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Scorching the ethereal skies yet again. - 88%

hells_unicorn, May 27th, 2013

The exodus of longtime drummer Jörg Michael from the Stratovarius fold marked a major shift in the band's musical paradigm, culminating in a lot more than a rather impressive farewell live album in "Under Flaming Winter Skies". Indeed, the eventual follow up EP "Unbreakable" showcased a greater degree of experimentation than the fancy and marginally progressive "Polaris" and "Elysium" with newly recruited axe slinger Matias Kupiainen providing a heavier and wilder guitar style than what former band leader Timo Tolkki ever brought to the table, and provided a logical preface to the eventual 14th album "Nemesis". This is an album that takes a rather different course, and thus could logically be treated as a beginning of a new era for the band that is distinct from the last couple albums should it prove to be a trend in future output.

The manner in which this album becomes a stylistic departure is not quite as blatant as the band completely shifting to a different metal sub-genre, but more in the level of detailing and the density of the atmospheric character of the whole, and it proves to be quite overt in this respect. Echoes of former glory can be heard on "Abandon", "Unbreakable" and "Dragons" where the same essential upbeat character that typified the band's early 2000s single releases such as "Hunting High And Low" and "Eagleheart" are still in view, yet these songs have been dressed up with a greater variety of keyboard timbres and ambiences, to the point of sounding mechanized and quasi-industrial at times. This is helped along further by a guitar assault that, while not quite as frenetic as what was heard on "Polaris", is definitely quite elaborate and willing to go beyond the usual series of palm muted power chords.

As things unfold, it is clear that the entry of drummer Rolf Pilve into the fray has had its fair share of effect on the overall sound of the band. In contrast to a number of bands where the replacement drummer tends to mimic the style of his predecessor, the newest and youngest face in the band has done a good bit to distance himself from Stratovarius' longtime kit maestro. His sound is a bit more precision and detail based (rather than Jörg Michael's power approach) and results in a number of differing outcomes, be it an occasionally thrashing yet plain approach on "Stand My Ground" or a very versatile, multifaceted set of beats on the heavily progressive "Out Of The Fog". While Pilve's exploits tend to revolve in underground circles, he has a wide array of experience playing in both melodic death and progressive metal outfits, and the two implicit extremes of simplicity and complexity that go with these 2 very different approach definitely shows, often times within the same song.

Nevertheless, amid all the heavily experimental and hard-edged metal there is still a fairly noticeable semblance of Stratovarius even before the period of drama that came about circa 2004. Perhaps the greatest example is that of "Fantasy" which has a very plain rocking character that wouldn't have been out of character for a slower offering on "Visions" or "Destiny", though the keyboard sounds are still a bit avant-garde at times. In fact, the vocal character of Timo Koltipelto proves to be the greatest level of familiarity and tends to shine the brightest on the less showy parts of the album. It's actually a bit ironic in that this album takes just about every step imaginable to avoid sounding like the continual 80s revivalism that tended to typify their career in the 90s and early 2000s, and yet the vocal production itself still lends to that reverb-heavy character that synthesizes that distant, arena-like vocal presence that was a staple of an 80s metal band.

The near unanimous praise of this album thus far is not unexpected, as it manages to find itself in the unique position of being slightly closer to the band's older works while still being a noticeable step forward in the band's overall evolution. Despite the heavy amount of auditory experimentation and quirky effects, this is an album built out of catchy songwriting and solid riff work that will have an appeal to the high period fans of Stratovarius (1994-1998) that was lacking to a certain extent on the last two albums. It's not so much a complete break with the established orthodoxy that tends to define power metal, but it definitely takes a fair share of liberty in applying the various doctrines that have crept their way into the European model since the days of late 80s Helloween.