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Now we all know about Stratovarius's problems in the past few years so I won't go into it. But I will talk about some of the problems I had with Tolkki's style. Tolkki played it way too safe, and while he enjoys fast paced metal mixed with slower progressive/ neoclassical stuff just as much as the next symphonic metal guy he just wasn't that good at it. He is decent, better than other bands and especially improving in the symphonic element in the Infinity - Elements era. The album Stratovarius was a complete flop and in my opinion showed the end of Tolkki's creativeness and good song writing. At first I wasn't sure what to think of Stratovarius without Tolkki, I mean sure their last album (written by Tolkki) was terrible, but with him Stratovarius had written some of my favorite metal material of all time. Fortunately his replacement is not only proficient, he's fricking insane! Matias Kupianen is one of the greatest guitar players of all time and he is a far superior guitar player and songwriter that Tolkki.
Now I know that this album plays it a little safe, but it his Matias's debut album with Stratovarius and I'm sure he just wanted to make sure it was good and well thought of, and it certainly is. The highlights of this album are: Deep Unknown, Winter Skies and Higher We Go. Deep Unknown is a fast paced yet progressive metal song that really shows off the new direction Stratovarius is heading in and I absolutely love it. Higher We Go is another fast paced metal song more in keeping with songs like Hunting High and Low. It's fast, fun and catchy and an instant hit with a really good chorus. Winter Skies is in my opinion Stratovarius's best ballad yet, it has a very cool feel to it with that new style present in this album and a really cool piano solo.
Now because it's a two part-er and probably what most people are going to notice first when looking on the back of the CD I am forced to mention the Emancipation Suite. I personally don't really dig these songs, the second one is better than the first, but in general these two are just boring. Very slow and methodical with no points of real interest. They're obviously supposed to be like the classic Mother Gaia, but they're just no where near as good. Blind on the other hand is a completely different story, the combination of baroque era neoclassical style mixed with metal is really cool and makes this song fun to listen too from start to finish with a really catchy chorus to boot.
So how is this band without it's songwriter that wrote every single album before this one? Better than ever before. Matias Kupianen is a true musical genius and I can't wait to hear Stratovarius's next releases and I hope that they are even better than this one.
I don't understand why most of the fans, magazines and webzines give enthusiastic reviews to this album at all. Did they listen to more profound and darker stuff like "Twilight time" or the classic European power metal rebirth with "Infinite"? The band sounded so diversified and fresh once and even the last studio album was somehow dark and heavy and had the famous certain something.
This album leads me to the conclusion that Timo Tolkki really was the heart and soul of the band. And with his departure, the style of Stratovarius changed. The new sound is so faceless and cheesy and the main problem is the guitar play in here, well - which guitar play? The guitars are completely overruled by the annoying keyboards which dominate each song. There is no single emotional guitar solo on the whole album with one single exception.
Ordinary and fast happy metal average songs like "Higher we go" or the darker and spacier "Deep unknown" figure out to be still two of the better songs, but those wouldn't even have made it to a b-side of "Twilight time" or "Infinite". No, the most terrible songs are those where the bands tries to be epic and intellectual. The songs are all very slow paced, overambitious, soft, undynamical and overloaded with cheesy keyboard sounds like the overlong "Emancipation suite". Songs like "King nothing" or "Somehow precious" are so lousy and weak that I had to skip them even at my first and very open-minded try to find an approach to this album.
There is one single good song which saves this album and this is "Winter skies" which makes you dream and fly away through a frosty winter world with its cold and still very positive and dreamy keyboard sounds, Kotipeltos amazingly emotional voice and the only intense but very short guitar solo on the whole album. This song has a certain magic and is really powerful. A part of the nice cover and booklet, this is the only positive point of the album and explains my thirty percent rating. The band is still able to write an excellent song but there is only one on the entire album and this is not enough. They should have released this little masterpiece called "Winter skies" as a single, but as they didn't do it, you are forced to listen to two or three average songs and a full load of boring crap - what a pity.
