Sound — 7
Stratovarius are back again with their 3rd post-Tolkki era album. With the significant improvement upon "Polaris" that was "Elysium," this album has to be incredible, right? Right?
Honestly, folks, the most beautiful thing about this album (besides "Unbreakable") is the artwork. Let's start with the musicians:
Timo Koltipelto actually does a great job singing on this album. As we all know, his voice is very much an acquired taste, and while I don't have any problem listening to a single Stratovarius song, other people cannot get into it. If I were to recommend an album to ease someone into Stratovarius, this would be the one, and this is due to the fact they he stays in a range that better suits him during most of the album. Furthermore, Kupiainen is more talented than ever, and along with Johansson, delivers some of the stronger lead solos available in Stratovarius' long discography. Other than these two factors, there isn't much special going on in any of the songs.
It all begins with "Abandon," which features a blistering solo from Kupiainen. "Unbreakable" is the undeniably catchy, sing-along single reminiscent of the previous release's "Under Flaming Skies," and absolutely the best song on the CD. And it is mostly down-hill from here. The songwriting is repulsively bland. Simple chord structures and pop progressions (which isn't always a bad thing), similar formulas used for several tracks, and too many cheesy keyboard riffs. I used to really dig the winter-themed keyboard patches and neoclassical sounds of early Stratovarius, but that just is no longer present. There were even instances of songs that I LOVED the intro to, but by the end of the song could no longer stand it. An example of this is "Castles in the Air," which begins with a beautiful, classical-esque, melodic duet between Johansson and Kotipelto, but then goes into a boring chorus with a vanilla melody and an even more sleep-inducing progression. Another example is in "Fantasy," which begins with an intriguing sequencing melody accompanied by a beautiful keyboard patch. The song unfortunately falls victim to the pop progression chorus that doesn't have a strong effect (especially due to its poor lyrics). If the band improved the songwriting and essentially became slightly more progressive, this album could soar the metal skies with bragging rights.
Conversely, there are a few interesting tracks here and there. The title track delivers itself well as an "epic," for which Stratovarius is famous. Although it features tasteful solos and a relatively neat keyboard intro, it suffers from a lack of both personality and deviation from the same formula used in nearly every track. "Dragons" takes a bit of a turn when it modulates into the chorus, and although it also suffers from lame pop chord progression as does most of the album, it is one of the more catchy and enjoyable tunes present. Count in "One Must Fall" as well, which features a slightly different edge. Finally, the ballad "If the Story Is Over" is a fine example of writing that I wish we could hear more of. I am a sucker for Stratovarius ballads, and this one is no exception.
As far as mixing and production quality, this album is a 10 out of 10. But when the music is seldom enjoyable, production quality becomes less than a big deal. The prominent issue is the unoriginal songwriting, an issue that is NOT improved upon with the lyrics.
Lyrics — 6
As I mentioned previously, Kotipelto really shines on this album. Unfortunately for him, he doesn't seem to realize that the lyrics he is singing are complete trash. Honestly, with lyrics like: "No on can bring me down, I will defend my beliefs, And I will stand my ground, I need to see where it leads" on a song that is titled "Stand My Ground," the only positive remark that can be made is that they fit together. It's like a toddler trying to fit the different shaped pieces into his puzzle. The job is done, but the effort is minimal. Now, I realize Stratovarius were never regarded highly for their lyrics (I'm thinking Tolkki era), and Kotipelto, being the lyricist for about half of the songs, isn't doing much better for the band. Ex-Sonata Arctica guitarist Jani Liimatainen even wrote two of the songs, but only "If the Story Is Over" is worth noting. Compliance? Check. Overall impression? Average.
Overall Impression — 7
I'll be honest with you - I am comparing this heavily to "Elysium," but I believe this is an appropriate standpoint. It is the successor, after all, and the continuation of this exciting new chapter of Stratovarius. Unfortunately, it fails to meet or exceed the standards set by its predecessor, and ultimately turns out to be what could be called a "filler" album. This may be a rather brutal review for being rated a 7, but I cannot discount the positives of the album. In short, I am incredibly disappointed and hope to hear more effort from the group in the future, because I absolutely love this band.