They say that in order to truly achieve greatness, you need to struggle, and often the depth of your struggle will reflect the depth of your accomplishment. I’m not sure who said that or if it actually ever was said, but it is basically true, and no more so than in the case of STRATOVARIUS if one accounts for the past 8 years of decline and eventual downfall on their last failure of a groove rock album titled after themselves no less. With the subsequent loss of Timo Tolkki, the longest running member and essentially the band leader, the sense of struggle reached its climax, and it was then and there that their opportunity at a return to glory appeared in Matias Kuplainen a guitarist who had already come with a fair amount of experience in the Progressive Metal world. The result of all this has proven to be one of the greatest triumphs of any Power Metal band this year.
“Polaris” is essentially a rediscovery of the era of majestic and epic Power Metal heard between “Episode” and “Destiny”, given a further sense of newness by the flowing, heavily virtuosic guitar work of their newest member. Right from the opening of the album’s lead off song “Deep Unknown”, his free flowing and confident style not only replaces the void that was left by Tolkki’s exodus, but actually surpasses it at every turn. There are a large amount of great influences in Matias’ playing, from YNGWIE MALMSTEEN to Kai Hansen, but the most vital part of it all is the energy level, which only comes from a player who knows his instrument and is confident in a wide range of styles.
Though the newcomer guitarist is quite a headline in this news article of renewed vigor, this is definitely a collective success by all in congress. Special mention should also be given to bassist Lauri Porra, who understands the need to provide a solid bottom end rather than simply try to upstage the guitar like he’s Geezer Butler on crack. A really good example is heard on “Forever Is Today”, where the wild bass fills that Jari Kainulainen got addicted to on “Elements Pt. 1” are largely avoided in favor of putting some needed balls into the rhythm section. When combined with Jorg’s fast and steady beats, gives both Jens and Matias the freedom to move around and paint somewhat of a DREAM THEATER oriented aesthetic to what is otherwise fairly standard Power Metal.
However, the real power found here is in that fresh approach to songwriting that was on display in the 90s but largely forgotten in favor of softball ballads, oversaturated orchestral work and extremely stale and repetitive melodies. One would have to go all the way back about 12 years to find songs such as “Forever Free” or “Black Diamond” to find something of the same caliber as the high flying “Blind”, with triumphant melodies and plenty of blurring keyboard passages. Likewise, the band has rediscovered its good sense of how to write pounding mid-tempo rockers in “Falling Star” and “King Of Nothing”.
The number of certifiable classics contained within this well crafted opus is well above the occasional fits of greatness that would occur in between bits of filler on the last 3 or 4 albums. There’s a classic sing along song in the vain of “Hunting High And Low” with a lot more detailing and brilliance in “Higher We Go”. There is also a multifaceted progressive epic in 2 parts titled “Emancipation Suite” that shows the chops of every member. And to top it all off, at the end we are treated to a remembrance of a time when this band wrote great, all acoustic ballads in “When Mountains Fall”.
Redemption may be a really corny and cliché term to throw around, but it really does fit here. The vast level of change for the better between this and the 2005 self-titled failure of an album is so massive that it’s almost as if the band jumped back 10 years, before things started to go south with the release of “Infinite”, and drew upon the strength of their old sound as if they’d never left it. It is proof positive that in spite of how good he was, Timo Tolkki is not the lone factor in what made this band, and given his two meager by comparison offerings with his new project REVOLUTION RENAISSANCE, I’d say he needed these guys more than they needed him. If the older STRATOVARIUS is what you go for, this is definitely of that musical persuasion.
(Online March 14, 2010)