Fright Night(CBS - 1989)
As one of the big pioneers of classic European power-metal, this Finnish band was off to a shaky start (as Black Water) with many band-member changes even before the first release. A sign of things to come... Of the four original band members, only one remains (the drummer), and even he won't stay for long. Instrumentally and musically, this debut is off to a very promising start, combining interesting speed-and-symphonic compositions rather than just being a Helloween copycat, judicious use of keyboards to add that symphonic and slightly progressive flair, a variety of tracks with distinct and memorable riffs and styles, and a virtuosic and precise wizard on guitar (Timo Tolkki). The music is 80s NOWBHM and some melodic speed-metal with slight traces of neo-classical, not the cookie-cutter anthemic power-metal of later clones. Vocally, however, this album is severely and fatally flawed. Perhaps this was one of those situations where Tolkki took on vocal duties due to a lack of a better option, but here, although he has a clear and smooth, but typically higher-pitched vocal for this genre, he is very rough around the edges and young/undeveloped vocally. He also sounds constantly distracted as if he can't play and sing at the same time, resulting in notes that are shaky, weak or even off-tune sometimes. He does have a unique character to his voice however, a timbre which gives off an impression of sadness. This is in obvious stark contrast so typical power-metal vocalists that belt with cheery power. Unfortunately he also seriously lacks precision. They obviously are fans of horror movies, and this doesn't only appear in the song titles but also in the lyrics, music and even some sound effects. Highlights include the instrumentally fun and adventurous 'False Messiah' and 'Witch Hunt', and an Yngwie-esque rhythmic short instrumental 'Fire Dance'. So, overall, this is a relatively slightly darker sound for power-metal, and that's a good thing, and music-wise, this album has the right idea. But the vocals are a fatal flaw.
Twilight Time (AKA II)(Bluelight - 1992)
Three years later and we get an improved and more polished progression since the rough but interesting debut. The most important improvement is Tolkki's vocals, who now sounds focused and more developed in terms of power and consistency, his high, clear, unique-sounding tone and timbre is quite good, although still an acquired taste, since his belts tend to slide off tune, giving him that unique Tolkki melancholy, and slightly-off sound. Take the standard, enjoyable speedy power-metal track 'The Hands of Time' and imagine that with Kiske on vocals and you'll see what I mean. The lesser, opener track is a heavier and simpler heavy-metal track however, once again made different by the vocals, as well as by the instrumental mid-section and a good exotic-sounding guitar solo. The unique, darker, early Stratovarius sound with its love for horror movies makes its mark here with tracks like 'Madness Strikes At Midnight' which combines Mercyful Fate with NWOBHM but takes a long while to get going, and there's a probable 'Hall of the Mountain King' Savatage influence on the darker 'The Hills Have Eyes'. It's the superb title track that stands out though, with its unique combination of darker vocal and guitar lines, lush keyboards and slightly progressive power-metal, and this style will come back with a vengeance in the next album. 'Out of the Shadows' is another standard energetic and happy power-metal tracks but Tolkki's vocals are even less precise than usual here, making the sound whine when they should soar. The instrumental on this album 'Metal Frenzy' is very clunky (and humorous) this time with its syncopated rhythm, and the album ends with a sad ballad with some good as well as plodding moments but more poor vocals. As this review implies, it's a varied album in term of style as well as quality, and I can only point to three or four tracks that I really liked, so it is not deserving of a recommendation, but it does contain some points of musical interest.
