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Loudness wars - 56%

gasmask_colostomy, December 6th, 2016

One can read plenty of comments about how this album was a drastic change and drop in form for Stratovarius. Gone are many of the Euro power metal tendencies, gone is the speed, gone is the neoclassical influence, and gone are the hooks. But if one would cast an ear back to the Elements albums, one can hear - particularly in the second of them - that Stratovarius had already lost a lot of their inspiration and quality even before the whole band went to shit and everybody totally fell out. Lumbering overlong songs like 'Alpha & Omega' and 'Awaken the Giant' are exactly what fans claim this album to be and in some cases listen like a worse version of 'Just Carry On' and 'Leave the Tribe'. Therefore, I refuse to pin the downfall of the power metal sound on Stratovarius and will simply be reviewing this album in the light of its general quality rather than as a particular fork in the band's discography.

Probably the most critical factor in deciding this album's success is what one thinks of the production. If you like drums and want to hear the bass all the time, you will probably leave happy, especially considering that there are plenty of verses without much accompaniment from Timo Tolkki's guitar. Both of those instruments are mixed very loud, the snare smacking through everything and other parts of the drumkit occasionally trying to interrupt Timo Kotipelto as he valiantly struggles to sing above the noise. The bass is not quite so disturbing, actually giving a nice emphasis to some of the slower parts of the album and allowing Jari Kainulainen to shine in a way that had never previously occurred. He doesn't make amazing use of that opportunity, though is solid enough. On the other hand, Jens Johansson and Timo Tolkki seem to have been on the losing end of all the in-band arguments, since the two of them are almost mixed out of the album at times, Tolkki getting a slightly dry guitar tone that mostly loses the battle with the rhythm instruments and Johansson being relegated to the background for the majority, almost as if his keyboards were an afterthought for the songs. In a phrase, did St. Anger have a good mix? Have you heard of the "loudness wars"? Here epitomized.

As for the actual contributions by those musicians, they aren't playing awfully and I might even say that some of the stylistic "darkness" harks a long way back to albums like Twilight Time or Dreamspace, although Tolkki is much less creative with riffs and Kotipelto is a clearly superior singer. Tolkki's issue here is that he doesn't create many excting riffs, except for the few moments where he combines with Johansson, such as the decent opening of 'Gypsy in Me'. Many of the riffs are slow and stomping, something like a hard rock and doom metal cross without the swagger of the former and the crushing emotion of the latter, meaning that the songs are relying on the power of the instruments to carry them along. Also, the overplaying of that type of riff renders the album monotonous in places, whereas the more upbeat numbers ('Gypsy in Me' and 'Fight!!!', in which one exclamation mark was enough) are fairly simple and toneless, though hint at something that would be later picked up to great effect on Nemesis. In part, this is because Johansson's keyboard lines start tending here towards the modern, which actually does something for the atmosphere on the likes of 'Fight!!!' and 'Götterdämmerung (Zenith of Power)', while the guitar solos are high points too.

The songwriting, however, is another point on which Stratovarius falls down. Clearly the band's communication had broken down, but the songs just don't seem to have any band unity or intelligent structuring to make the good parts stick. As I have mentioned, there are far too many verses of approximately zero content, simply the same bassline and Jörg Michael's "waiting for something to happen" drumbeat, while the parts with riffs and Kotipelto's vocals at full power sound much better. Even then, there are parts that just had no thought put into them, like the totally random operatic section and terminally shit narrated outro thrown into 'Back to Madness' (which seems aptly named) or the incredibly overlong conclusion to 'Götterdämmerung (Zenith of Power)', which initially impresses but then just annoys. I mean, I don't know, maybe the baby at the end of 'Back to Madness' had some creative input on those songs. There are a few decent songs, but the combined merits of 'Gypsy in Me', the nearly-epic closer 'United', and the surprisingly great ballad 'The Land of Ice and Snow' can't redress the balance of awkward or repetitive ideas elsewhere, nor are they empirically outstanding songs, just in the context of the album.

Whatever happened to Stratovarius during the middle of the '00s is history now, although we still have the mark of it in the album before the break-up, this "reunion" album, and the subsequent Tolkki-less Polaris, all of which have their own share of problems. As for Stratovarius, it's not awful but certainly far from great, plus having listened to it twice in a row I now have a headache.