Friday, January 14, 2011

Stratovarius - Elysium (2011)

Stratovarius were once an extremely promising band (around 1994-1998). That is, if you could hang with their brand of entirely too safe, heavily formulaic and polished fare which is among the poppiest of all power/flower metal in all of Europe; but they've faltered numerous times since all their Timo & Timo drama ensued in the early 21st century. Elysium joins in their endless tirade of pretty, single word titled albums (I bet they wish they could take the titles for Fright Night, Twilight Time and Fourth Dimension back). It's their second album post-Timo Tolkki, and 13th overall, and as luck would have it, they've managed to overcome the stigma of that particular number and release something decent, superior to the underwhelming Polaris in all categories.

The general strength of this album lies in its sheer variety, for few numbers here sound alike. Veterans Timo Kotipelto, Jens Johansson and Jörg Michael all turn in the expected performance of seasoned veterans, but even better, Matias Kupiainen and Lauri Porra have truly fallen in line with their respective instruments; Kupiainen taking a page straight out of the Tolkki book of shredding, and Porra laying it down thick (though the bass was never this band's focal point). They also manage to produce hooks together that are effective and occasionally breathtaking. Airy, glistening synths capitalize on the low end, simple groove guitars that anchor "Darkest Hours", in which even the verse sounds pretty good. "Under Flaming Skies" is likewise pretty straightforward and heavy, but the chorus is catchy, and I love the bell-like pads Jens is using; "Infernal Maze" seems like an old school Stratovarius track, one you've heard before but still soothes the ears.

The band get a little more ambitious though, with the arena melter "Fairness Justified". You can just picture all those lighters as the chords crush into the graceful, sad lead around 2:20. "The Game That Never Ends" lets Porra pump out a little louder, and "Lifetime in a Moment" is another pure 80s plodder, like Triumph or Journey given the bold new flesh of Finnish flower metal, some nice chords ringing in to signify the verse shifts. The 'ballad', "Move the Mountain" is admittedly pretty cheesy and disposable, but then they compensate with another of their pure Episode like thrusters, "Event Horizon". Closing out the album is the 18 minute "Elysium", which is about half quality riffing and transitions and half forgettable, a 50:50 ratio of 'we should have cut this down to size'. I'll just say it's not the sort of epic I want to listen through repeatedly just to scrounge for the good bits, because they're just not that good.

Stratovarius are of course not reassessing themselves or reinventing any wheel, thus the most refreshing bits on this album will feel very familiar to long time fans of the band. The mix of material reminds me of Infinite or Elements, which were about the same quality as this. I felt that the previous album had a few stronger songs at the fore and then drifted off into lollipop land, but this one only rarely dips its scrotum into the candy, with the weakest material only coming in at the final third. Despite the new members having been with the band for a couple years now, it still feels similar to Tolkki's writing, so it's unlikely to alienate anyone. Though the writing doesn't match up with the band's strongest history, and the individual songs are unlikely to spark reminiscence even a few years down the line, it's enjoyable enough for a few spins.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

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