Dreamspace(T&T - 1994)
Definitely a one-of-a-kind entry in Stratovarius's repertoire, and one of those transitional albums that contain a bit of the old and the new, as well as much experimentation, resulting in something interesting and rich, but, in this case, also with some fat that needs to be trimmed. This combines the darker sound from the earlier two albums, some of the standard Helloween-inspired standard melodic speed-power-metal that they would become famous for later, and a bunch of unique progressive elements and tracks that elevate this album to its special and recommended status. Tolkki still sings on this album and his performance is wildly inconsistent from amazingly good to poor. His guitars and compositions however, are, as always, very good. In general, the second half of this album is much stronger than the first half, but some track-specific commentary should impress just how much variety is on this album: The title track is a progressive and complex well-done beauty that surprises, with very high-pitched and on-the-mark vocals in one of its sections. Frankly, despite some hints of this in earlier material, I didn't know Stratovarius had it in them and I would have loved a whole album like this. Some Savatage merges with Megadeth on the strong 'Reign of Terror', once again with great vocals, making one wonder why Tolkki is so inconsistent with his vocals. 'Thin Ice' is another eerie, slow, very unusual and dark track that succeeds, even with its extreme almost avant-garde vocals. 'Eyes of the World' features vocal problems and a cheesy, endlessly whiny chorus. The final track 'Wings of Tomorrow' is a cheesy hard-rock almost-ballad and 'Tears of Ice' is another ballad track that needs skipping with poor vocals. 'Magic Carpet Ride' starts with a strong, unusual and dark Zeppelin-inspired Middle-Eastern riff until the bright keyboards kick in and the terribly out-of-tune singing on the chorus, and then the instrumental section reminded me of Queensryche, so it's an inspired, interesting, but deeply flawed song. Most of the rest of the songs are good, varied, often interesting, sometimes progressive compositions, sometimes more standard and sugary power-metal tracks that stray from the more interesting, dark and varied sound in the two previous albums. Altogether, this is an unusually long album at 65 minutes, and if you trim out about 20 of those minutes you'll have a fascinating and lightly recommended release. Although this is classified as power-metal, fans of that genre will probably find a few hurdles here although there is much to enjoy; but a more suitable audience is probably progressive-metal fans of the Queensryche or early-Savatage variety, as long as you skip a few tracks from the weak first half of the album and focus mostly on the second half. Worth checking out despite its flaws.
Fourth Dimension(T&T - 1995)
Even more than the previous release, this is an album of two distinct halves. The first half completes the hop onto the more syrupy and even commercial power-metal train with which the previous album flirted, and then the second half goes all out into experimentation. But the first and most important change that needs to be discussed is the new vocalist. Timo Kotipelto is a very welcome replacement for Tolkki's vocals, and is perhaps a less unique-sounding voice, but he fixes that constantly flawed off-tune sustain problem that Tolkki had, and provides a much more consistent and powerful voice, albeit one with a similar timbre as Tolkki. So it's not only Tolkki that can now focus on the music and his superb guitar-playing without being constantly distracted. As I said, the first half or so of this album flows by with gleeful and partially enjoyable melodic power-metal but doesn't make a musical impact as with previous releases. After two conventional and catchy power-metal tracks, 'Galaxies' is a cringey keyboard-heavy hard-rock track more appropriate for the band Europe than power-metal, and the follow-up song 'Winter' is an attempt at a syrupy epic and atmospheric semi-ballad with more inappropriate 80s-keyboards and awkward musical development but a good strong solo and a catchy dramatic chorus that repeats itself for too long. And when I say 'catchy' in this context, that is not necessarily a good thing. It is telling that the next track named after the band is a fun neo-classical instrumental inspired by Yngwie Malmsteen, and this good track almost-but-not-quite marks the end of the first half. One more power-metal track follows, but this time Kotipelto falters with stiff and sometimes shaky vocals for some reason. '030366' kicks off the experimentation, but its percussion and rhythms are very very clunky, as if they were trying to write an industrial track but didn't understand anything about it, bringing to mind 'Metal Frenzy'. Another insipid and repetitive pop-metal ballad ensues, and then another attempt at an epic, this one very blatantly and obviously emulating Queensryche with even Kotipelto doing his best Geoff Tate impression, but, like many emulations, the song ends up clunky. And, finally, there's another neo-classical track with real strings, this time with vocals and a power-metal core, and it's pretty good. Overall, this album was all over the place, most of its new directions were poor, it didn't sound like the band and compositions had it together, and except for two or three tracks, I did not like it at all.
