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The parts may change, but the whole remains. - 98%

hells_unicorn, October 26th, 2015
Written based on this version: 2015, CD, earMUSIC

In the past several years Stratovarius, arguably the greatest power metal mainstay of Europe after Helloween, has come to embody a rather striking contradiction. It is generally stipulated that there is one driving force behind a band's brilliance, the de facto root from which the great tree springs, without whom the tree ceases to be what it was. Granted, the original incarnation of this band in the mid-80s would completely dissolve well before they became known for what they are now, an incarnation of which the recognized dominant presence of now departed guitarist and composer Timo Tolkki under admittedly embarrassing circumstances. Nevertheless, the version of this band that took shape in the mid 1990s is the one that most recognize as the real deal, and that version has managed to not only endure, but flourish in Tolkki's absence following a stream of sub-par studio albums. Nipping on the heels of his departure was the most brilliant album the band had put together in over a decade in Polaris, followed by two respectable yet somewhat stylistically mixed follow ups in Elysium and Nemesis, leaving some degree of question as to where the band would go next, particularly following the departure of longtime drummer Jorg Michael just before the creation of Nemesis.

The level of uncertainty that comes about due to the constant reshuffling of this band's lineup has, surprisingly enough, had zero impact on this band's viability as a power metal colossus, as can be instantly gleaned from the glorious triumph that is Eternal, this band's 15th studio LP. In a sheer twist of fate, somehow these guys managed to not only recreate the same magic that they first accomplished in the late 90s as had been done on Polaris, but have managed to focus their chops in a matter that actually ratchets up the glory literally to the point of revisiting the days of Visions and Episode full out, while still retaining the symphonic inclinations that first came in with Destiny while avoiding the overblown fixation with it at the expense of the metallic elements the way Infinite did. The technical wizardry going on between Johansson's lead keyboard gymnastics and that of guitarist Matias Kupiainen bears a greater virtuosity than the old days with Tolkki at the 6-string, and almost hits Symphony X territory at times, a fitting outcome given that Matias' chunkier guitar tone does give it a slight Michael Romeo edge to it.

If there is a single solitary complaint that can be laid at this album's doorstep, it's that it doesn't bother with any buildup and simply goes right for the jugular from the start. The opening song "My Eternal Dream" is arguably the best song on the entire album and opts for nailing things down with an unforgettable keyboard hook that just refuses to get old even after being repeated multiple times and doubled by the vocals during the chorus, to speak nothing for the busy riffing and speed that could be likened to a shorter version of "Anthem Of The World" with a touch of the chaotic character of "Find Your Own Voice". Much of what follows this song is definitely stellar, but the temptation to just repeatedly listen to the opening song until it's worn thin is all but irresistible. Nevertheless, similarly glorious and almost as speedy cruisers like "Rise Above It" and "In My Line Of Work" also shine quite brilliantly and further bolster this album's premise that metal can be both catchy and adventurous at the same time. On the whole, these songs tend to reflect a desire to retread the waters of Episode and are of more of a straightforward demeanor, at least compared to much of the remaining songs on here.

It is interesting to point out that this album does share some qualities similar to the recent sophomore effort of Cain's Offering, a band that happens to include the two most prominent and longest serving members of Stratovarius at this juncture. It's important to note that these similarities are a bit overblown at times depending on who is talking, and is largely confined to the production style and some of the more quirky keyboard sounds that occasionally pop in and out of the mix. The intro keyboard theme of the otherwise typical mid-tempo Stratovarius album single fair "Shine In The Dark", along with much of the keyboard detailing in the heavier and slightly more progressively tinged "Man In The Mirror" are the more obvious examples of this subtle tendency. It should also be pointed out that this techno-tinge has precedent that goes back a bit further in the case of Stratovarius, as can be heard in the upper mid-tempo and deep of texture rocker "Feeding The Fire", which at times sounds like a sequel to the Destiny single S.O.S.. Likewise, the guitar riff work is a bit busier and less bound by traditional Helloween influences as what Jani Liimatainen took to both Sonata Arctica and Cain's Offering respectively.

In essence, Eternal could rightly be likened to the massively ambitious orchestra and symphonic choir steeped closing epic that adorns it in "The Lost Saga", because this literally stops just shy of sounding like the album that should have followed Destiny at the turn of the millennium. It's proof against the notion that power metal either has to eschew progression or progress so much that it ceases to be power metal, as the happy middle ground of controlled evolution of style is what marks the greatness of this compared to the triumphs of times now long past. And while Timo Tolkki's efforts outside of his former band have had a respectable degree of success vs. failure, it's pretty clear that Stratovarius was being held back by him about as much as he was being held back by it. Whether this album proves a promise for greater days ahead of if it serves to be this band's last go at glory, it's a musical victory and arguably the best thing to come out of the power metal world this year.