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An exercise in confuted disunity. - 54%

hells_unicorn, December 14th, 2010

Upon its inception, in the midst of some serious drama behind the scenes, the oddly self-titled 11th offering out of Stratovarius was panned as a complete flop. Most of this owed to its heavily disorganized nature, though the downplaying of the band’s strengths and the inclusion of a groovier, modern sounding character can also be blamed. At that time in late 2005, I concurred with the general sentiment of the masses, and left it to collect dust for about 5 years. Since then, I’ve come to a slight change of heart on just how bad it actually is, though my concurrent objections to the change in musical direction heard on here remains basically the same.

If 2005 can be marked by an apparent slackness amongst Power Metal veterans, this album pretty well underscores it more blatantly than most. But while Gamma Ray and Freedom Call were solely in deficit in the songwriting department, Timo and company have compounded the issue by messing up in the mixing/production category. Much like the latest flop out of Metallica “Death Magnetic”, the drum sound on here is thin and hollow, leaning more towards the popping snare and overloud cymbal sound normally attributed to grunge bands. The riffing has taken a hit as well, but the real tragedy on here is how heavily downplayed the keyboards and chorus sections are. Jens literally may as well not be in the band anymore on 75% of this, and when he is present, all of the Neo-baroque and flashy parts have been completely cut out.

For any who have been following this band since the 90s, there has been a gradual decline in the elaborateness of Tolkki’s riff work and a disproportionate amount of attention paid to his solo work. But while “Infinity” and the two “Elements” albums were over-simplified in the riff department and overblown in the keyboard soloing and bass/drum emphasis, here all of that has fallen away as well and what is left is a tinny shell of hypnotic half-riffs and cliché melodies with a side helping of comical themes. The opener “Maniac Dance” is the worst offender in this department, and comes off as a less sloppy version of some reject from Metallica’s “Reload” era, but this annoying tendency towards bareness and vapidity dominates the next two songs as well.

Once the trinity of boredom concludes and “Back To Madness” begins, the hollow shell of popping drums and banal riffs is replaced with a half-hearted attempt at returning to the longwinded, plodding character of “Elements Pt. 2”, and largely succeeds. While said song and “Gotterdammerung” are both mildly entertaining and show the guitar making something of a return to form, they drag on for a long time and don’t really develop a heck of a lot. The song placed in between then “Gypsy In Me” attempts to channel the up-tempo, rocking fun of “Hunting High And Low”, but doesn’t quite go the distance and is mired by an anti-climactic chorus, though it does bring the keyboards in for a decent solo.

The best two songs found on here creep in towards the end, as the prospects of an old fashioned speed metal assault have obviously evaporated. “The Land Of Ice And Snow” takes the simple route of the serene ballad in the same respect that “Forever” and “A Drop In The Ocean” did, only here the thematic material develops a bit and the song reaches a climax where a restful ballad changes to a down tempo military march with heavy guitars stomping the path. “United” sees Timo and company resorting to yet another homage to the “Heaven And Hell” or “Holy Diver” format (the latter is a bit more fitting as a point of comparison) and takes a few thematic ideas from the “Destiny” classic and closing song “Anthem Of The World”. Essentially, that slow paced, signature bass line always strikes a chord, whether it’s Hammerfall or Sabaton bending it to their respective interpretations and it works just as well here.

Unfortunately, in spite of not being quite the nails on a chalkboard album that I remembered it being 5 years ago, this is not what could be called an essential purchase. It’s a confused, troubled, and rushed release that switches up between being listenable and being annoying. For the core Stratovarius fan or the power metal bargain hunter, I could maybe rationalize blowing $5 on this. It’s a rare honor to not only have your worst album bear your band’s own name, but also to have it be your last collaboration with a set of musicians that you’ve worked with for over 10 years. Timo Tolkki definitely leads a charmed life.

Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on December 14, 2010.