Episode(T&T - 1996)
Evidently the previous incredibly messy release was really messy, as it caused two more band members to quit. So, with this album, Tolkki finds himself with either all new-or-recent band members. Despite this upheaval, or perhaps because of it, everything snapped into place and this will become their most stable and popular line-up. Unfortunately, the music took a big step towards a lower common denominator with a lot of either cookie-cutter or syrupy power-metal that sometimes feels like pop-metal. The experimentation may have failed in the previous album, but at least it was adventurous, trying new things and taking risks, incorporating a richer darker side into the music. That said, there are a few elements that elevate this album nevertheless: The great guitar solos as always, plenty of neo-classical instrumental sections, and several tracks that add a welcome variety by adopting a more interesting Dio-style epic sound or neo-classicism. I also felt they must have been listening to a lot of Queensryche before this album as many songs made me think of that band, albeit in a simpler form. When these are combined with the fun and catchy speedier power-metal tracks here, it results in a quite enjoyable album despite my misgivings, winning me over. The above musical descriptions should come as no surprise seeing as the new keyboardist played with Dio, Rainbow and Malmsteen (during his best early years), and the keyboards here are much better than the cheesy stuff in previous outings. Some standouts: 'Eternity' is a slow, dark, pretty-good-but-not-great dramatic piece where Kotipelto sometimes sounds remarkably like Geoff Tate. 'Uncertainty' is the only bad clunker of the album with a segment containing unusually heavy riffs but also weakly performed vocals and hard-rock cheese in the chorus. 'Season Of Change' starts as a mediocre ballad but builds up to an epic choir instrumental that is quite successful, unlike the clunky epics on the previous album. 'Stratosphere' is a very nice neo-classical instrumental showing off both guitars and keyboards. 'Babylon' is another surprisingly successful epic despite its slower pace, being more Dio with some Middle-Eastern sounds, rather than traditional heavy metal, and succeeding where 'Magic Carpet Ride' failed. 'Night Time Eclipse' is a moderately good epic at eight minutes that is more about wistful anthemic music rather than power, and 'Forever' is a ballad that pretty much works thanks to its classical instruments and semi-Rhapsody-esque approach. The rest of the tracks are all pretty good power-metal. So, despite the move towards more radio-friendly metal, this is a good, varied and rich album and comes recommended.
Visions(T&T - 1997)
A quick follow-up features more of the successful formula of the previous outing only with relatively less variety and instrumental creativity, which makes this album inferior to Episode. But the sound is, once again, power-metal merged with Yngwie Malmsteen (but much less Queensryche), which is an appealing sound, albeit relatively a more commercial one. In fact, the first slower and generic track 'Kiss of Judas' may as well have come off any lesser Yngwie album. It's not bad but it's not great either. Things pick up for the really nice second track however with fast & fun neo-classical power-metal. There are two more speedy power-metal tracks on this album: 'Forever Free' and 'Legions' but they are more generic, so much so that you enjoy them while they are on and instantly forget them when they are done, although to be fair, 'Legions' has a nice solo section and a catchy chorus. 'Before the Winter' is a slower longer epic that is once again very well-done with another enjoyably catchy chorus. 'The Abyss Of Your Eyes' is dull slow heavy metal one without anything going for it. 'Holy Light' is a fun, energetic, very precise and very Yngwie-esque instrumental but is a bit all over the place feeling like a collection of solos. 'Paradise' is mediocre and too pop-metal with its heavy metal guitars and overly happy and catchy chorus. After a nice intro, 'Coming Home' is too satisfied with emulating merely every other cheesy heavy-metal ballad out there. And the final ten-minute title track is simply too much bombastic epic nonsense with clunky writing and a heavy narration, sacrificing music for drama. Altogether, I count only four tracks that I really liked out of ten, and a couple of other acceptable ones. Overall, however, the simplification of their music gets on my nerves. I realize that this is in direct opposition to the masses out there that classify this as the best and most popular Stratovarius album, but since when do the masses have good taste? There's fun to be had here, but definitely check out their much superior Episode first, or instead.
Visions of Europe (live)(T&T - 1998)
A rare live album. This one features many tracks from the last two albums, three tracks from the poor 'Fourth Dimension' album, and nothing further back. I suppose they like their new direction much more than the old, except it would have been very interesting to hear some old tracks with Kotipelto on vocals. Oh well. The energy is palpable and very strong, Kotipelto is quite good though he rarely goes off-tune in high belts (perhaps its a live volume thing) and all the other band members are very good and precise in a live setting, so it's a good live album. On the other hand there is a lot of crowd noise throughout the songs so that could get annoying to some, and the set list is limited. Also included is 'Holy Solos' which is exactly as it sounds, with solos from guitar, keyboards and drums, playing off each other, most of the time just bouncing musical snippets against each other, and it's just good playful fun, though most of it is a drum solo.
