|Review: Stratovarius - Episode|
Label: Noise Records
Year released: 1996
Genre: Power Metal
Review online: April 12, 2009
Reviewed by: Larry Griffin
Rated 4.41/5 (88.24%) (34 Votes)
Stratovarius are subject to a lot of clashing opinions in the metal scene, but if there's one thing that just can't be denied, it's the majesty of their middle streak from The Fourth Dimension to Destiny. All of these albums had extreme high points, hitting a creative zenith that the Power Metal scene has struggled to eclipse (and mostly failed) ever since. It's a lot like Virgin Steele's mid-period, actually, with every album having vastly different strengths and doing different things well, and if you asked me which one of these four albums was the best, I would definitely point you to this one.
Episode is a masterful construction of stunning variety and shimmering Power Metal gold, and the surprising thing about it is just how hard it is to get into. Most Power Metal is relatively catchy and easy to like, even the heavier and more pugilistic stuff, so it's quite an oddity to find something this esoteric and layered that doesn't cross over into the Prog realm. Oh, sure, Kamelot started doing that a few years after this, but this came from a time when most European Power Metal bands were just focusing on shallow hooks and catchy Speed Metal riffs, and it really stands out from that perspective. This album has much more depth than you'd expect, with some songs being fast speed-blazers and some of them being heavy, doomy stompers, with a few ballads thrown in between.
The songwriting is just ace, unfolding with multiple listens into the calculated, kingly masterpiece that it is. "Father Time" opens with a clock ticking (imagine that!), and then it rips its own guts out into a myriad of fast riffing and a chorus so high-pitched that it might attract dogs to your window if you play it loud enough. "Will the Sun Rise?" is the best fast song on here, with a huge, complex chorus with a better riff and a nice build-up - Koltipelto has this awesome inflection when he's singing this sort of stuff; his vocal melodies were really unmatched in Power Metal back then. I don't think anyone else has quite captured this art of making verse and pre-choruses sound so damn good, not in the way he does. "Speed of Light" has a cool chorus, but it's honestly not as remarkable as the first two speedsters preceding it. "Tomorrow" is also cool, with a triumphant chorus and a lead-in melody that was so cool that Sonata Arctica stole it for "San Sebastian." "Stratosphere" is their best instrumental, with lots of depth and time changes, going from speedy and trilling to slow and atmospheric.
Stratovarius does atmosphere really well here, with a thick production and a sort of mystical aura around a lot of the songs here that makes them sound like they came from the lost city of Atlantis, or some equally mysterious land. It's very cool, and the band would never again utilize it to the same level as they do here. Just listen to the eerie build-up of "Seasons of Change," for example, with its subtle melodies and delicate keyboards, exploding into a haunting mid-paced number in its last minutes. Or how about the towering "Babylon," with its Egyptian flavored melodies and long, elaborate leads. "Night Time Eclipse" rules, too, stacking up melodies and riffs like an entrepreneur (or just an expert at the game Monopoly, whichever), and generally being as atmospheric and regal as Power Metal can get. "Forever" is the best ballad the band ever wrote, pristine and soft, not going on too long and being genuinely heartfelt. Even the bonus track "When the Night Meets the Day" is good!
So this album rules, with a lot of innovation that the genre hadn't seen since the glory days of Queensryche and Crimson Glory in the 80s and a songwriting talent great enough to shatter a supernova. This is Stratovarius' best album by far, with even the weaker songs having merit to them and generally being extremely well written. They wouldn't have that luxury in the future as their sound streamlined into a smoother, generic Power Metal groove, but that's another review. Episode is just superlative, and you should get it if you have any interest in Power Metal at all.
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