More than one year after I’ve listened to this album for the first time, I must say that this is the weakest album that this band has ever done and the worst metal record of the year 2009 which I have listened to.
After their 2005 self-titled release, the band really needed a release that would bring them back to life, and the only way to get it was with a big sacrifice- the departure of their former guitar hero, Timo Tolki. After dealing with tons of problems with the record label and their ex-guitarist, the band started recording this masterpiece.
'Polars' is an album with tons of variety in the music, since this time it wasn't composed by just one person, but by the whole band, including their 2 newest members, Matias Kupiainen and Lauri Porra. The reformed Stratovarius brings up loads of more symphonic and progressive material, like the single track 'Deep Unknown', as well as it contains some really heavy stuff, just as 'Higher we Go' or 'King of Nothing'
Johanson's keyboards play a big role in the whole album, be as it may backing up with some strings, making intros with the frecuently used harpsichord, or making one of his glorious appearances with solos, like the one in 'Falling Star'. His composing is important too, it includes some great songs like the lyrically judged 'King of Nothing'.
Their two new members, Kupiainen and Porra are not left behind. Kupiainen was the principal composer of the single track 'Deep Unknown' and colaborator on the heavy and famous 'Higher we Go'. Where his guitar playing is concerned, I have to say I prefer him over Tolki. Glorious sweeps and amazingly fast playing bring up lots of more emotion into the songs. Porra composed almost half album, most of the songs being in the last section that include the 'Emancipation Suites' and the nostalgic 'When Mountains Fall', which somehow remembers me to 'Coming Home'. His bass playing is not the best that I've heard, but he is quite talented. He shows off more life, to be honest.
Timo Kotipelto got his vocals as great as he could for the record, soaring vocals can be heard on the heaviest tracks of the album, and much more emotive on the ballads. He mainly composed the lyrics for the album, just as expected since he is the singer. Lyrical themes get just straight off great, interesting, and really reflexive.
Jorg Michael... I don't think there's much to say about him. Before the album I always thought he was one of the most talented drummers in power metal. But now... I think he is actually the best. With the comeback of the double bass drumming his abilities get just out of his body, putting all efforts into what he played.
After listening to the whole album, I must say this could be one of the best releases of Stratovarius along their history, and maybe the best release last year. I decided to have 89 as rating since I don't really like the 'Emancipation Suites' and 'Somehow Precious' the later because of the diminished chords used by Jens which somehow scare me. The whole album is good, entertaining, and, believe me, you will never become bored by it.
The past decade has been a tumultuous one for Finland's melodic power metal heroes, but it seems after all the drama the band has cleaned itself up like a drunk straight out the rehab doors. I've long been off the Strato-wagon, my interest climaxed during the Episode/Visions/Destiny era when the band was turning out their catchiest material. Since that time they've released only average albums with 1-2 good tracks each. Polaris, which was previously supposed to be the band's swansong (I believe they are continuing on after this), is certainly better than their previous self-titled effort in 2005, and decent overall, with a few weak tracks bringing up the rear.
"Deep Unknown" simmers with some Jens Johansson keys, quickly transforming into the type of song they usually lead off their albums with. Fast, melodic, hooky, yet never achieving anything more. It's one of the better tracks on Polaris, and followed up by another in "Falling Star", which trots at a mid-pace but features a poppy, catchy chorus. "King Nothing" really turns on the prog flavors with its lush synth-scape, again one of the best tracks due to some of Kotipelto's most interesting vocal melodies on the album. "Blind" is fairly rocking, I enjoy how the simplicity of verse (vocals over driving bass) and how the guitars kick in for the bridge, even though the chorus melody is pretty standard. "Winter Skies" is a forgettable ballad, "Forever is Today" somewhat indistinguishable from half the band's previous discography. "Higher We Go" is a decent Euro power metal anthem. "Somehow Precious" is somehow not, a drippy ballad I could do without. The two part "Emmancipation Suite" is hardly a pick me up, but when faced with what seems an endless stream of Strato-balladry...they go with another ballad, "When Mountains Fall", with a more folkish approach.