Destiny(T&T - 1998)
Another general deterioration towards commercial pop-metal and blandness, despite some songs remaining in the power-metal genre. There are many ballads now, and much 'symphonic' syrupy metal, and one song is even blatantly glam metal. It just goes to demonstrate how close power-metal is to traditional and radio heavy-metal I suppose. The addition of a choir and strings is nice, it's just a pity it is in the service of this easy-listening music, adding more syrup instead of creativity. Once again, as with Visions, there is fun to be had here and some good songs, but even less than with that album. The ten-minute grand opener seems promising at first, and much better than that bloated mess that ended the last album. With choirs, strings, power-metal and a strong theme, it declares an enjoyably symphonic, if anthemic sound, gets a little sentimental in the last third, but is otherwise not-bad and one of the better tracks on the album. Then we get one pop-metal or very cheesy ballad after another, many taking me back to the 80s hair-metal days (I kid you not), some with maddeningly catchy but sickeningly poppy choruses, like junk food that you can't stop eating even though it's giving you a sugar and chemical overload. What happened to the neo-classical or more interesting original music composition from Episode (and I'm not even going back to Dreamspace)? The vocal lines on some ballads are painfully clunky, almost childish. 'No Turning Back' and 'Rebel' are the only speedy ones this time, with a bit of neo-classical, but they feel like they were written without any effort, perhaps by a power-metal algorithm version 0.6alpha. And 'Anthem of the World' is another standout and ten-minute track, which starts shakily but develops into an above-average but flawed power-metal song. So, no, despite this being a very popular album along with Visions, and despite two or three not-bad tracks, these albums are definitely the opposite of Stratovarius at their strongest. Each new album in the popular trio of Episode-Visions-Destiny makes the previous one look better and this last one is simply poor.
Infinite(Nuclear Blast - 2000)
Often a change of record labels can awaken a change for better or worse. I'm guessing the label told them 'whatever it is you're doing, keep doing it because the crowd loves it'. This album rides on the wave of the previous trio of albums and especially Destiny, both in terms of style as well as popularity. It's just more bland cookie-cutter power-metal often with poppy choruses or riffs, or radio-friendly 80s heavy metal, and bombastic/dramatic 'symphonic' longer tracks, many songs with syrupy catchy choruses, heavy-handed use of choirs, and some better moments that prey on your ears. There are two longer 8-9-minute songs here once again: 'Mother Gaia' is a slow ballad-epic that is a mix of sentimental drama and rock-opera (perhaps due to Tolkki's involvement in Avantasia) and is not my taste. But it does show them developing their violin-n-cello compositional skills towards the end and integrating them with guitars nicely. And the 9-minute 'Infinity' is heavy metal bombastic blandness with way too much choir for the most part with a surprising dark and more inspired instrumental middle section that made me hope this was a sign of things to come. 'Phoenix' is a rare good one, featuring strong power-metal similar to Rhapsody and this combines as a one-two punch with the neo-classical keyboard-heavy 'Glory Of The World' taking me back to the much more successful Episode. Except that Episode also was successful in its slower songs and not just with the easier faster power-metal. But then it's right back to 80s melodic and cheesy hard-rock/heavy-metal that borrows some elements from power-metal in 'A Million Light Years Away'. Once again, I only liked two or three tracks and really disliked the general approach of the album. I am a patient man, hoping that bands with talent will re-find or re-discover their inspiration, but this is where I start considering getting off the Stratovarius train.
Elements Part 1(Nuclear Blast - 2003)
Reviews of this album described it as being more experimental, less good and less similar to the previous four releases. This greatly interested me and gave me hope. Unfortunately, it turns out that the new direction is what I call symphonic movie-soundtrack metal, similar in some ways to Nightwish only moodier and more sentimental, and it is not a genre I generally enjoy. Also, this only makes an appearance on the longer tracks, and it seems that Stratovarius couldn't completely abandon their more popular sound from recent albums. The opener is more dull pop-metal and sounds identical to previous Stratovarius singles. Both 'Find Your Own Voice' and 'Learning to Fly' are more merely OK but uninspired speedy power-metal tracks, with much more interesting neo-classical solo sections. 'Stratofortress' is a fun neo-classical instrumental with technically impressive virtuosic super-fast playing and duets. And now on to the 'different' tracks: 'Soul of a Vagabond' is longer, slower, heavy and darker, but like 'Infinity' from the previous release, it doesn't do anything interesting for a long time and over-uses choirs. There is also a cheap use of orchestration for mere punctuation like Metallica did with S&M. Why don't metal bands realize that an orchestra is not a mere single instrument to be used as if it were backing keyboards? 'Fantasia' has a kitchen-sink approach to music that ranges from a sentimental children's adventure movie soundtrack to cheesy theatrical power-metal opera, bad vocals and bad orchestration straight from a bad Avantasia album, and all put together very incoherently. Disney gone metal, and not in a good way. 'Papillon' is an interesting, but not successful, song on this album, being a melancholy symphonic composition including an intro with vocals from a young boy, and it is much better than most of the cheesy ballads they have been releasing lately, except the tone is jarring between the happy metal songs, and it is much more moody soundtrack than metal, and Kotipelto doesn't sound comfortable here with ear-piercing belts. 'Elements' is a pretty good 12-minute epic and probably the only successful new composition on the album. There is still too much bombastic soundtrack-inspired Nightwish music for my taste, but it coheres and builds and develops, contains some beautiful segments, and I could even hear a tiny bit of Dreamspace in there. If the entire album were similar only with some variety, it may have worked. The album ends with an unfortunately schmaltzy ballad. One more thing: Kotipelto was not always 100% precise in the past, but he was generally quite good, and here he seems to be making more off-tune mistakes. In summary: On the one hand, it is a good thing that Stratovarius is experimenting again instead of repeating commercial and uninspired music; on the other hand, I don't like this new direction. And the mix of styles both old and new with an interleaving song order is jarring.
