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As OSheaman mentioned, this is *arguably* Strat's finest hour right here...arguably where everything comes together for the band and arguably where Timo Tolkii peaks as a songwriter and pens down his most memorable and cohesive set of songs yet. Here we see the band at the summit of their musical growth, putting the final pieces in place to make the image complete and taking an already original and developed sound and pushing it even further to reach new amazing heights of distinction, personality and recognizability (one ugly-ass motherfucker of a word right there, but I looked it up and it exists). This is, you could say, *THE* Stratovarius album of them all - the one most of us know their sound by; the one with the largest amount of widely regarded "classics" on it, as well as being a general favorite among hardcore fans.
The progression made from 'Episode' here is that there is less reliance on guitar riffs and thus more on melody. The keyboards have taken a bigger role in the band's sound and are now used for much more than just soloing and a few effects here and there; for example, "Black Diamond" has that baroque-styled harpsichord play we all know and love, and that is basically the main riff of the song. Not that the guitar riffs are totally gone or anything - they are still scattered about and when this album delivers them, usually they flat-out completely kick ass. Especially with this awesome new, improved and heavier guitar tone - perfectly meaty and crunchy, without being excessively distorted and therefore avoiding to sacrifice any of that precious melody we hold so dearly. As OSheaman also mentioned, this album marks where Stratovarius attained just the right chemistry between members, as well as just the right production; to this day, one that still holds and is just about the exact same. Each band individual here is worthy of noting, but the top award has to go to vocalist Timo Kotipelto, here belting out the finest performance of his entire career. Such a beautiful voice, so much soaring emotion, such a powerful delivery and such an accent (teehee;-)). All this make for what is Strat's most mature work to its date and at the same time the most *accessible* too, due to everything and everyone clicking better together than ever (check out THAT four-word sequence!), instantly making every sort of sense, to anyone's ears. Truly a listening pleasure.
Now, before moving right on to song highlights, I thought I'd comment on that first paragraph a bit. See, I say this is *arguably* their best effort, while my real favorite of theirs is actually 'Episode', and I don't normally make a difference between a band's "best" album and my "favorite" album from said band, since that stuff is all subjective. Perhaps "*potentially* their best album" would be a better description, because even with all the said positive stuff going for it, there are exactly three songs here that sorta corrupt things a bit. First off, the two ballads: "Before the Winter" and "Coming Home" - certainly not bad and oh yes, they have their moments (especially that "Wanted Dead or Alive"-esque opening guitar bit of "Before the Winter"), but they're both so AWFULLY dragged out and therefore just a bit boring. "Before" has this particularly annoying drum beat to it; just way too simple and straightforward to work well in song this slow, ending up sounding repetitive as Hell, while "Coming" is clearly trying to recreate the amazing "Forever" on the previous album, and is clearly failing at that. Finally, the instrumental "Holy Light" is rather disappointing following the über-solid "Stratovarius" and "Stratosphere" - the fast soloing just seems less inspired; blander, and the usual lighter part in the middle isn't anywhere near as interesting as it should be, as it's essentially an interlude for the sake of being an interlude. No amazing songwriting evolution here, if that's what you're looking for.
But fortunately, there is the rest of the album. "The Kiss of Judas" is my all-time favorite Stratovarius song and just has to be some sort of modern classic of heavy metal, because this is so fresh, original, memorable, catchy and generally AWESOME at the same time that I can't help but to think of it as one. There's still a little bit of Queensrÿche left in Stratovarius's sound here, and it sure comes through in that fucking BRILLIANT verse, being reminiscent of that of "I Don't Believe in Love". This is by the way your typical Stratovarius "semi-acoustic guitar" verse that we already heard about three times on 'Episode' and will hear in a number of future songs to come ("S.O.S."; "Rebel"; "Hunting High & Low"...sounds just about the exact same every time), except not done quite as well there. Be sure not to overlook that guitar riff right after the excellent mega-groove bass intro, because it's a little buried behind all the choir effects (that are excellent too) - as I said, there are plenty of totally cool riffs on here besides the already stellar platter of power metal.
As most of you know, "Black Diamond" is Stratovarius's own "Run to the Hills", "Eletric Eye" or "I Want Out" - no need to go into detail, really. It's classic; it's sing-along; it's all ownage. "Forever Free" and "Legions" (awesome double-bass post-chorus slowdown bit in this one!) both feature amazing heavy opening riffs and are standard fare Strat - as I said, the formula has just been perfected here and is to be endlessly copied for years to come, by Stratovarius themselves and also by other bands. Semi-balladic "The Abyss of your Eyes" features more of that "Queensrÿche with keyboards and different production" stuff in the vein of the opener; "Paradise" is a total barrel of fun and a little more happy-Helloween-esque "bouncy" than what is usual for Stratovarius, totally ripping of the intro section of Maiden's "22 Acacia Avenue"; and finally, the ten-minute title track is perhaps not as much as an epic as it is two songs clashed together with an interlude in between - but hey, if the riffs are there, and kicking this much ass...
Even with 'Episode' being an overall better album in my opinion, I'd say this is probably the one to start with, being more accessible and therefore serving better as an introduction to the band. More keyboards may not be in everyone's interest, but in defense of them, I have to say that they are after all a large part in what took this band to the next level and made them sound even less like other bands, back in the day when generic bands like the silly Twilightning or the awful Gaia Epicus didn't come out every week. Obviously, Stratovarius's influence on modern power metal is absolutely unquestionable and because this very album can be attributed to a whole lot of that, being their "breakthrough" release and all; in my book, definitely it has to be awarded with an extra couple of points (seriously, I was long considering giving this 84%, but changed my mind).
Do check back for the next album too, but I'd say pretty much stop after that, unless you're absolutely dying to hear the same old stuff over and over again, or don't mind paying full price for half a decent album. Oh well, but in 1997 Stratovarius still ruled for sure; faster than light, higher than the sky.