In other words, if you can stop the album after "Higher We Go", then you've been treated to some of the stronger material the band has composed in a decade. After that, it just feels like the mandatory radio friendly bullshit that has polluted so many of this band's prior works. They have always been formulaic and middle of the road in comparison to other power/prog metal bands because of their devotion to clean studio standards. For once I'd like to hear the band cut loose and go crazy. They are MORE than capable. From a musicianship standpoint, they still have the chops on Polaris. Guitar leads intermingle with keyboard wizardry and everything else is tight. I'm sure this is not the last we will hear from the Finns, and I hope with the infusion of new members they can create something inspiring, something out of control, and something relevant.
They say that in order to truly achieve greatness, you need to struggle, and often the depth of your struggle will reflect the depth of your accomplishment. I’m not sure who said that or if it actually ever was said, but it is basically true, and no more so than in the case of Stratovarius if one accounts for the past 8 years of decline and eventual downfall on their last failure of a groove rock album titled after themselves no less. With the subsequent loss of Timo Tolkki, the longest running member and essentially the band leader, the sense of struggle reached it’s climax, and it was then and there that their opportunity at a return to glory appeared in Matias Kuplainen a guitarist who had already come with a fair amount of experience in the progressive metal world. The result of all this has proven to be one of the greatest triumphs of any power metal band this year.
“Polaris” is essentially a rediscovery of the era of majestic and epic power metal heard between “Episode” and “Destiny”, given a further sense of newness by the flowing, heavily virtuosic guitar work of their newest member. Right from the opening of the album’s lead off song “Deep Unknown”, his free flowing and confident style not only replaces the void that was left by Tolkki’s exodus, but actually surpasses it at every turn. There are a large amount of great influences in Matias’ playing, from Ygnwie Malmsteen to Kai Hansen, but the most vital part of it all is the energy level, which only comes from a player who knows his instrument and is confident in a wide range of styles.
Though the newcomer guitarist is quite a headline in this news article of renewed vigor, this is definitely a collective success by all in congress. Special mention should also be given to bassist Lauri Porra, who understands the need to provide a solid bottom end rather than simply try to upstage the guitar like he’s Geezer Butler on crack. A really good example is heard on “Forever Is Today”, where the wild bass fills that Jari Kainulainen got addicted to on “Elements Pt. 1” are largely avoided in favor of putting some needed balls into the rhythm section. When combined with Jorg’s fast and steady beats, gives both Jens and Matias the freedom to move around and paint somewhat of a Dream Theater oriented aesthetic to what is otherwise fairly standard power metal.
However, the real power found here is in that fresh approach to songwriting that was on display in the 90s but largely forgotten in favor of softball ballads, oversaturated orchestral work and extremely stale and repetitive melodies. One would have to go all the way back about 12 years to find songs such as “Forever Free” or “Black Diamond” to find something of the same caliber as the high flying “Blind”, with triumphant melodies and plenty of blurring keyboard passages. Likewise, the band has rediscovered its good sense of how to write pounding mid-tempo rockers in “Falling Star” and “King Of Nothing”.
The number of certifiable classics contained within this well crafted opus are well above the occasional fits of greatness that would occur in between bits of filler on the last 3 or 4 albums. There’s a classic sing along song in the vain of “Hunting High And Low” with a lot more detailing and brilliance in “Higher We Go”. There is also a multifaceted progressive epic in 2 parts titled “Emancipation Suite” that shows the chops of every member. And to top it all off, at the end we are treated to a remembrance of a time when this band wrote great, all acoustic ballads in “When Mountains Fall”.
Redemption may be a really corny and cliché term to throw around, but it really does fit here. The vast level of change for the better between this and the 2005 self-titled failure of an album is so massive that it’s almost as if the band jumped back 10 years, before things started to go south with the release of “Infinite”, and drew upon the strength of their old sound as if they’d never left it. It is proof positive that in spite of how good he was, Timo Tolkki is not the lone factor in what made this band, and given his two meager by comparison offerings with his new project Revolution Renaissance, I’d say he needed these guys more than they needed him. If the older Stratovarius is what you go for, this is definitely of that musical persuasion.
Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on June 4, 2009.
Despite being a relatively big fan of power metal, I was never really able to get into Stratovarius. "Elements, pt. 1" was the first album of theirs that I purchased and while it had its moments, it ultimately proved to be a mediocre listen and was soon given away to a girlfriend of mine in high school (I wonder if she still has it...). What drew me to this release were the two years of drama before it and my questioning of how the band would measure up after the loss of guitarist/bandleader/basketcase Timo Tolkki. Needless to say, the result of that conflict was a very pleasant surprise indeed...
Even with the loss of their most prominent songwriter, the band still manages to sound a lot like they had before and prove their worth to carry on under the Stratovarius. The drums continue to go at that double bass heavy rhythm, the vocals are kept at a higher register with some uplifting layering thrown in during the choruses, Tolkki's replacement shreds like nobody's business, and the keyboards are still prominent and throw in a few symphonic touches here and there. What seems to set this album apart from its ancestors is a more self-restraining approach. The guitars may be upbeat and the vocals may be higher pitched but they don't go into that super-happy mode that the old band seemed to love so much on previous efforts. They also tone down the symphonic elements to some extent and keep the vocals from sounding too obnoxious.
The songs are also an interesting blend of old and new. There are the signature fast power metal tunes ("Deep Unknown," "Forever is Today," "Higher We Go"), upbeat potential singles ("Falling Star"), dramatic mid-tempo tunes ("King of Nothing"), and a few ballads here and there ("Winter Skies," "When Mountains Fall"). There is also a more progressive influence that seems to manifest in places such as the two-part "Emancipation Suite."
The lyrics on this album are also fairly interesting. While the lyrics do have their dark moments and have also shed a great deal of the "happy" influence, there is very little on here that directly references the conflict that was set up prior to the album's release. Sure you could find some metaphoric interpretations in songs such as "King of Nothing" and the "Emancipation Suite" (Just look at the title of the latter), they are generally cryptic written and leave room for plenty of meanings. To paraphase what keyboardist Jens Johansson said in an interview, it's better than the blatant references that Nightwish included in the lyrics of "Dark Passion Play...'
All in all, this album was another great surprise of 2009 and showcases a revitalized band with a great future ahead of them. It's also inspired me to look a little further into the older albums of the band's discography. Any suggestions?
1) The band proves that they deserve to keep going under the Stratovarius name
2) The songs are solid and packed with variety
3) The band shows some self-restraint and tones down the flaws that previously turned me off their sound
1) A few songs don't stand out as much as others
2) There are a few moments that seem derivative
My Current Favorites:
"Deep Unknown," "Falling Star," "King of Nothing," "Blind," and "Higher We Go"
As far as I am concerned, the long, sad story of the long, sad demise of Stratovarius is something that never needs to be recounted on the internet again. So by means of a preamble, I’ll say only that after Timo Tolkki’s decision to do a bunk from his bandmates (as well as all their enduring financial difficulties) in 2008 to form a new band around a CD written for his old one means that the remaining 4 members are in my opinion 100% justified in carrying on without the capricious guitarist.
Regardless of both this and the spotty output Stratovarius have been producing since the turn of the century that has no doubt lowered expectation levels, the musicians were undoubtedly gambling with their credibility in releasing ‘Polaris’ under such a well-regarded name. Firstly, they’d have to come up with a collection of music worthy of the 90s Stratovarius legacy (after all, who would really be judging this one against the now redundant self-titled from a few years back?), and the guitarist they brought in would also need to be no less than a maestro to succeed the unbalanced but doubtlessly superlative Tolkki.
When hearing the final product, the only question remaining however is “Crisis? What crisis?” A class act from top to bottom, ‘Polaris’ is without doubt the best and most consistent Stratovarius CD in 10 years, and in Matias Kupiainen they have found a musician of considerable talent. Rather than thrusting a newcomer into the role of main writer as well as guitarist, however, the songs have been carved up equally between the band (apart from Jörg Michael), with Kupiainen pairing up with Timo Kotipelto on each of his contributions.
