With a stream of less than stellar albums and disappointing news coming out of Finland’s rather large Power Metal scene, one has to wonder if maybe the beast that was pioneered by the recently split-up powerhouse STRATOVARIUS is beginning to lose steam. Lackluster albums such as “Dark Passion Play” and full fledged letdowns such as “Unia” and “Blooddrunk” are becoming something of a trend of late, not to mention that other established acts such as DREAMTALE and SINERGY have been out of it for a while, though the former is showing signs of activity after a barrage of line-up shifts. If anything, the decline of STRATOVARIUS and Timo Tolkki’s recent break from the project seems more a reflection of things rather than their cause.
But as in all times of difficulty, there will always be a younger soldier who will rise to the challenge and keep the cause from faltering. Enter the lesser known but equally competent melodic outfit ULTIMATIUM in their second release and incarnation, led now by the soaring vocals of former DREAMTALE front man Tomi Viiltola and realized by the atmospheric yet hard edged songwriting sensibilities of Matti Pulkkinen. Four years ago they released a promising debut with a sound very much reminiscent of early 90s STRATOVARIUS, but this time they have accomplished something a good deal more ambitious, not to mention faster and more riff happy than most in this style.
The overall sound of “Hwainoo” could compare to several great albums in one respect of another. Viiltola’s vocals are equally as powerful and wide ranged as on “Ocean’s Heart”, although there is slightly more aggression and attitude. Stylistically this album would probably fall more into a 1998-2002 era Power Metal album rather than the current scene, which is definitely a positive. It carries elements of STRATOVARIUS’ renowned work “Episode”, SONATA ARTICA’s “Silence”, CHILDREN OF BODOM’s “Hatebreeder” and even elements of NIGHTWISH’s “Oceanborn”. Basically, if it was a classic album from the past of Finland’s melodic metal scene, elements of it can be found on here.
The most distinct characteristic of what is on here is how the moods of both the words and the music progress from light-heartedness to intense seriousness. Although they sound very different, there is an underlying similarity of progression from simplicity to complexity to be found on the WINTERSUN debut. “Fight the Time” ranks as one of the most lyrically fun-loving songs I’ve heard out of any band in Finland, or most any Metal band aside from the party till you puke 80s scene. If anything, Tomi and Matti could maybe give Tony Kakko some lessons on how to lighten up once in a while. Musically its classic "Episode" era STRATOVARIUS, from the blazing double bass work to the signature synthesized horn backed chorus, with Tomi shooting up just as high as Kotipelto, but with even more power.
Afterwards things gradually get more serious, as the band leaves the nights of debauchery at the local bars and the eventual hangovers for slower and mostly introspective territory. “Dreamlife” and “Set the Sails” are still quite up tempo and guitar oriented, but musically they reach into greater complexity, while the words become more inspirational than celebratory. Then things take a much heavier turn subject wise with “Storm”, the only full ballad on here, which is the closest thing to SONATA ARTICA’s brand of gloom and fatalism on here. This is also where Viiltola proves to be a more versatile vocalist than most in the power metal genre, being able to morph his voice into something soulful and subdued without sounding like either a medieval minstrel or a neurotic poet.
The second half of this album is where the band starts to completely break away from most of the clichés of the genre. “Descent” and “Play the game” have some slight commonalities to pre-“Century Child” NIGHTWISH, particularly their half-ballad work, but differ greatly in vocal approach. Aside from obvious differences in their genders, Tarja’s voice has a sort of underlying largeness to it that makes even her most quiet notes listen like she’s singing a Puccini opera, while Tomi successfully pulls back to meld himself into the whole of the sound when called for. “On the edge” is the biggest surprise on here, as it is doubtful that most Power Metal fans would expect a band like this to record a 6 minute plus epic hybrid of NIGHTWISH’s “Oceanborn” and early CHILDREN OF BODOM.
The album’s closing song “Whispers (of the World)” is probably the most ambitious formally, though stylistically it is also the closest to their debut. The wider ranged vocals and the stronger production do give it a slight early TWILIGHTNING flavor, and the keyboard during the middle section is pretty close to early 90s DREAM THEATRE, but structurally and thematically it keeps reminding of “Fly high, Rise to the Sky”. It’s technically the most ambitious song on here, although it should be noted that guitar wise this entire album is technically far more ambitious than the last one. It definitely closes things on a high note and leaves those who liked the first album with a small amount of nostalgia to complement the listen.
It may be a little early to start declaring a greatest Power Metal album of 2008, but this is definitely up there if you like Power Metal with a fair amount of keyboards added in. Credit should be given to Matti for avoiding the temptation to flood the entire arrangement with his own instrument the way many keyboardists/songwriters do in this genre. The overall sound is very distinct and individualistic, though the natural clichés of the genre are still largely present. If “Unia” didn’t do it for you, and if you’re still depressed over Timo Tolkki giving up on STRATOVARIUS, give this little gem a try, it will definitely ease the pain.
(Online August 12, 2008)