Timo Tolkki has this odd habit of building up my hopes that he’ll get back to business and put his guitar where his mouth usually is with a fairly good album, hinting at a return to form, and then proceed to go the exact opposite way just despite anyone’s better judgment. “New Era” was essentially an album title that contradicted its contents in all ways except perhaps that it was a new period for the former STRATOVARIUS leader as he found himself completely on his own. There was no innovation or strives to progress into the realm of overt oddness the way much of his solo work under his own name, but simply a melodic, tuneful form of Power Metal stripped of any other tendencies. “Age Of Aquarius” essentially goes the opposite way, in much the same fashion that a longstanding member of PETA would by starting up a chain of slaughterhouses, and cancels out all of the power in exchange for a ton of symphonic and synthesizer based offerings, mostly at slow tempos, with a horridly modern character to it at times.
There isn’t really one particular album in Tolkki’s history that this could be readily compared to, but essentially elements of all 4 of his failed efforts before leaving STRATOVARIUS wander about within it, along with a fair share of quirky elements from his 2nd and 3rd albums under his own name. A lot of attention is paid to really large sounding orchestra parts, heavy keyboard layering, a larger than life and heavily polished production, and auspiciously incoherent lyrical themes. One could refer to this as a Progressive style, a Symphonic style, or even something that flirts with a slow version of melodic Heavy Metal with tons of additives, but calling this Power Metal would be deceptive to a level far beyond EDGUY still being referred to as such. On the bright side of things, Tolkki seems to be exploring his capabilities as a soloist a bit and comes up with a few interesting tricks here and there, resulting in solos that hint at a JOE SATRIANI meets MARTY FRIEDMAN outlook on the craft. Just one listen to the wild fury of notes during the lead break on “Ixion’s Wheel” and the disjointed fits of noise on “Behind The Mask” can showcase that a different wavelength is being explored here.
Perhaps the biggest pitfall that this slips into is that it’s just so hell bent on exploring new territory that it lacks any focus. Nothing on here really stands out as excellent, or is there much to this that is utterly revolting, but instead a sort of back and forth ensues between mildly interesting and boring songs. “Age Of Aquarius” starts with a fairly decent Modern Rock idea and then just basically goes with it for 4 minutes or so, relying completely on Gus Monsanto to deliver on the vocals. Tolkki’s newly recruited singer goes back and forth between being a Kotipelto knockoff and occasionally sounds like a mediocre Metalcore singer. Things then proceed to enter the realm of recent NIGHTWISH in “So She Wears Black”, which essentially opens Pandora’s Box and leads us to other fairly similar efforts on here such as “Kyrie Eleison” and “The Heart Of All”. Essentially all of these function as “Mother Gaia” on steroids, the last of the 3 having a masterpiece guitar solo, but otherwise it’s just an endless stream of consonant and slow sounding half-ballads that never really pick up steam and just coast for 6 or 7 minutes a piece. “Ghost Of Fallen Grace” follows a similar format, but at least has the decency to keep it under 5 minutes.
When things pick up a bit, most of the time it results in better music, but not every time. “Sins Of My Beloved” can’t seem to make up its mind as to whether it wants to be up tempo Rock or a really slow version of “Years Go By” off of STRATOVARIUS’ “Destiny”. “Ixion‘s Wheel” takes a while to get going, but once it does there’s a solid set of thematic ideas at work that successfully merges a mid-paced set of Metal riffs with that pompous Symphonic sound that Tolkki’s been borrowing from NIGHTWISH’S “Century Child” for the past 6 years. “Behind The Mask” is probably the most metallic of these songs, but the vocal delivery just falls flat, in the same way that Koltipelto’s probably would if he tried to sing a KILLSWITCH ENGAGE song same way that Howard Jones does. The only really consistent song on here that really breaks out and gets close to the old days of Power Metal majesty is “Children Of The Future”, which has a flute theme that’s almost a dead ringer for “Farewell” off AVANTASIA’S first studio offering, but is otherwise a solid offering of heavy guitar riffing in the mold of SABBATH’S “Children Of The Grave” with a lot of keyboard work going on around it.
This album can be qualified as a lot of things including innovative, technical, original, and ambitious, but unfortunately it can’t be qualified as good. It’s just sort of there musically, unable to make it’s mind up about which direction it wants to go and tries to do a bit of everything. Nothing quite gets from point A to point B, but sort of starts out heading in the right direction and then veers off into something else. It’s not something that can really appeal to anyone who likes consistency, and apart from someone who might listen to Tolkki just for his solos, not for anyone who likes most of his past albums. It might have made more sense if it had been a Metal follow up to “Hymn To Life” in between his oddity drenched “Saana - Warrior Of Light” series, but it still would not have been much good.
(Online March 15, 2010)