What the departure of the main songwriter has brought to the table is a newfound diversity of style that has not been heard on a Stratovarius CD before. New-ish bassist Lauri Porra has written around half of the CD, with Jens Johansson and the Kotipelto/Kupiainen team penning 3 each. Each of the 3 camps seems to have decided to write the obligatory lightning-quick power metal song before moving on to attempting a few more experimental ideas that retain the band’s signature sound but push it in previously unheralded directions. It means that the CD sounds enough like the established Stratovarius style to merit the use of the name, but isn’t so close as to sound like pure imitation of Tolkki’s style of writing (and to give the departed veteran some credit, the 2nd CD from his Revolution Renaissance project is a rather brave step away from the expected power metal territory).
Opener “Deep unknown” can maybe be looked at as a statement of intent in 2 regards; the prog-tinted music written by Kupiainen (showing the faith the band have in their newest member) displays subtle tempo changes and brilliant guitar and keyboard arpeggios that both show off the talent of the new guy and also prelude the beefed up role Johansson is to play on the CD.
It makes for a bit of an off-kilter start to what is an overall slightly unbalanced CD with most of the fast songs in the middle and 4 slower tracks in a row at the conclusion, but despite this ‘Polaris’ makes for a resounding success, with the staleness that dogged Tolkki’s writing on the last few releases nowhere to be seen. Indeed, the fresh ideas the other band members have brought to the table makes it clear that if Tolkki had loosened his monopoly on the songwriting duties when he was starting to run out of ideas (probably around ‘Infinite’) then this CD would most likely be getting touted as a continuation of form rather than the remarkable comeback that it actually is.
Johansson has been granted a bit more freedom of movement than his customary role as secondary melody maker, and enjoys a new lease of life on a CD that probably has as many solos from the keyboard as it does the guitar. His songs – following one after the other from 3rd to 5th in the tracklist - are the most layered and thoughtfully constructed, and each exhibits a different style and approach. The dark, midtempo “King of nothing” is the most surprising, followed by the more expected but nonetheless spectacular galloper “Blind” and the gentle, reflective ballad “Winter skies”. Each song has several different sounds and styles of keyboard playing artfully crammed in, but are tastefully enough arranged that it doesn’t sound like a vanity project from a keyboard player who has finally been given free reign to show off.
Despite the powerful impact of Kupiainen, and Johansson’s inspired performances and emergence as a songwriter, the real star of the show must be Lauri Porra. For someone so relatively inexperienced in the band - as Tolkki has rather bitterly pointed out recently, his only previous contribution has been 2 tours - he has written some superb songs that fit seamlessly into the Stratologue (see what I did there?). His “Forever is today”, the best song on ‘Polaris’, is an immediate classic and could comfortably find a place on any of the band’s previous CDs, sounding strikingly similar to something Tolkki would have written at the very peak of his powers. Exploding into life straight from the opening riff, it races to its conclusion via a chorus that has the honour of Kotipleto’s best vocal performance in years and an inspired solo duel that Johansson probably edges with a classy, slowed-down neo-classical turn against Kupiainen’s shredding.
He is also the author of the 3 closing tracks, starting with the towering, 2-part ‘Emancipation suite’, which is that rarest of beasts – a slow Stratovarius epic that isn’t an insipid dirge. Building and progressing across its combined 11-minute running time, the songs shifts from a dark and foreboding atmosphere to one of despair, loss, but ultimately triumph, and it is credit to Porra’s talents that he has penned such a varied set of songs that all succeed in their own regard.
It takes something special to successfully finish a CD with 2 (or 3) ballad-type tracks in a row and “When mountains fall” most certainly fits the bill. Cello-assisted and drumless (and unless Porra is helping out with the acoustic guitars, the composer rather modestly doesn’t play on it either), it is from the same mould as the classic “Forever” from ‘Episode’. The song doesn’t quite scale the same heights as its illustrious forebear, but it nevertheless concludes ‘Polaris’ in quite beautiful, heartfelt fashion. Kotipelto is in fine form and the plucked guitars and stringed instruments create the perfect, tear-jerking atmosphere for the bittersweet lyrics.