Elements Part 2(Nuclear Blast - 2003)
Given the title and the fact that this was released in the same year, it's obvious that this is a double-album release, only released as separate CDs just to make it more flexible for buyers. Which is a good thing. But it also means the music is the same as in the previous album. From the pondering, slower, choir-heavy, bombastic, dramatic movie-soundtrack-songs, to the pop-metal single, the generic speed-power-metal, grandly sentimental mood-pieces, cheesy ballad, to the slightly flawed vocals. See the previous review, except this one is less experimental and doesn't have a standout song like 'Elements'. But it does have 'Know the Difference' where Jen shines once again above everyone else on keyboards, this time with a neo-classical solo containing touches of jazz.
Stratovarius(Sanctuary - 2005)
This is where things broke down. Tolkki became unstable, temporary breakups, publicity stunts, strange behaviour, and then this, one last strange album. The music is just plain uninspired heavy metal with some Stratovarius commercial syrup. No speed-metal, barely any power-metal, no neo-classical, and much reduced symphonic epic metal, with a couple of recognizable Stratovarius pop-metal tracks. It's almost a completely different band, and not a good one, sometimes even in the genre of melodic hard rock. One or two songs sound like Bon Jovi on a bad day with extra keyboards. No one seems to be putting in any effort, and there are no proper solos. There is one bizarre surprise on 'Back To Madness' with a crooning male opera singer that comes out of nowhere, and it ends with a speech that only a depressed lunatic could write. The last song is ironically titled 'United'. A catastrophe album if I ever heard one.
Polaris(earMUSIC - 2009)
This band did something unheard of and somewhat questionable: After the last remaining original band member and cornerstone of the band (Tolkki) broke up the band, the remaining members got him to sign over the rights and continued with two new members and the same band name. Now regardless of the reasons behind all this, what really happened, and how you feel about each side, it is a strange move. Why not simply start a new band? Obviously the only reason is to cash in on the brand name and popularity. All that drama aside, the album opens with an interesting track that is somehow both pop-metal and progressive (Symphony X style not Dream Theater), making me sit up and pay attention to this new sound. There is a sharper edge to this album with new ideas and musical flair that shakes off the stagnant sound and simplistic, overly commercial approach of the previous popular Stratovarius stage, but without dropping the radio-friendly and melodic core. Unfortunately, this progression is not used consistently throughout this album. The first half is much stronger than the second, but contains several simpler throwbacks, and the second half greatly overuses ballads, slow and dramatic music, sometimes making me think again of rock-opera with melodic and dramatic vocals, a show-tune approach, and story-telling music. That said, on most songs the instrumental section is very nice, with great varied solos from both guitar and keyboards (not just neo-classical now), and with more interesting musical development. The really good tracks are 'Deep Unknown' and the slower but inspired, soaring 'King of Nothing', and a whole album with a similar approach would have been awesome. 'Blind' is a nice speedy power-metal one, albeit more conventional, but the extra atmospheric intro adds a nice layer and the instrumental section is really great, elevating the track. 'Falling Star' is not bad but has a semi-poppy chorus (as well as a nice traditional metal instrumental). 'Winter Skies' is a slightly sappy ballad but it grows on you, especially thanks to the nice instrumental and last third, bringing to mind 'Before the Winter' from Visions. 'Forever is Today' is very formulaic, faster power-metal, enjoyable, but forgettable. They've done this same song a couple dozen times already. 'Higher We Go' is where the album becomes much weaker, this track being even more formulaic, and too happy in a cloying and slightly cheesy way, bringing to mind 'Paradise' from Visions. The rest (five tracks) are mostly uninteresting or poor ballads, bombast or drama ('Somehow Precious' has a strong chorus but everything else is corny). But I must admit the first part of the 'Emancipation' two-parter grew on me. It starts as a slow, middling, almost-great Dio-esque track that never really takes off, but the wonderfully musical final two minutes elevate the whole track nicely. Overall, this album is both exciting, and disappointing that there isn't nearly enough of the good stuff. If you stop listening halfway right after 'Forever is Today' and add the first half of 'Emancipation', you'll have yourself a not-bad to quite-good 40-minute album.
