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Legends tend to be overblown, but often times they are also quite deserved. And though there is some stiff competition between this album’s predecessor and a few advocates of the one that came after (including myself), “Visions” is often pointed to as the pinnacle of all things Stratovarius. The most distinctive part of this particular chapter in Tolkki’s collection of melodic tales is the streamlined songwriting and formulaic pacing that has since became a standard of their signature sound, barring the recently releases after the aforementioned songwriter’s exodus. But more auspicious than the evident shift towards a standardized system of song creation is the potency of the lot, which is all but a pure shot of adrenaline when compared to the hit or miss releases that followed the close of the 90s.
One thing that is important to keep in mind with any Stratovarius album is that the late 90s was more of a revival of an existing style with a few stylistic tweaks, and they were among the more typical models for the scene at that point. “Visions” can be seen as a gloriously pomp-infused revisiting of Helloween with a near equal adherence to Swedish 80s heavy metal and shred clichés in the mold of Europe and Yngwie Malmsteen, among others. The latter style is in full orthodox display in the mid-tempo, atmospheric opener “The Kiss Of Judas”, which can be likened to a number of Malmsteen songs from the late 80s and early 90s, most particularly “Making Love”. The guitar work is a bit more riff oriented and less indulgent on lead guitar gymnastics, but the general atmosphere is uncannily similar.
In many respects, the slower and radio-friendly starting song is a mere overture that is immediately eclipsed by what follows. The next several songs all but fully articulate every stylistic trapping that has mattered for this band since this album’s composition, particularly personified in fast paced drumming, signature riffs that reminisce on a number of early to mid 80s Judas Priest and Accept songs, high flying keyboard solos and rich atmospheres, high soaring operatic vocals and a surprisingly active bass display. “Black Diamond” is a bit more nostalgic and serious, “Legions” and “Forever Free” are a bit more triumphant and glorious, but the same formula rules all 3 and really rams the point home. “Before The Winter” is sort of a rest stop for those who couldn’t handle an all out 1-2-3 punch of speed, in some respects typifying the slower, Neo-classical yet simple sound that became “Mother Gaia”, but in a much less static manner. One of the stronger ballads Timo has put together, but still the weak link of the album.
The 2nd half of this album is where a few of the nuances that give classic Stratovarius some progression and variety manifest. Indeed, the Malmsteen parallels get blown up something massive in “Holy Light”, which bears a strong resemblance to a number of Yngwie instrumentals from 1990-1995. It’s as flashy as a violent thunderstorm, but the times where this thing can be hummed along with are few and far between. “The Abyss Of Your Eyes” steps back to the slower, heavier trudging Dio/Sabbath style of song that has been occasionally experimented with previously. “Paradise” takes the catchy concept of this band’s speed metal work and slows it down to a more rocking up-tempo number, not all that far removed from an “I Want Out” with a bit more keyboards. “Coming Home” is sort of a variation of the string quartet ballad “Forever” from the previous album, but reinterpreted into something more along the line of a Deep Purple ballad with a Sabbath sounding guitar attack. And to close off the endless wave of new classics is arguably Tolkki’s crowning musical achievement in “Visions (Southern Cross)”, an ambitious mixture of symphonic sounds, speed work and lyrical ponderings into the prophecies of Nostradamus, complete with a few direct quotations done by a guest narrator that’s a bit less overdramatic than the one Rhapsody (Of Fire) employed for the Emerald Sword Saga.
To call this an essential purchase for any heavy/power metal fan would be an understatement. This is pure gold right from the glory days of the late 90s when metal was fast, melodic, and didn’t feel the need to cater to rock radio standards on every single solitary song. I still prefer the polish of “Destiny”, which some might argue goes a bit overboard on the longer songs in the same manner as Celesty’s “Legacy Of Hate”, but anyone who is already a hopeless addict to the mainline Helloween sound as typified in Gamma Ray, Freedom Call, and Rhapsody (Of Fire) will find familiar territory here, albeit presented in a somewhat more 80s fashion. But given that the 80s was when the spirit of metal shined the brightest, one might want to visit “Visions” before any of the other bands’ material if this style is a new endeavor for them.