Stratovarius - Enigma: Intermission II - (8.5/10)
Published on November 15, 2018
There is a modicum of bands who age like a fine wine. Among their ranks are the likes of Killing Joke, Napalm Death and Cattle Decapitation. Amazingly, some of these bands contain no original members, yet their more recent output is arguably their best streak of quality. Here’s where power metal stalwarts Stratovarius sit. With no founding members at the helm – the last one leaving in 2008 to pursue…erm…’greener’ pastures! – the Finns have only gone from strength to strength since 2009’s Polaris. The following trio of albums – Elysium, Nemesis and Eternal – were frankly stunning, and cemented in everyone’s minds that a post-Tolkki Stratovarius was just what we needed. Since 2015, fans have received only a ‘best of’ in 2016 (and a good one!). So now it’s time for some new stuff, which Enigma definitely delivers…sort of. Despite the fact it’s a collection of previously unreleased numbers and B-sides, I actually wanted to treat this as ‘the new Stratovarius album’, but certain aspects prevent me from doing so.
Because this is made up of little rarities from the 2009-2018 era, the production of each track varies (neither for better nor worse) subconsciously telling you that this is not one cohesive album, but a compilation of sorts. After that initial judder, you can sink your teeth into the sheer quality of the songwriting that post-Tolkki Stratovarius offers. Every aspect of the band is covered, from the up-tempo classic European power metal hymns, through the pounding mid-tempo anthems, to the reflective balladesque numbers. The three brand new tracks exhibit these characteristics perfectly: the powerful title-track, the fiery “Burn Me Down”, and the brooding “Oblivion”. Kotipelto’s voice sounds more comfortable and emotive than ever, and Matias Kupainen’s guitar work is all over the place (in the best of ways). It’s a pleasure to have both Jörg Michael and Rolf Pilve behind the kit for different tracks, giving this compilation a real party atmosphere. Jens Johansson’s flittering keys are the insanely virtuosic cherry on the Stratocake, and he’s really on fire here.
Of the power metal smorgasbord on offer, the Finns really shine when the tempo soars. Both “Hunter” and “Kill It With Fire” contain enough driving momentum and creative riffs to make necks ache; the former with its massive choirs and the latter with its insanely flashy baroque keyboards (yeah, bet you never thought a song called ”Kill It With Fire” would be so classically inclined!). However, the latter half of the album is a streak of amazing quality. “Second Sight”, “Fireborn”, “Giants” and “Castaway” are all total gems with glorious atmospheres, soaring catchy choruses and feelgood spirits. It was an ingenious move to group these tracks together for the finale of the disc. Even though I chided this disc’s lack of cohesiveness due to its nature as a compilation, Enigma is actually brilliantly put-together.
Even the calmer introspective numbers have their shining moments. The swelling refrain of ”Hallowed” brings to mind the crawling vibe of ”Lifetime In A Moment”, and the closing cut “Old Man And The Sea” is a beautifully bleak lament. The slightly meandering “Last Shore” is the obvious filler here which doesn’t contribute much to proceedings aside from some pretty melodies. The bonus orchestral versions of other ’09-’15 era Strato’ tracks, which I assumed would be the skippable fodder, turned out incredibly. Some of these songs were begging to be re-arranged, but “Unbreakable” and “Fantasy” benefit greatly from a luscious orchestration. These bring the whole compilation to a close in suitably moving fashion. If you’re a big Stratovarius fan, you absolutely need this. I would even recommend Enigma to newcomers as well, as it provides the listener with a great overall image of the band in its current form. Throw out your Sonata Arctica CDs, they ain’t worth shit anymore. Stratovarius have set the bar for Finnish power metal.