Elysium(earMUSIC - 2011)
I was hoping that they would develop and expand the new, more exciting sound with which they merely flirted in Polaris and, thankfully, that's exactly what they did. Once again, the base is catchy melodic metal or power-metal, but this time with many interesting compositional elements, many of them in the instrumental sections, elements that some would call progressive even though many are relatively simple. But these do make the music sound fresh and inspired in contrast to so many past Stratovarius releases. It's as if they hired Symphony X to lightly spice up a standard Stratovarius catchy radio-metal album, and somehow the two styles combined seamlessly. The final majestic 18-minute title-track masterpiece, however, is almost purely progressive metal, with a firm power-metal core. Best of all, this is by far the most consistently good release since Episode, and, ironically, possibly the best Stratovarius album 25 years after their formation and when no original band members are left (though Episode and Dreamspace have some unique advantages). It's not perfect, as there is plenty of poppy-sounding metal in the first half, and the keyboards are progressing but also moving further into 80s territories, a handful of songs and segments sounding like Journey with a light metal boost. If you thought Stratovarius wrote maddeningly catchy choruses beforehand, you've heard nothing yet. This album takes that to another level and 'Infernal Maze' exemplifies this in a rhapsodic song that is infectious and joyous from start to finish in a good way. It's just a pity about the poppier elements in a few other tracks. 'Darkest Hours' is a perfect example of all the above, with 80s keyboards and catchy pop-power-metal that doesn't cross the border into cheese so it's a good one, and yet the short instrumental section is majestically dark and lightly progressive, Symphony X style. 'Lifetime in a Moment' is a standout, darker, unusual and atmospheric track that, ironically, if not for the keyboards and electronics, could have come off of Dreamspace. 'Fairness Justified' shifts between 80s rock and anthemic arena-symphonic chorus metal, but successfully. 'Move The Mountain' is the one 'ballad' and it is too sappy for me, but even this one is slightly different and almost tolerable but not as good as 'Winter Skies' from Polaris. 'The Game Never Ends' and 'Event Horizon' are both quite fun speedier tracks and impressively played, the latter with neo-classical keys and an entertaining countdown siren. And then there's the aforementioned 18-minute work that alone makes this album strongly recommended regardless of how you feel about the rest. It's packed with so much great music throughout its multiple movements and segments that you lose yourself in it for 18 minutes even during its slower third. Kotipelto has never sounded better, in fact he sounds awesome here and every band member shines without hogging the spotlight on any song. Nicely done!
Under Flaming Winter Skies - Live In Tampere(earMUSIC - 2012)
A special live release and concert that says goodbye to the drummer Jörg Michael as yet another band member leaves Stratovarius. It's a double-CD. The set-list is populist, meaning that it selects mostly singles and popular tracks from all the previous Stratovarius stage with Tolkki, surprisingly including only three or so tracks from the recent (much better) albums. So this doesn't really represent their best material, only their most popular. Once again, the first three albums seemingly don't exist. There are also no less than four solos, one from each band member (the bass stands out with some interesting stuff), a short speech by the drummer, and two covers (Deep Purple and The Who). The production and mix sound relatively muddy and unbalanced to my ears, especially compared to Visions, but it's tolerable, the energy is not bad, and the precision by all the performers is quite good with some rare sloppier moments. Overall, a very average live album.
