Sound — 8
After a dramatic and tumultuous war of words between the members of Stratovarius, the Finnish power metal band is back with a new guitarist and bassist. Polaris marks the first album without guitarist Timo Tolkki, who before exiting was the longest-standing member (23 years) in the group. It's likely his absence will cause much debate about whether the remaining members all of whom joined the band in the mid-90's or after can really be called the true Stratovarius. Regardless of where you stand on the matter, Tolkki himself signed over catalog/name rights to his bandmates back in 2008, and the music created thereafter is certainly a fitting continuation to the band's legacy. All eyes are likely upon new guitarist Matias Kupiainen and bassist Lauri Porra, both of whom prove from the first track are extremely competent musicians. Of course, it should be noted that their presence hasn't necessarily taken the band in an altogether new creative direction. For diehard Stratovarius' fans, it's probably a good thing that there wasn't a huge shakeup in the band's trademark sound. There is no shortage of classically inspired compositions and big vocals, and the chemistry is on point. The proof is provided in the first few minutes of the opening track Deep Unknown, which features some incredible arpeggios from both Kupiainen and keyboardist Jens Johansson. The track has quite a few impressive moments, particularly when you hear what sounds like one instrument (whether that be the keyboard or guitar) going on with a lightning fast solo. It soon becomes apparent that Kupiainen and Johannson were both shredding away, and those two parts eventually intertwine to harmonize. Throughout Polaris, it brings to mind just how much of an influence Stratovarius has had on newer offerings like DragonForce. There are more than a few songs that strike similarities, with the uplifting, epic rock tracks Blind and Forever Is Today the primary examples. The band wisely injects their own unique nuances throughout, and Blind features a harpsichord intro (or keyboard tone made to sound like harpsichord) that allows that classical background to come to the forefront. Johannson is always a key player that garners just as much attention as Kupiainen quite like Dream Theater's Jordan Rudess trades shredding time with John Petrucci. The musicianship is as strong as ever, but the song content of Polaris doesn't stray too far outside Stratovarius' usual style. The big standouts are, not surprisingly, the dramatic Emancipation Suite Park 1: Dusk and Emancipation Suite II: Dawn. The rock feel is set aside for a more cinematic, epic approach on those tracks, which always works to the band's benefit. Even the closing number When Mountains Fall, which is essentially more of a restrained, classical Renaissance song, shows the band doesn't need to breeze through electric arpeggios to make an impression.
Lyrics — 7
Considering the grand nature of the music, one might expect over-the-top lyrics about, oh let's say, dragons. While there might be one track on the CD that mentions castles (King of Nothing), it's still more of an introspective album. There are more than a few that deal with staying strong and fighting the good fight. Falling Star includes lyrics such as, Now I ride about the sky; It cannot hold me back. The majority of the playlist is more about self-exploration and emotions, while Deep Unknown states, Dive deeper into the ocean; You will find more about your emotions. It might all be too dramatic for some, but again, it works quite well for the larger-than-life compositions.
Overall Impression — 8
Some will be upset that primary player Timo Tolkki has called it quits, but Stratovarius' sound does remain in tact for the most part. Tracks like Falling Star are fairly lackluster when compared with the complex arrangements heard in Forever Is Today, but at the same time it's refreshing to hear the band take a step away from arpeggios and scales in a couple of songs. Polaris is not necessarily groundbreaking, but it should give fans faith in knowing that Stratovarius has a solid future.