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For me, Stratovarius was the band that encapsulated power metal in all its degrees. With an early heavy metal background, they highly developed their sound throughout the years, and earned a status that none of their countrymen will ever reach.
As a devoted Stratovarius fan, I see Visions as the band’s greatest musical achievement. This was the album that absolutely combined every element that they used in previous works. In contrast with Episode, which was also brilliant, yet very lengthy and had some fillers, Visions has a solid, self-effacing power metal structure, which extracts the whole melodic essence of the genre, and doesn’t include any leftover, so every song is worth to listen. Timo Kotipelto’s voice has the exact high-pitch that gave a unique personality to the band, although it also became one of the facts that made them get trapped in diverse (And cruel) stereotypes, which have sadly given modern power metal a bad name. If we add the extensive use of keyboards, which weren’t a fundamental piece of their music in the past, the cheesy fragments that a few songs carry, the “happy” moments, and many other facts surrounding the album, some can give a much lower score to Visions. Nevertheless, none of the aforementioned features should persuade anyone from listening to this (Sometimes) underrated work, because, as a matter of fact, the sound that they adopted since Kotipelto took control of the vocals, was the one that influenced innumerable bands all around the world, which blatantly imitated everything they did, and used the same formula over and over again until they burned out the genre.
Visions is not your typical sugary, squared power metal release, which is catchy and funny to listen just for a couple of times, and then is archived somewhere in your CD collection after its 15 minutes of glory have ceased. In the contrary, the creativity falls elegantly over the whole album and reminds you of successful releases such as Angels Cry, from Angra, albeit the song structure is not so complex, but more straight-ahead. Kotipelto’s voice is quite similar to that of Andre Matos, but it doesn’t drive your nerves to any boiling point, so that’s a good thing. The 80% of the album sails over speedy waters and relatively neo-classical touches, and the instrumental “Holy light” is responsible for revealing the Malmsteen-flavored riffing with extreme detail. Without being a guitar virtuoso, Timo Tolkki can showcase his own stunning guitar passages, and every time he shreds, I can only see magic coming out of his fingers.
As for song production, I don’t have anything to complain about, except that sometimes the drums have an almost fake and “artificial” sound that I particularly get to dislike, but after I listen to power metal gems such as “Legions”, which has a wonderful catchy melody, plus an aggressive bass screeching that steals the show, I finally forget about the drumming issues. Apart from that, everything is absolutely audible and very close to flawlessness. Songs like “The Kiss of Judas” and “Forever Free” extraordinarily enlighten the pupils and delight our ears with the smart verses that come out of Tolkki’s mind. He’s never been the best songwriter in the world, but his assertive, straight-forward style neatly describes all of the moods that the album offers. He can capture the melancholic and cold atmospheres of songs like “Before the Winter” or “Coming Home”, and make you feel as if you’re actually walking below a frosty Finnish winter breeze, with the glowing snowflakes falling over your whole body. There are some medieval influences, as well, but they’re just scattered in generous doses, and don’t interfere with the orientation that Visions has. “Black Diamond” is another fine example of how a good power metal song needs to be crafted in order to become a worthy highlight. It includes attractive keyboard solos and although some riffs sound quite similar to “Forever Free”, this one (Black Diamond) is much more melodic and it doesn’t include the heavy elements of the other.
“Kiss of Judas” (The album opener) is something very different and innovative. This hard rock-oriented song, with slight power metal attempts can shock anyone who has a different picture of Stratovarius. No, it’s not all about speed, ladies and gentlemen, and this is the best proof of how the band can successfully explore new boundaries for our pleasure. As you enjoy the evil atmospheres of this piece, it’s hard not to sing along ”The night awaits… The act of confidence… The kiss of Judas, I feel the lips on my cheek, the Kiss of Judas… Haunts me once again!”. This track quickly became a fan favourite thanks to its mystifying style.
While epic tracks such as the semi-ballad “The Abyss of your eyes” and “Visions (Southern Cross)”, carry more exotic elements that shift the album’s speedy momentum to more developed and progressive highways, the former cannot be really considered as a ballad, despite of its slow tempo. It really shines by its own because of the clean acoustic guitar cameos that precede to a polished performance by Kotipelto. There are even some shy symphonic elements on it. Nevertheless, the undisputable titanic song of the record (Which is also the last one) is “Visions (Southern Cross)”, which begins with the familiar keyboard arrangements that make the band’s sound so recognizable (And include the typical “Aaaaaahhh” camouflaged voices). This is followed by Tolkki’s unmistakable friendly shredding, and then, everything pops out into a power metal melody that lasts for about two and a half minutes. A sudden progressive breakdown infiltrates with its medieval gothic ambience full of memorable incantation-like choirs, which move away the band from being confused with symphonic power metal bands such as Rhapsody of Fire or Hammerfall. There’s also a male voice that vividly closes the song, and drives the album to an ultimate climax, so the track’s ten minutes of life is more than justified. The band members unfold their techniques with utter amazement, as well.
A minor, yet noticeable issue is Kotipelto’s average English pronunciation. By the time Visions was released, he still didn’t control the language as he should, but thankfully, his blistering vocals cover almost every mistake or mispronunciation that he can unintentionally make.
There will never be another band like Stratovarius. I’ve considered them as Finland’s most representative act ever, because they did it all, and even pushed the limits. Their immortal legacy left us some of the best ground-breaking releases in history. With the exception of their hugely disappointing self-titled (And last) work, Timo Tolkki and company managed to find a way to reinvent their music all the time, without ripping themselves off. If you don’t digest the ballads in this release, you can subtract a few points to the score. If you do, then you will really appreciate Visions for what it is: An inspiring power metal monster very close to perfection. This was the first album of the band that reached to my hands some years ago, and opened the gates that allowed me to discover the majesty that their music symbolizes.