Company: Ear Music
Genre: Power, hard Rock
Back from the brink of complete collapse
I've been listening to this one for nearly half the year, and still, I am at a loss as to how to rate this album. Frankly, it doesn't seem like there is much a critic could say about it that most Strato-fans haven't already figured out after their first listen, if not even before then. Most of you will pretty much know by then whether or not this release is for you.
Having said that, it's comforting- even for a casual fan like me- to know that Stratovarius continue to persist and thrive following the fairly messy and pretty much inevitable split with guitarist Timo Tolkki. Having heard the debut from his new Revolution Renaissance project- apparently first intended as the follow-up to the patchy self-titled Stratovarius album- I feel that the split may have led to a situation akin to Kai Hansen leaving Helloween, a situation which resulted in two cool bands instead of one.
That being the case, Polaris was equally anticipated, heralding the arrival of new guitarist Matias Kupiainen, the first new guitar player to come into the band since long before most his new bandmates were part of it, lest we forget. And while you can kind of tell that there's a different guitar player on there, the differences are subtle, never really enough to rock the boat. Personally, I find Kupiainen's guitar sound a tad thinner than Tolkki usually had, a minor problem made somewhat more noticeable by his occasional tendency to pursue flash at the expense of heft and general service to the song.
Really, though, it is only the nitpicky amongst us (and granted there are probably quite a few among Strato-fans) who will notice this stuff, as the new boy makes a noble if rather understated effort to fit into the band's newfound group dynamic. (The band members have noted that the making of this album was a remarkably calm and relaxed procedure, with much of it apparently conceived in the quiet Finnish countryside.)
Stylistically, this newfound ability to chill doesn't seem to have changed much by way of the band's songwriting tendencies, but a few minor departures can be found. Many of these songs are credited to individual band members (though a certain amount of collaboration also seems to have taken place), with bassist Lauri Porra and keyboardist Jens Johansson in particular coming to the fore in Tolkki's absence. Johansson's contribution, for better or worse, is particularly noticeable, resulting in strange, moody, somewhat confrontational pieces such as "Blind" and "King of Nothing" (talk about a desolate tune!). The album closes in rather somber fashion with the surprisingly non-metal ballad "When Mountains Fall." (Conspicuous by their absence, however, are the sort of topical, socially conscious lyrics Tolkki often seemed to contribute; the Revolution Renaissance debut, by comparison, seemed to gravitate more toward this sort of content.)
But don't worry kids, 'cause it ain't all sour grapes on Polaris; far from it. "Higher We Go," "Forever is Today" and the driving lead-off tune "Deep Unknown" are your typical Stratovarius- fast, clean, melodic, powerful, a bit predictable given the band's long history of cranking out stuff like this, but welcome given the band's slight but noticeable renewed vigor. Though not a game-changer for the metal scene as a whole, Polaris is a fairly pleasant and welcome return to form. Sure, there isn't much of anything here that we haven't heard before, but at least now the band's fan base can get a little sleep, knowing that the band has successfully come back from the brink of complete collapse. That in itself is no small triumph. I just hope they can step it up a bit creatively next time around; this album at least suggests that they have it in them.