Released: 2005, Sanctuary Records
After a turbulent year, Stratovarius has emerged from the soap opera that was the band with a new self-titled album and a new approach. The music is still clearly identifiable as Stratovarius, but the trademark speed is completely absent from the new album as is the presence of most (not all) shredding guitars and most of the blazing keyboard solos that the pair are known for. Despite the changes, and the missing ingredients, the songs are catchy and quite good. However, this will not go down in history with the fond memories surrounding VISIONS (for example). The good news is that Stratovarius are back, and have not simply released what we could stylistically call ELEMENTS PT3. While we might begrudge the changes on this album, it is good to hear a change from Stratovarius. I just wish the album would of kept to this style for about ½ of the material, but would of had several much FASTER songs....songs like “Speed of Light”, “Black Diamond”, “Forever Free”, “Father Time”, No Turning Back” etc...ah well, we still have the back Stratolog to listen to, and with luck a long future of releases that will again mix things up in terms of the song tempos. So let’s get on to the album at hand... (warning long winded ranting from a Stratofreak is about to ensue).
After a Pain / 80's video game-inspired keyboard intro, the opening track and first single “Maniac Dance” chimes in with the line: “This year has a been a nightmare. I’ve been so low, I don’t care.” Nice way to sum up the past year for the band I guess! Right away you’ll notice Timo Kotipelto’s vocals sounding grittier than usual (not something done on the rest of the album thankfully - it’s cool for one song though). The song is also straight forward timing wise, setting the tone for the whole album. The solo features Tolkki using a lot of wah effect, not something he’s usually obsessed with. The song sounds catchy and fresh..something that any fan of melodic metal and even 80's glam/pop metal would eat up! Maybe this one will win them some new fans if they give it a chance.
Next is the track “Fight!!!” and no, this does not sound like Halford’s band Fight. Ha! This is classic-sounding Strato in terms of the progressions and changes. Again, the chorus is simple, yet brilliant...and one more the solo has a fair bit of wah effect again...hmm.
By the time you get to the third track, “Just Carry On”, you will probably wonder where keyboardist, Jens Johansson, is in all this? He’s not to the forefront anywhere and that’s really too bad. I REALLY miss the dueling solos sections between Timo and Jens...yeah they’ve done it before and I can listen to the old albums to hear it, but c’mon, don’t burry talent like that!! The song “Just Carry On” is a bit on the happy side, even for Strato. It’s an ok tune, nothing to freak out over that’s for sure.
“Back To Madness” begins with piano (finally Jens emerges).This sounds like older Strato and brings back the epic feel missing from the album so far. The opera breakdown at about 2:30 is retarded with the “aaaaaa aaaahhaa whaaaaa aahaaaaa” etc.. - silly and unnecessary for sure. The song gets back on track, and since it’s well over 7mins long, there’s still plenty of coolness in here....until about 6mins in when the song goes into a cacophony of voices followed by a speech that sounds like it comes from The Matrix - think Morpheus talking to Neo about not belonging etc. This is definitely one of the stranger but still cool tracks of the album.
“Gypsy In Me” begins and when the riff comes in and the drums are building up you’re just waiting for Jörg to slam in with his trademark double kicking and return to what Strato do best...but no, the album speed limit gets enforced and the song doesn’t go where it should of. I found that frustrating for this song...big time! The chorus on the song redeems it to some degree...still, unleash the drums damnit! Finally on this song we get a keyboard solo from Jens...about bloody time too!
Next up is the track “Götterdämmerung (Zenith Of Power)”. It was originally to be called “Hitler” but the over sensitive German record label were quite nervous about it...perhaps because it originally started with a speech from the Fuhrer himself. His mad ravings can be heard (I think) at the end of the track buried deep in the mix (anyone know what’s being said??). So yeah, this song is one of my favs on here...in part due to the lyrics (yes they are anti-Hitler, so no idea what the objection was). Stylistically, I would compare this one to the older Strato track, “Babylon”. It’s not quite the same, and it’s missing the monk choir of the damned, but it’s in the same galaxy anyway. The only problem with this song is the outro which lasts too long and the keyboard part at the end kept repeating too much for me.
“The Land of Ice & Snow” will not be remembered as one of Strato’s better ballads. Timo K. Sounds a little horse in places on here as well which is strange since his voice is usually clear. In terms of ballads, give me “Before The Winter”, “Venus in the Morning”, or “Mother Gaia” over this....not a bad song but meh.
“Leave The Tribe” has a nice epic Strato feel at the beginning. When the verse gets going and then the one note thumping gets going on the bass I get quite annoyed. Why not play something interesting rather than “gonk, gonk gonk gonk”? Minus the crappy bassline, the song has it’s moments for sure.
Closing track“United” also has some of that mindless bass playing again in the verses. Weird, I’ve never noticed Strato having crappy bass lines until these 2 songs. Well maybe Jari ran out of ideas here or maybe Timo T. Told him to play bass like he was in AC/DC?!
As a long time fan of Stratovarius, I am quite happy that the band has put out a new album. It’s not exactly what I’d hoped for, but then again at least there is a new album with this line-up! When looking at the bands entire discography, this is not a complete letdown. The album has it’s moments even though I’ll never understand, or agree with, the enforcement of an album speed limit. Hopefully on the next one they’ll rip it up with MANY faster songs, dueling shredding guitar/keyboard solos, double kicking drums...the arena where Strato shines best.