I had a torrid but brief love affair with power metal in the late 90s. Like most flings one has in their late teens and early 20s, it left a taste in my mouth so bitter that I did my best to forget it entirely. But I did retain soft spots for a precious few bands of the genre’s elite. Stratovarius is one of those precious few, and anyone who tries to tell me that “Episode” and “Visions” aren’t among power metal’s high water marks even today will get a solid earful from me, even if I’ve mostly ignored the genre for over two decades.
As glorious as their mid-90s run was, the Strato machine had started to lose steam by the decade’s end. “Destiny” and “Infinite” are by no means bad albums, and they both boast some absolute bangers of the “classic” era, but I guess following up two damn-near flawless records was a task too great even for them. It wasn’t long before Timo Tolkki and crew got a bit too high-minded with the “Elements” albums, which despite having gems like “Eagleheart,” just fell flat on my deaf, progsnob ears. I was officially done with this band even before those absurd publicity stunts that preceded their ill-conceived eponymous album, and wasn’t I exactly shocked when the band fractured. Such a sad end to what had started off as an amazing trek.
I’ve been fully aware for over a decade that Stratovarius had revamped, rejuvenated, and had reportedly been doing quite well for themselves, and I feel no shame at all for not actually giving them a fair listen until now. (Single parenthood has a way of making you re-evaluate your priorities, so don’t @ me). I’m pleased to report that only does Stratovarius 3.0 absolutely own the stages on which they perform, they’ve learned how to make compelling and enjoyable records again without spinning the wheels of their former selves.
It’s hard to believe that “Survive” is only the fifth album of the post-Tolkki era, given that it’s been thirteen years since guitarist Matias Kupiainen first graced us with his fleet-fingered wickedness. The pace at which the “Episode” lineup worked – seven albums in nine years! – surely played a fair role in their decline of quality and their inevitable implosion; moderating that pace seems to have not only helped Strato 3.0 deliver the goods, but by all accounts, it’s also benefited the camaraderie among the band itself. It’s a lot easier to do great work if you don’t hate your co-workers.
Lead single “Survive” is possibly the most faithful song to the revamped Stratovarius sound: unapologetically heavy and modern without sacrificing the band’s identity, it defiantly pounces through the earbuds/speakers/whathaveyou in a fit that declares without obliquity that this band has overcome the many hardships thrown into its timeline and into that of the world at large. It is fervently recalcitrant, and along with damn near every second of this album, embodies the trait my younger self valued most in power metal: it makes the listener feel alive.
“Broken” begins with Kupiainen and Pilve chugging in perfectly tense rhythmic unison that creeps up behind you like a nefarious stranger. Johansson, content to temper his incalculable skill, tinkers with sounds more becoming of Eurodance than, say, that “Last Viking” album he did with his brother Anders and some guy named Mike Romeo. Not that this relatively recent direction strays Johansson entirely from the Garlic Trumpet soloing he’s known for – he delivers a blistering trade-off with Matias on this cut. But it’s clear that as even as Strato’s elder statesman, Jens is not above modifying his approach in order to defy stagnation.
It’s not power metal unless there’s an element of cheese, and those layers of lactose are thankfully pretty light on “Firefly,” an upbeat earworm that shares only infectiousness with the Fates Warning song of the same title. I could certainly do without the opening chorus and without the high harmonies Timo and Matias sprinkle throughout the song, particularly the ones that close it. But that’s a small price to pay for such a brief and addictive tune, and its cheese doesn’t hold a candle to the 1000% true-metal throwback “Glory Days,” which is the wind, is the rain, rises from shadows brighter than the sun, and fights for all in the album’s sole moment of deliberate self-cloning. It does benefit from an interlude that recalls the Symphony X classic “Sea of Lies,” but otherwise varies from tolerable to unbearable depending on my mood. I have no doubt that the power metal faithful will love this track.
“Before the Fall” follows with anthemic, almost soccer-crowd chanting heralding the band’s return from their longest break. The now fully solidified roster of Kupiainen, bassist Lauri Porra (a direct descendant of Jean Sibelius, btw), and drummer Rolf Pilve joining long-timers Timo Kotipelto and Jens Johansson wastes zero time in getting to the point; “Before the Fall” is an immediate crowd pleaser, hitting on everything the band has done right – frenetic drumming, catchy-as-hell hooks, and an upbeat disposition – while also steering clear of any overpowering baroque flair despite the orchestral undercurrents near the song’s conclusion. There’s even a moment just before Timo Kotipelto delivers his first notes of the album that could have been lifted from Eluveitie, that Swiss nine-piece folk metal horde. Hell, the entire cut is almost uncharacteristically heavy, finishing off with Matias fanatically stacatto-ing his way to the finish line while Pilve damn near breaks into a blast beat. A competent growler could have shrieked their way over this entire song, and it would have rightly earned the “melodeth” badge and been embraced by fans of Dark Tranquillity, Children of Bodom, and such. This might be the heaviest moment in the entire Stratovarius oeuvre. You don’t often see mosh pits at power metal shows, but I won’t be shocked if it happens during this song.
Having set the tone for the orchestra’s role for the rest of the album, Stratovarius then gives us a number of mid-paced bangers that broaden their sound ever so slightly around the edges while remaining faithful to their legacy. Wisely moving past the cool-but-overdone Bach rock noodling that was such a key part of the band’s past – the few harpsichords and shameless Yngwie shout-outs found here are subdued when compared to the band’s 90s output – “Survive” relegates those flourishes to an also-wisely subdued orchestra that they smartly assign to the background, there to support the song rather than compete for the audience’s attention.
The fromagefest is fortunately book-ended by some songs that will surely become Strato classics: the epic-leaning “Frozen in Time” and the absolutely epic “Voice of Thunder.” Both these cuts clock in longer than their neighbors (the latter is just over eleven minutes long) and feature each musician at the top of their game; even the 53-year-old Koti belts out wails that a lesser singer would have required post-production trickery to nail. I’m fairly certain the gentlemen of Stratovarius are above that sort of dishonesty.
Both of these songs also stand out because of their particularly brilliant inconspicuous callbacks to earlier Strato classics. “Survive” is peppered throughout with subtle nods to older songs, lightly but flavorfully spicing some already tasty material. I won’t ruin any surprises, but if you don’t smile when you hear echoes of “The Abyss of Your Eyes,” “Destiny,” Visions,” and “The Kiss of Judas,” you probably don’t love this band as much as you think you do.
Order “Survive” HERE.
Released By: earMusic
Released On: September 23rd, 2022
Genre: Power Metal
- Timo Kotipelto / Vocals
- Jens Johansson / Keyboards
- Lauri Porra / Bass
- Matias Kupiainen / Guitars
- Rolf Pilve / Drums
“Survive” track listing:
5. We Are Not Alone
6. Frozen In Time
7. World On Fire
8. Glory Days
10. Before The Fall
11. Voice Of Thunder
With “Survive,” Stratovarius cement their status as one of the very few bands out there to have created winning streaks with more than just one “classic” lineup, and does so in a way that honors their illustrious past without merely aping it. Doubters who might accuse them of scabbery would do well to disabuse themselves of that tempting but flatly wrong accusation. Stratovarius 3.0 is so much more than a mere Stratovarius tribute band, and they’ve proven beyond any reasonable doubt that their current output stands up not just to their past, but more importantly, stands on its own as well