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Strato's 'Varius' Problems - 65%

TheHumanChair, August 25th, 2021

This is where it all fell apart. Stratovarius' eleventh and self-titled studio album would be the last of a classic era. I'm not going to give a full history lesson on why the band fell apart around this time, because that level of drama honestly requires a documentary to fully cover. If you're curious, you can research it easily enough. To sum it up VERY simply, Tolkki's depression and mental issues were really getting bad at the time, and he was extremely difficult to work with. On the flip side of that, I also want to go on the record and say that I think it was really shitty what Kotipelto did to him when all was said and done by basically making him sign all of the rights away to a band he built because he wanted to focus on recovering mentally. It's a story where almost everyone is at fault in some way.

Now, this album gets a lot of unwarranted hatred, too. Let me make it clear. This album certainly isn't great. However, at the same time, it isn't awful either. It isn't nearly as bad as a cursory glance would suggest. In fact, most of the criticism this album gets is because it's not a traditional Stratovarius album. There aren't any fast paced blazing power metal tracks on it, and a lot of the Strato signatures are nowhere to be found (like Jorg's double bass drumming, which is entirely absent here.) What is unfair about saying this, though, is that the people who tend to dole out hate for this album are the same people that also dole out hate for Strato being 'repetitive' through their careers. Even though this album isn't stellar, I feel like it doesn't get a fair shot due to the drama and subsequent poor 'word of mouth' reputation. No, my problem with this album, as you'll hear me say many times, is that it is boring, predictable, and insanely formulaic.

Probably the worst thing about this record is that almost every song across the board is solid, but never reaches the next level. When all is said and done, you're sitting there with an experience that was good enough, but rarely/never did anything to really sink in your brain. For the majority of this album, Strato still kills it in terms of catchy and memorable choruses, but everything around them just doesn't click. So much of it sounds so incredibly tired. I think it's pretty clear that the band was just going through the motions here. Even without knowing the history of the drama behind this album, I think one listen would let most people think that the band wasn't fully working together. Most of the songs on the record are of a tolerable length, though, so it seems like they knew everything had to be short and sweet to hide this.

"Just Carry On" and "Gypsy in Me" are two perfect examples. "Just Carry On" is an incredibly formulaic track. Opening riff, soft part, harder after a few verses, and then an incredibly catchy chorus. Repeat a few things and throw in a solo, and call it a day. Is it a bad track? No. But when you can pretty much perfectly predict exactly where a song is going before it even plays, it is rarely ever a good sign. The chorus is a little bit whiny, but it makes up for it in sheer catchiness. "Gypsy in Me" is a lot better than "Just Carry On," but has a lot of the same problems. First, the opening riff has a bit more fire and life in it. Jens' keyboard work is also extremely catchy and adds something to the forefront of the song to focus your attention on. However, the same formula from "Just Carry On" is still present. It just takes a bit longer. Opening heavy riff, softer part, slowly gets heavier, chorus, repeat some, solo, done. The chorus is extremely good, and isn't whiny like on "Just Carry On," but it really just seems like you've heard this song somewhere before because the it is so formulaic.

"Leave the Tribe" is formulaic as well, but in the opposite direction. Tolkki's slow riff at the start coupled with some chanting to give it a 'tribe' feel leaves you thinking you're going to be in for an atmospheric journey. But then comes that same tired formula. After that intro, soft part led by Kotipelto and Jari, slowly picks up heaviness, and then chorus. However, the chorus on this song falls flat on its face. It's not climactic at all and comes off as extremely boring and almost...nagging-like? If that makes any sense. Even though "Fight!!!" wasn't the single for this album, everything about it screams like it was. "Fight!!!" is subpar to me because it sounds like Stratovarius poorly copying themselves. It sounds like a different band that heard Stratovarius and went "Oh, we can make something like this." It's such a strange feeling to hear this song and feel like it's a copy or a parody. The quick riff, the keyboard, the chorus...all of it sure sounds like Stratovarius....right? But not quite. The verse melodies are horrible. The start and stop between the band and Kotipelto feels like a live crowd reaction-type section, and just feels forced and hollow as a verse melody. The chorus is solid enough, but that's about all "Fight!!!" has going for it.

The self titled isn't entirely without a few really good tracks, though. "Maniac Dance" is killer. It is far and away the best the album has to offer. The starting riff that doubles as the chorus riff is so frantic and catchy. It's chaotic and frenzied, but still has a perfect element of 'hummable' qualities. Kotipelto's vocals as well aren't typical of him. He gives the song a bit more gruff and aggression that we rarely see from him. It fits "Maniac Dance" so well. His vocals fit that frantic energy, and all of it together makes the song live up to its namesake. Tolkki definitely has his most inspired solo here, too. "Zenith of Power" is really the only other song from this record that I come back to with any regularity. The opening riff and accompanying keyboards give it an instant dark and trudging feel. Jorg gives it an appropriate tom-filled beat to help it along. While the verse riffs from Kotipelto don't carry that same dark spirit, it doesn't kill the mood, either, so it does its job. He hits a bit of a dark place for the chorus, too. It really repeats far too much at the end, though, and I think that hurts the song in general. It loops for a full three minutes, which is entirely unnecessary.

"Back to Madness" is the worst the album gets, though. This record had some good, a lot that was okay, and this one absolutely awful track. The soft and pretty intro makes you think you might be in store for a polished Strato classic, but they'll quickly dash those hopes. That same formula I've talked about so often during this review? Well, it certainly fits here as well, however, where the rest of the songs I spoke about that have this formula have SOMETHING redeemable about them, "Back to Madness" has absolutely NOTHING to save it. Every riff is dull, simplistic, and boring. Kotipelto's vocals are typical at their best moments. And then the chorus hits. It's HORRIBLE. Tolkki plays one note chugging chords and Kotipelto just bellows over them. He's just screaming the chorus with no grace or melody. This chorus makes this song sound like a demo. I honestly feel like "Back to Madness" was a rehearsal song that someone recorded and slipped onto the record before it was done. There are SO many elements they threw on this song to make it feel like some sort of operatic masterpiece. Like it belonged in a theater production. There are plenty of bands that pull this type of thing off, but when you try and make the worst and most clearly unfinished song on your record the most 'opera-like,' it just ends up coming off as INSANELY pretentious.

And that's it. That record heralds the end for classic Stratovarius. Jari would be dismissed not long after this album was released, and after a few years of trying to work things out, Tolkki would ultimately give in and leave as well, leaving Kotipelto to repopulate the band how he saw fit. As I've mentioned a few times, I'm a massive Tolkki fan, so seeing him spiral so much and then never ever return to the peak he once had is truly heart breaking for me. Many people say that this album is as bad as Stratovarius gets in their whole career, and while I certainly think this is undeniably the worst while Tolkki was in the band, I also don't exactly think that Kotipelto was able do all that much better after he got full control. After this album, Stratovarius lived on in name...but has it really lived on in spirit and soul...?