Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Stratovarius' 'Eternal' - Album Review

The last few years have been extremely fruitful and consistent for Finnish power metal veterans Stratovarius. The departure of their main songwriter and guitarist Timo Tolkki, a  move which would have totally crippled many bands, gave Stratovarius the wake up call they needed, and three quality studio albums have been released since 2009. Stratovarius are in a strange position in the fact that their current line-up actually contains none of the band's founding members. However, singer Timo Kotipelto and keyboardist Jens Johansson (who has just been announced as the keyboardist for Ritchie Blackmore's reformed version of Rainbow for his rock shows next year!) have been in the band since 1994 and 1995 respectively, and were a key part of the band's growth and success throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Eternal, the band's fifteenth studio album, is similar in sound to the albums have released since Tolkki's departure and the addition of guitarist Matias Kupiainen, who also acts as the band's producer. Nemesis, the band's previous album which I reviewed here, started to add some more modern elements to the band's sound. The electronics and synthy sounds heard on that album sounded like a reaction to the success of bands like Amaranthe, and they worked for Stratovarius. It seems the band have elected to not continue down this path however, so this album has more in common with 2009's Polaris and 2011's Elysium, than it does with Nemesis - despite all four albums being recognisably Stratovarius. In a slightly strange move, Kotipelto has brought in his friend Jani Liimatainen (Sonata Arctica; Cain's Offering) to assist the band with songwriting. He contributed two songs to the band's last album, but this time his influence is much greater and he co-writes eight of the album's ten tracks. Kotipelto obviously enjoys working with Liimatainen, as their two Cain's Offering albums clearly show, but I hope his inclusion here was done because it was deemed best for Stratovarius and not because of the lack of credible material coming from anyone else. Kupiainen co-writes four, bassist Lauri Porra co-writes one, and Johansson is solely responsible for two. Kotipelto also co-writes eight songs, so his and Liimatainen's influences are the driving forces behind Eternal. In comparison to the band's recent work, Eternal does not quite stand up to the previous three albums in my opinion. It is an album that starts and ends well, but sags a little in the middle. That being said, this is still a hugely enjoyable album and full of the classy power metal songs the band have built their reputation on.

My Eternal Dream kicks things off with all the pomp that you expect from a Stratovarius album. Rolf Pilve's fast drum beat works well as a backing for Johansson's majestic keyboard lead. Stratovarius' keyboards have always had that 1980s snyth quality, instead of going for the overblown strings of other bands. Prominent, cheesy keyboards are always a key element of the band's sound, and this song is no different. Kotipelto is in fine voice throughout this album, and there is a big chorus here for him to sink his teeth into. His voice matches the keyboard line note for note, and the combination is powerful. Kupiainen's solo is right out of the Yngwie Malmsteen songbook, with neo-classical runs and a duel section with Johansson. Shine in the Dark is one of the few songs on this album with the Amaranthe-esque synths, which work well to provide some melody in the song's intro. This is a song of two halves. I find the verses here rather weak, with a lacklustre vocal performance; but as soon as the pre-chorus kicks in the song is taken up a couple of notches. The soaring, powerful vocal delivery here is a far cry from the poor verse vocals, and the lines themselves are extremely catchy. In the end it is an enjoyable song, but not one of the band's best. Rise Above It is a fast power metal song with a big guitar lead backed up by a fast drum pattern. This channels the classic Stratovarius sound, with prominent and variable guitar riffs sitting below the vocals, and a big chorus that goes for the wall-of-sound approach with layers of keyboards and harmony vocals. There is an over-the-top instrumental section, that is so crazy that it is difficult to hear what is going on! Lost Without a Trace, written by Porra, is slower than the rest of the material heard so far. An epic intro soon gives way to a gentle acoustic guitar melody that forms the basis of the song's verses. It gradually builds up, adding pulsing bass guitar lines and subtle keyboard textures. Even when the chorus kicks in the song is still fairly low-key, despite Kotipelto's irresistible vocal lines that are extremely memorable. A slightly heavier, discordant riffing sections leads into a guitar that relies on long sustained notes to build tension rather than the speed runs the band are usually known for. Feeding the Fire opens out with a keyboard riff that is similar to that of My Eternal Dream, but it becomes a guitar-driven song with some excellent riffs and dramatic choral sections that add gothic overtones to parts of the song. This is soon dispelled once the chorus comes in however, as the powerful melodies take over in true Stratovarius style.

In My Line of Work is a fairly standard song from the band, but is made special by having one of the best choruses on the album. The rest of the song is fairly nondescript, but the chorus is just full of so many powerful melodies that you cannot help but love the song. If it was not for the chorus, this song would be rather throw-away because there are not really any memorable riffs here, but the chorus just dominates and makes the song stand out. Man in the Mirror is properly memorable however, and is probably my favourite song on the album. This is one of Johansson's writing contributions, and I feel he has always been the band's secret weapon. His songs are always slightly different to the 'usual' Stratovarius sound, with complex keyboard arrangements, but still full of all the power metal goodness that makes the band what they are. The synths throughout the song have lots of great textures to them, and some more of those Amaranthe-style electronics are used to good effect. Unsurprisingly, the song also features a great keyboard solo, and Johansson manages to steal Kupiainen's thunder as the songs leads into a final reprise of the dramatic chorus - wonderful stuff! The bass-heavy Few are Those fails to live up the high expectations set by the previous song. This is one of those songs you sometimes get on albums that are just totally forgettable. They are not bad enough to make them stand out, but they are totally lacking in any memorable musical sections that they just pass you by without making an impact. It's placing might not help, but either way Few are Those is the album's weakest and least interesting song. Fire in Your Eyes, also by Johansson, is the album's ballad. Opening with just piano and Kotipelto's voice, it gives your ears a short break from the fast-paced metal that makes up the rest of the album. The song does get heavier however, but it never becomes anything more than a ballad. It works well though, and features some excellent guitar work from Kupiainen during his extended solo mid-way through. It is slightly overshadowed though by The Lost Saga, the album's longest and final song. At just under 12 minutes long, this is a progressive epic that is great throughout. There are obviously many different sections that song moves through, but the opening bombastic section is the best, as Kotipelto makes himself heard against a backdrop of a big guitar riff and a potent choir. There is even a section in there that has a thrash feel to it, with a heavy riff set to one of Pilve's heaviest drum patterns. Acoustic sections, and atmospheric guitar solos are also thrown into the mix, and the result is a song that is perfect to and the album on. Great stuff! Overall, Eternal is another good album from Stratovarius in a string of solid releases. They will never top their best work, but they continue to remain interesting and creative in later life, and that can only be a good thing.

The album was released on 11th September 2015 via earMusic. Below is the band's promotional video for My Eternal Dream.

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