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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

CD Review: Stratovarius - Elysium

Stratovarius - Elysium
2011 Armoury Records
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

There has been so much prog metal whirled through our ears it's become less of a spellbinding resonance and more of a glut. That being said, unless you're a junkie of the Bachian Metal Overdrive that is prog metal, it's easy for some fabulous albums get lost in the electric fugue.

Helloween, Gamma Ray, Yngwie Malmsteen, Savatage and of course Dream Theater have, over the years, innovated the archetype that is prog metal. Sling on Helloween's The Dark Ride and Better Than Raw, you'll have the blueprints issued for all that you've heard in the prog realm since their issue. A heaping handful of standout prog metallers such as Angra, Mago de Oz, Hammerfall, Kamelot, Iced Earth, Cellador, Dol Ammad, Blind Guardian, Sentenced, Nevermore and Stratovarius have at least kept the faith alive.

While Stratovarius are two steps ahead of their competition having officially started in the early eighties before delivering their 1989 debut album Fright Night, the only thing getting in the way of their own progress (pun intended) has been lineup changes and a failure to capitalize on the strengths of Dreamscape, Fourth Dimension, Visions and Infinite.

Always the quintessential professionals, Stratovarius has unfortunately settled instead of pushed forward. Overused conscripts of metal neoclassicism have kept Stratovarius from elevating to the band they should be at this point. Their self-titled album from 2005 is solid but too cautious for its place in Stratovarius' career. 2009's Polaris stepped up the songwriting a notch, however, Polaris' weakness is its song placement; the album's energy and vitality is expended in the first half, then put to pasture for a prolonged sequence of demure songs, thus creating an unbalanced effort.

For 2011, Stratovarius gets it right with Elysium, a well-structured album chocked full of melody, power and a steady swap of mid-tempo and quick-step rhythms. The brisk "Event Horizon" and "Infernal Maze" are countered by quasi-ballads such as "Move the Mountain" and "Fairness Justified," but it's done the way it should be. Elysium is so even-flowed it allows Stratovarius to mastermind a beautifully-plotted 18-minute finale.

Sure, you're going to get plenty of whiz-bang guitar and keyboard solos courtesy of Matias Kupianinen and the legendary Jens Johansson, but this time on Elysium, they don't come at a cost. Leaner distributions make for much better songs. Elysium is focused upon harmony instead of grandiosity, albeit if you want to hear a grandiose guitar solo, hold your breath for Kupianinen's gorgeous flair on "Infernal Maze." His note scales catapult.

Simply exquisite, as are the choral supplements Stratovarius engineers on Elysium better than most. While there is still an element of the familiar to much of the album ("The Game Never Ends" has been written in theory by everyone from Helloween to Iron Fire), Stratovarius wisely refines and lets their music flex instead of showboat. "Lifetime in a Moment" may clock in past the six-minute mark, but it has a huge, swaying hook helmed by Lauri Porra's marching bass lines and it's textured by a gallant show of gusty synths, anticipatory guitar plucks, seductive vocals and a snap-tight bridge-chorus sequence designed to get those fists a-pumping.

Timo Kotipelto is money as usual, but it seems like he's more in the pocket by benefit of Stratovarius' tempered-yet-extended writing. While many might wish there were more thrashers like "Event Horizon," the sacrifice is well-worth it. This is a more memorable listening experience as a result of the group's discipline. In fact, "Event Horizon" becomes one of Stratovarius' more palatable speed demons because it's the Lone Wolf McThrash. Johansson and Kupianinen geek out all over "Event Horizon," and the decision to place it towards the end of Elysium is admirably patient. Sometimes it's nicer to hold the goodies until after the after main course.

Conjuring up an intelligent metal epic with "Elysium" that grinds, whispers and soars like nebulae in spots, Kotipelto is majestic (and in a dishy segue, vocally vulnerable) in front of his mates, while he's romantic and commanding on everything played beforehand.

Elysium conveys a much-used earth crisis theme with an upbeat idealism indicative of the title. For Stratovarius' purposes, they've reached their own Elysium Fields by bringing some much-needed equanamity and sustenance to a subgenre that's just about reached a dead end.

Rating: ****

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