The most important thing to say about ‘Polaris’ is just that it is a damn fine CD in its own right, regardless of the name on the front cover or the personnel involved in its recording. On the other hand though, it is impossible to ignore the difficulties Stratovarius MK III have gone through to record this, and the fact that it is their best CD since 'Destiny' is a real triumph over adversity. For a band who have been on a gradual decline for quite a while, ‘Polaris’ is the bold sound of them revitalised and back on top form, and should prove to be the CD most Stratovarius fans have been waiting on for a long time.
(Originally written for http://www.metalcdratings.com/)
Holy fuck, man, weren't these guys playing shitty groove rock or something the last time we heard from them? You wouldn't know it at all from this album! The loss of front-man Timo Tolkki proved to be the perfect antidote for the growing musical cancer upon Stratovarius' collective minds, as Polaris is just a super-solid album in all respects, the sound of a completely rejuvenated, reborn band. Armed with a new guitarist in Fist in Fetus axeman Matias Kuplainen, the band seems ready to take on the world once again with a sound that is both old and new.
The songwriting on here is very good on all fronts, with input from every band member rather than just that fucking hack Tolkki. Gee, isn't that an innovative idea? A band working together to craft albums instead of just letting one asshole do all the work? It's positively inconceivable! These songs are all energetic, dynamic and completely electrified with the old school Stratospirit, except now it seems like they have a bit more breadth with which to work, without the increasingly stagnant and lifeless guitar playing and production from Tolkki to bog them down. They all sound lively, kicking like a newborn child fresh out of the womb, with pristine melodies and smooth, sticky hooks to match. Folks, this is Power Metal played like it should be, and with the collective input from all of the band members, this album sounds like it came straight from the heart.
There is really no flat-out bad song on this album, with even the weaker ones still being quite endearing and entertaining to listen to. "Deep Unknown" is a great opener, with its huge chorus and diving musical accomplishments, and it's followed up with some highly progressive tracks from this bunch in "Falling Star," which is midpaced and more atmospheric than most Stratovarius songs, and "King of Nothing," which is a frigid, almost industrially tinged track with Koltipelto's clear wails breaking the ice like a metallic sledghammer. "Blind" is more traditional, with a great hook (although the acoustic intro part is very interesting for them, sounding like something off a Viking metal album before it explodes into the speedy guitars), and "Winter Skies" is my pick for best on here, with its soaring chorus and absolutely heartbreaking melodies - maybe the best song they've ever done.
"Forever is Today" and "Higher We Go" are fast, happy and catchy numbers that won't fail to please in the least, and then "Somehow Precious" is a ballad that doesn't stick out too much, but certainly doesn't offend at all. The "Emancipation" suite starts off a bit iffy, sounding a little close to "Babylon" off of the Episode album, but by the second part, you will be as entranced by it as I was. "When Mountains Fall" is another ballad, closing the album in a more moody, mellow way than you would expect, sounding sort of like "Forever," but still possessing its own flavor. Very sweet little song. The lyrics on here, from what I can discern, have completely ditched the whole sunshine n' rainbows thing the last few albums had going on in favor of a more storytelling approach, with some morals and motivational twists for good measure.
Overall, Polaris is a worthwhile experience, sounding like both a brand new band and a triumphant return in the same powerful stroke. I don't think this album is quite the best we'll get from this new lineup, though, as it does sound a bit like the band was just testing the waters and trying out their new sound. Me, I think the best is to come, with the band's next album having the potential to really revolutionize the Power Metal scene in a way it much needs, but really, this is good enough for now. With every single note sounding totally revitalized, completely wholesome and always like the band is thanking God that Timo Tolkki is gone, Polaris is a worthy purchase that you should not miss if you like Power Metal at all.
Originally written for http://www.metalcrypt.com