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It really is a shame that the past few Stratovarius albums have been mostly disposable garbage. By now, everybody knows the controversial history behind this band. Now that Tolkki is out of the picture and no longer writing 99% of the music, we get a real taste of what the remaining members of the band can create under the Stratovarius name. Believe me, it blows away anything Tolkki has written in a long time. Not since Destiny, which was released eleven years ago, has Stratovarius been this good, and I just might put it above that.
What we have here is a completely revitalized band with a whole lot of energy. Since Tolkki wrote basically all of music and lyrics since Stratovarius's first album, there is undeniably a change in both aspects of the band since he left. We see Timo Kotipelto, Jens Johansson, Lauri Porra, and the new star of the show Matias Kupiainen showing off their fine songwriting abilities equally (Jorg is not credited as a songwriter for any of the tracks, but that's not to say he hasn't made some excellent drumming on this album). Tolkki's lyrics were very spiritual and optimistic, and while the lyrics aren't a drastic change from that, something about them is fresh and interesting. The songs themselves stay true to what you'd expect from Stratovarius - interesting keyboard melodies, classic ballads (Winter Skies screams old-school Stratovarius and When Mountains Fall is possibly better than Forever), a return to high-register singing (Deep Unknown, Higher W Go), and the obligatory happy, lightning fast power metal tunes (Forever Is Today and Blind).
On Stratovarius's self-titled album, Timo Kotipelto stayed far away from his trademark high-pitched vocals. Thankfully he has returned to his classic range and it's as good as it's ever been. He is forty years old and can still hit high notes very well without garbling the words. Even through his thick Finnish accent, you can clearly understand the words. There's something oddly catchy about his voice - he's one of the biggest parts of the band that makes Stratovarius what it is. On Polaris he displays some great lyric writing, such as in the ballad Somehow Precious: "All the bad things that I said will not leave me be / Once again I'm all alone in my bed" is a chilling line and just makes the following chorus so much stronger.
Jens Johansson is very prominent in the album. Just as Timo Kotipelto's vocals were quite restrained on the self-titled album, Jens's presence was much less than it should have been. He's back with a vengeance on Polaris and shows it - the first two songs start off with catchy, filtered keyboard melodies, Blind and King of Nothing have a strong keyboard presence, and When Mountains Fall is mostly just him. His presence and solos are just as strong as his work on older Stratovarius albums without overpowering the other musicians.
Just like all the other members, Jorg's drumming is at the top of his game. A much-needed return to double bass drumming from the last album amps up the music and the drumming to the chorus of King of Nothing has been stuck in my head for a while now. He doesn't overpower anybody and knows how to create a great fill to lead into an awesome chorus or solo.
Lauri Porra is one of the two people that really shocked me on Polaris. You can actually hear his bass in the songs, but what really got me was that he wrote five of the best songs on the album (Forever Is Today, Falling Star, When Mountains Fall, and the Emancipation Suites). Outside of the other songs that scream old-school Stratovarius, the Emancipation Suites really make Lauri shine. Part 1 is a powerful romp that builds and builds all the way to the end, but Part 2 is my favorite. With an amazing, gentle guitar in the beginning, the vocals come in softly and just make everything sound beautiful. The only drawback is that it's a short song and the singing ends early - if this thing went on for another three minutes, it would be perfect.
The real star of the album is the new recruit, Matias Kupiainen. Taking the position once held by one of the most popular and famous guitarists in this genre was no easy task, but he easily fits the position. His tone fits the Stratovarius sound perfectly and with his superb speed and clean picking, it's no wonder why he was chosen. His solos rival Tolkki's best (his solo in Winter Skies is wonderful) and he never disappoints - the speedy guitar in Blind and Forever Is Today grabs you by the balls and really gets you into the music. Stratovarius made an excellent move in hiring this guy.
I can't help but think that some of the songs are references to Tolkki and the struggles that the band went through - despite the fantasy-themed lyrics, King of Nothing seems to fit the bill wonderfully. That's not a bad thing at all - Nightwish did it, and they did it well, so why not Stratovarius? I could be wrong, but you never know. Winter Skies and When Mountains Fall are both nods to older Stratovarius ballads and Forever Is Today and Blind are very much reminiscent of Father Time, but more mature. The remaining songs show us the direction Stratovarius seems to be taking, which is slightly progressive yet still very melodic, fast, and above all, catchy.
Tolkki's departure is very much what Stratovarius needed. I was afraid that if this album was a disappointment, there would be no hope for the band. To all the naysayers who disagree with Tolkki's departure or believe that Stratovarius is no longer 'truly' Stratovarius, you're wrong. They're stronger than they've been since Destiny or even Visions. This album has everything you want from this legendary band and more, and it's a very good comeback. There really aren't any annoying or boring songs that you will want to skip, but I do believe that maybe the Emancipation Suites could have been sewn together into one track and the harpsichord intro to Blind is kind of an odd thing to have. This puts everything Tolkki has done in recent years (Stratovarius material, Revolution Renaissance, that god awful Saana drivel) to shame. Stratovarius have come back stronger than ever, and Polaris is certainly worth your time and money.