|Review: Stratovarius - Polaris|
Year released: 2009
Genre: Power Metal
Review online: June 3, 2009
Reviewed by: Christopher Foley
Thinking back to just over a year ago the drama surrounding one of Power Metal's fallen greats Stratovarius was immense. Timo Tolkki had once again spat his pacifier out – although this time deciding to leave Jens Johansson and Co. behind once and for all. A mighty battle of e-mail and web-site statements ensued, and fans hope began to wane (those fans they hadn't lost with their butt-clenching self-titled release). Tolkki decided to leave Jens and Co. with the Stratovarius name where he would go on to record a release that would embody his vision. With all this going on, fans were worried as to how Stratovarius would replace chief songwriter and driving force Timo Tolkki. Fortunately a suitable replacement was found in Matias Kupiainen, who really knows how to tear things up. When I found out that Stratovarius were recording, my interest in the band began to increase, and then the beautiful album art and track-listing were unveiled and interest reached boiling point. Fortunately the release date wasn't too far off and they kept me appeased with the cracking "Deep Unknown". Eventually the day came and I sat with Polaris in my hands.
I sit here after numerous plays and listens to the newly recorded material, simply awestruck. I really didn't expect this – as excited as I had been deep down, I was expecting another tepid release. Thankfully I couldn't have been more wrong; Stratovarius haven't sounded this good in over a decade. It's exciting to hear and see how much of a band effort Polaris is. From a personal standpoint Timo Tolkki leaving was probably the best thing that could have happened to the band – no disrespect meant to Tolkki as I'm a massive fan of his songwriting and talent and I'm certainly interested to hear the Dreamspace project he has planned. Initially Polaris came across as rather different, although with repeated listens and comparisons to Stratovarius' previous output I realized that the spirit of the band still remained.
Tracks such as the Jens Johansson-penned "King of Nothing" and "Winter Skies" hark back to the more epic Stratovarius we'd seen on the superlative Episode – it's no surprise that these tracks embody what the band had always been about. The tracks penned by relatively new addition to the band Lauri Porra are excellent. "Fallen Star" is immense and stands as one of my favorites from this release; the riffs are cool and the vocal arrangements are superb. Speaking of vocals, Kotipelto is in top form - in all honesty I can't remember the last time I heard him sound this good. One of the deciding factors in his vocal brilliance this time around is that he doesn't reach from those glass-shattering highs as often, placing more power in his mid-to-highs. Album opener "Deep Unknown" shows Stratovarius firing on all cylinders, displaying pride and confidence a band of their status should have. The guitars are particularly cool in this track and the main riff is damn fine, sounding like something Michael Romeo would come up with. Leading me nicely into the deciding factor as to whether new Strato would work or not - Matias Kupiainen. Fortunately his style isn't too far removed from Tolkki's, although Kupiainen is a lot braver with his licks and runs than Tolkki had been in recent years. Kupiainen's riffs are ace too, those looking for the speedy Strato riffs would do well to check out the immense "Blind".
As always Jörg Michael's thundering drum work is top notch, although I would have liked to see him contribute to the songwriting as he is the only member not to contribute on Polaris. Even the ballads are awesome (minus the lyrics to "When Mountains Fall"). "Winter Skies" is a personal highlight; Jens Johansson again dazzles with absolutely beautiful keyboard and piano work, and Kupiainen's guitar solo is sublime. "When Mountains Fall" features simply stunning strings work and Kotipelto delivers his vocals solemnly in a charming manner. Those looking for an "Eagleheart" or "Hunting High and Low" look no further than the Strato-tastic "Higher We Go"; catchier than the swine flu and destined to become a fan favorite. Finally worth mentioning in the track list (I've just about mentioned all of them now) is another highlight in the epic "Emancipation Suite" – a first class Stratovarius track with an immense riff, Kotipelto's cry of emancipation sounds damn cool over the main riff.
Really there isn't one bad track on Polaris, in fact I wish there was more but at just under an hour this is enough to appease my Strato-hunger until the next one. Everything about the album screams awesome, from the godly artwork to the immense material inside. The bonus track "Deep Unknown (Mikko Raita Vinyl Mix Bonus Track)" comes across as a waste of space, although I would recommend the special edition because the packaging is very nice – hell even the booklet comes printed on lovely photo paper. Overall this slaps the bad taste from their ropey self-titled release out of my mouth. This should be seen as Stratovarius' true comeback album, raising from the ashes much like a phoenix. The fact of the matter is that Polaris is a serious contender for album of the year and any Power Metal fan would be a moron not to pick this release up. Stratovarius are back and I love every second of it.
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