going off to war, and the epic lyrics really do a good job at setting the mood. Other tunes like the oppressive, mystical “Castles in the Air” and the epic “One Must Fall” rock out with cool vocal lines and big riffing, with the usual Stratovarius sense of wintry, opaque melodiousness. The title track is a complex tune with a slowly building verse that explodes into a great chorus – this song is standoffish, fiery and probably the one that will need the most time to grow on you, as it also isn’t a very typical Stratovarius tune. But it closes the album out on a really energized note that I always enjoy.
Overall Nemesis has stronger songs than Elysium, but it’s not as consistent thematically and doesn’t listen as a fluid whole as well, and so I’ll just rate them equally at the end of the day. This is a very, very well made album, and its only flaw is just how jarring it is when you listen to it all together, jumping around to so many different musical templates. I guess this is kind of a test-run for this brand new lineup, and they were really excited to get all these fresh ideas on the table, even at the cost of them all sounding good when put together. And I can respect that kind of creative zeal. With all of this ambition, all this epic scope, I think their next album will really be one to watch out for.