Album Review: Stratovarius - "Elysium"

What seems like a lifetime ago, I can remember sitting in my college radio station and giving Stratovarius a shot. I had of course heard and read much from friends and in publications, but as a kid growing up in the whitewashed suburbs of New York State’s capital city during the days before downloadable music, Stratovarius albums eluded me.

In my formative college years, I encountered a brave new world with such like-minded people and bands in it. So, I dug up a copy of “Infinite” that was kicking around the station and decided to put the hype to the test. At the time, this brand of power metal was largely foreign to me, my only previous exposure being the ubiquitous and punk-infused Iron Maiden. “Infinite” was an eye-opener in terms of musical possibility for me, and doubled as perhaps the first album that could even remotely be labeled “technical” that I didn’t openly loathe. Still, I found it not necessarily an album that I became an immediate fan of. Frankly, I preferred Iron Maiden, and shelved my curiosity for Stratovarius for a number of years.

Now it’s 2011, and “Elysium” is exploding onto the scene. As one might imagine, the album comes equipped with the usual fanciful, imaginative cover art and a promise of untold Finnish power metal fury.

Yet, just as I did with “Infinite,” I find that Stratovarius impresses with their proficiency, but lacks a dominant edge. Each facet of “Elysium” can be seen better somewhere else in power metal. While Timo Kotipelto’s vocals are powerful, Bruce Dickinson’s are still superior. The over-the-top attitude and tongue in cheek melodrama are intact, but are better displayed on Edguy’s 2001 effort “Mandrake.” Relative newcomer Matias Kupiainen is more than competent on the guitar, rendering one finely executed solo after another, but he could be pressed by his countryman Alexi Laiho. Additionally, Kupiainen lacks the explosive brilliance of Herman Li and Sam Totman.

“Elysium” is not without its credits, however. The first half is a compelling show of force, from the high-flying, sublimely harmonized “Infernal Maze,” to the plodding yet grandiose “Fairness Justified.”

The album hits its apex with “The Game Never Ends,” a galloping, flighty romp that would be equally at home in concert, movie soundtrack or RPG credits. The muted, very subtle rhythm guitar line that lives under the bombastic keyboards and loud lead guitar is a wonderful touch, and essential to the songs backbone. It is also here where Kupiainen spins his best work, not just for speed but for technical prowess.

Ironically, just as “The Game Never Ends” promises us that “we never die” over and over in the chorus, the album’s pace does just about that. “Life in a Moment” might be more threatening than “Fairness Justified,” but without the juxtaposition of a rafter-shaking chorus, it wallows in a repetitive low register. “Move the Mountain” is a somewhat aimless time-filler.

“Event Horizon” is saddled with a percussion-heavy mix, but the thin nature allows the song’s middle section, filled with keyboard or guitar solos artfully laced over one another, to stand out nicely.

Last up is the title track, the eighteen minute epic “Elysium.” As is the case with all epics, it can be divided into parts and some are better than others (see also: Rush’s “2112.”) There are wonderful moments in it, but given that the listener has just heard roughly forty minutes of already similar sounding songs to get to “Elysium,” it’s fair to question whether he or she will have the patience to sift through for the parts he or she likes best. Although this bears mentioning: the super dramatic, wildly overblown coda of the song, which is a prerequisite of all monster metal epics, is done nearly to perfection.

So what’s been learned through the listening of “Elysium?” For one, it reinforces the lesson that it takes something truly special to stand out in the very uniform world of power metal. For two, Stratovarius, despite no lack of talent, stands in roughly the same place they did a decade ago: jack of all trades, perhaps master of none. For three, “Elysium” has some truly fine moments (“Infernal Maze,” and “The Game Never Ends,” are old-school mix-tape worthy,) but most everything here can be heard better somewhere else.

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