Nemesis(earMUSIC - 2013)
Oh no; what happened to the progressive metal? This album is another re-imagining of the Stratovarius sound, only this time the new direction is increased pop-metal, and power-metal with electronica(!), as well as heavier use of choir vocals. Now I've been claiming ever since Visions that Stratovarius shows too-strong tendencies towards pop-metal, and this emerged in many cloying singles over the years, along with many other tracks that flirted with the border between cheese and fun upbeat power-metal. But on this album they come out of the closet completely. The 80s keyboards we've been hearing intermittently in the past couple of albums break out with a vengeance, sometimes sounding like 80s pop now, along with electronica, sometimes even of the club-dance type. It's not as terrible as it sounds, and some of the integrations of power-metal with electronica on this album are surprisingly successful; but, yeah, this is not my genre anymore and much of the album is simply pop-metal. The extra lower booming guitar layer and mix on this album can't hide this fact. Even the drumming is sometimes simplistic, often artificial-sounding and so precise it often sounds like electronics and designed for dance. That is not to say that this is the only sound on the album. Like all Stratovarius albums, the tracks are varied, which is why Stratovarius reviews often require a track-by-track commentary. The problem with even the more standard metal tracks, however, are that they are very generic and forgettable this time. The first track is not-bad energetic power-metal but somewhat mechanical and is trying too hard to be epic with heavy but simplistic use of symphonic keyboards and choirs. 'Unbreakable' is like a keyboard-heavy 80s Europe song with heavier guitars and a cheesy pop-rock chorus. 'Fantasy' is similarly cheesy pop-metal. 'Stand my Ground' is a somewhat interesting but chaotic darker one, starting in almost industrial fashion with a mechanical riff and rhythm, then switches to too-choir-heavy power-metal with a great progressive Dream-Theater-esque solo section. 'Halcyon Days' is like a club-remix of power-metal with heavy electronica but also with some very striking dark arrangements on some segments, especially with the dark theme on choir. The heavy use of dance electronica ruins it though and it wouldn't be the first time I am torn between the good and bad segments on a single Stratovarius song. 'Out of the Fog' is a throwback to slightly more complex and heavy guitar power-metal, and it's got a folk-dance middle section, but it's not special otherwise. 'Castles in the Air' starts like an Elton John piano song, I kid you not. But then it erupts into another plodding anthemic metal track with too much choir, but with a great extended instrumental segment that even tries a speck of jazz. 'Dragons' is back to 80s keyboard-heavy cheesy, party hard-rock. 'One Must Fall' experiments with more electronica and hard rock cheese, this time in an uninteresting way. Then there's a cheesy ballad. And, finally, the title-track is better, moderately interesting power-metal but nothing great. So except for some interesting segments and the first and last track, I did not enjoy this one one bit. No sir. Hold the cheese next time please.
Eternal(earMUSIC - 2015)
Thankfully, except for one track on this album, they took a step back from pop-metal and electronica and reverted back to standard power-metal for the most part (plus some of their usual, more commercial tracks). Unfortunately the new general direction on this album is extra bombast, AKA pseudo-'epic' metal, with a massive amounts of keyboards and choirs, and most of the choruses sung as a group, all of this emphasizing (what is wrongfully classified as) symphonic metal. In addition, behind all that bombastic sound, the power-metal is actually pretty generic, barring a few outstanding compositional exceptions. At least they kept some of the good solos and instrumental sections going, and rarely, but not frequently enough, borrow some short-lived Symphony X sounds. But, overall, this album is not only too loud, it is very syrupy, and mostly anthemic power-metal thanks to the constant choir vocals. And the compressed production only adds to the ear-fatigue. Kotipelto seems to be losing a bit of his power and range, albeit he is still very good. But I wonder if this move towards more choirs is an attempt to mask or boost the vocals. The album also has one of the most consistent sounds of any Stratovarius album I remember. But this bombastic sound, even when used for a good power-metal track, is only enjoyable for one or two tracks and after that it becomes very tiring. Standouts (there aren't many) include the electronica track 'Man in the Mirror', the very strong opener 'My Eternal Dream', and the last 12-minute track 'The Lost Saga' with beautiful choir arrangements book-ending the song, and some nice soaring segments in the middle, but which otherwise uses the same overdone bombast and ubiquitous multi-layered dense keyboards. So despite the reliable Stratovarius power-metal genre in use on this album and some good compositions, this was a very difficult listen and hard on the ears. I found this album way too noisy, with too much bombast and a too-simplistic approach to making 'epic' music. I listened to Elysium right after this album and it was like someone had instantly cleaned out my ears and cured my headache.