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I wasn't sure what to think of this going in. Having a "more modern" sound didn't sound like something Stratovarius had tried before, and the darker sounding songs they promised were certainly a departure from the lighthearted Polaris and reasonably positive Elysium. On the other hand, the band seemed to be growing closer together and was still showing signs of doing so, even with new drummer Rolf Pilve.
Before I heard this album, my favorite two were definitely Episode and Elements Pt. 1. Imagine my surprise when I found out that this album managed to put those two albums together, and then throw in a confident synergy we haven't heard from these guys in nearly 20 years. Along with the promised darker and more modern sounding music.
The later tracks in the album seem to contain loads of inspiration from previous works (especially Porra's and Johannsson's contributions) as well as calling back to the Tolkki era. "Fantasy" hearkens back to the catchy "Hunting High and Low" that almost feels like a guilty pleasure to listen to at times. "Dragons" has an atmosphere that exemplifies the high points of the self-titled Stratovarius album - the powerful drumming a la "Zenith of Power", the edgy guitar (and keyboard) of "Fight!!!", and the choral appeal of "United". The sole ballad, "If the Story is Over", seems to straddle the line between the previous Elysium album, and the lighter works on Infinite.
It's not to say that the whole album is a rehash of the Tolkki era or unoriginal - Matias carefully adds his progressive flair to most of the album, making it interesting and new but still with elements of the same old memorable Stratovarius sound. He's found the middle ground where he's confident enough to deliver his best (which was the missing factor of Polaris), but not overbearing to the point where the other four (three? if you don't count Pilve's drum lines) have barely a say in the content (which was the missing factor of Elements Pt. 2 and Stratovarius). Along with his contributions as the main composer of this album comes the synergy and spirit of this album, as everyone is happy where they are.
Lauri Porra comes back with another one of his seize-the-day songs and delivers "Fantasy", a song that simultaneously features some straightforward rock and lyrics that could make the soundtrack for Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Not one of the high points for me at first, but it definitely grew, and it was a welcome contrast from the first four edgy, progressive tracks of this album.
Jens is back to doing heavy mithril with "Castles in the AIr" and "Dragons". Although technically they have all the same elements as Matias's works, there's a noticeable difference reflecting their different backgrounds - Matias is from a grindcore band and some of his riffs and solos reflect this, while Jens is more keyboard-laden and the intro to "Dragons" has a hint of Jens's previous jazz-fusion solo albums.
Jani also shines on this album, working with Timo Kotipelto to deliver another strong heavy mithril song to this album in "Out of the Fog", as well as possibly the most eloquent and beautiful Stratovarius ballad to date, "If the Story is Over". Both reflect an almost symphonic quality to them that calls to Elements Pt. 1 and its heavily progressive orchestration, especially in the ballad.
Overall, this album succeeds because while it takes the best of Stratovarius before it, it doesn't actually compete with any album or strive to be better. There's no song above seven minutes on this album. There's no Elysium, Elements or Emancipation. It doesn't attempt to outmatch Episode or Destiny, it simply alludes to both of these albums and their styles, and continues with its own Nemesis atmosphere. All of this balance between old and new, balance between all of the different potential playstyles, while still bringing in a new offering to the table is what perfects this album.
Stratovarius is still on their way up, but it'll be hard to beat the bar they've set for themselves here. Then again, people said that about Episode before, and the band has managed to eclipse that album. Until then, Nemesis is and will be a must-have.