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A Great Return - 85%

Twisted_Psychology, July 8th, 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?

Pros:
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

Cons:
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"