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This is something I didn't expect!
While I really liked Stratovarius' previous and more progressive output "Elysium", the band was going through quite hard times including many line-up changes and even after the split with the main songwriter and charismatic guitarist Timo Tolkki, the band had to face several problems. Let's say that with the exception of "Elysium", the band had released four rather bad albums in a row before and I was sceptical about their new output. Their drummer Jörg Michael had to fight cancer and had to be replaced by Alex Landenburg for several concerts. When he was finally back on bord, he soon decided to call it quits and the band had to integrate once again a new member in their line-up. The young Rolf Pilve was chosen as new drummer and he does a quite good job on this first album he recorded with the Finnish power metal veterans without taking too much space.
What really surprised me is not the fact that the band managed to release a very strong record only two years after their last output. It's not the fact that the new band member was nearly perfectly integrated in a quite short time. It's not that this record sounds as if all these problems wouldn't have never had any significiant impact on Stratovarius at all. It's rather the fact that the band moved away from its softer and more progressive sounds and created an energizing and truly metal orientated record with gripping riffs, glorious choruses and loads of fresh ideas. In fact, the band pulls off its greatest record since "Visions" and even beats this power metal milestone. I would go as far to say that this record is clearly the band's second best release ever after the unbeatable "Dreamspace".
I was looking for filler material on this record but there isn't any. Instead, the band kicks of with one of their hardest songs ever which is the energizing "Abandon" that immediately grabs your attention. The sound is crystal clear, the atmosphere is dark, epic and heavy, the riffs are surprisingly fast and brutal and Timo Kotipelto delivers one of his best and most varied vocal performances. Majestic choirs add a truly epic touch to this stunning opener. The guitar solos are fast, melodic and have guts. I would say that this is the best opener the band has ever written to date as it really takes no prisoners and impressed me right from the start.
What follows next is the first single "Unbreakable" which is at least the best single since the famous "Hunting High And Low" thirteen years ago or "S.O.S." fifteen years ago. The song has warm but modern keyboard sounds but also energizing riffs and a catchy main melody as well as a chorus you won't forget anytime soon. This energizing song is an immediate classic and an inevitable live hymn for the concerts to come. While European power metal has been going through rather hard times in the last seven or eight years, this new year 2013 seems to mark a definite return to form for many bands. Together with Helloween's "Nabatea", Stratovarius probably put out the best single of that genre in one decade with "Unbreakable", maybe since Edguy's "King Of Fools" EP back in early 2004.
The great thing is that the band continues on such a high level. "Stand My Ground" starts with an almost industrial feeling and is another very metal orientated track with dark riffs and an almost cinematic atmosphere. The song is fast and anybody who still thinks Stratovarius can only be a soft flower metal band is proven wrong with this song. The more laid back chorus crowns this track with an epic and majestic feeling without sounding too cheesy or predictable. Great melodic guitar solos, a vividly pumping bass guitar and many original keyboard patterns make this song very diversified but it doesn't sound too overloaded to my positive surprise. This song has an almost sacral feeling and is another instant classic.
"Halycon Days" has once again a cinematic touch and is a quite dark and hard track. It's still surprising to hear this kind of music from Stratovarius but at this point anything seems to be possible. The track has atmospheric and almost melancholic verses while the fast paced chorus is incredibly positive and light-hearted. Timo Kotipelto sings like a young god once again. Guess what, this is another killer song.
The rest of the songs vary between very well done tracks and more than just solid anthems even though the first four songs remain my favourite ones. The band manages to mix light-hearted keyboard sounds with surprisingly heavy and sometimes almost thrash metal orientated riffs and epic choruses where the singer does the best work of his entire career so far. From slightly commcercial potential single hits such as the eighties' metal or rock anthem "Fantasy" over classic European power metal anthems that could have also hit the charts fifteen years ago like "Dragons" up to well executed and not too cheesy half ballads as "If The Story Is Over", the band offers anything a fan expects, anything a critical mind needs to get convinced and anything to surprise even those who have remained sceptical towards this band.
This is probably the best European power metal record in years. If you only care a little bit for this genre, than you have no choice but buying this gem. Stratovarius are back and this year finally seems to be a good year for power metal music.