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Stratovarius - Polaris - 85%

Radagast, June 26th, 2009

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/)