"This year has been a nightmare," sings Timo Kotipelto in the first line of the first song of "Stratovarius". He's not kidding — mainman Timo Tolkki's very public mental health issues, the band's disintegration, keyboardist Jens Johanssen literally pissing on Tolkki on stage — the fact that this album even exists is miraculous. The fact that some songs are simpler, more "rock and roll" oriented, and that fan opinion has been bitterly divided on the Finns' latest output, has to be secondary to the fact that the band is still intact. Good to still have you around, Tolkki, ya big nutjob.
"Maniac Dance" (released as a pre-album single) definitely fueled the fire of the band's detractors — it's a simple, almost silly midtempo rocker with a throwaway riff, an "Enter Sandman" of Finnish metal, definitely not up to the band's standards (and the harrowing lyrics clash with the happy-sounding song). "Fight!!!", however, is a much more satisfying beast — a hard-driving, memorable anthem that even a lame "fight for your right" chorus can't kill off. "Back To Madness" features an epic midsection straight out of the CANDLEMASS school of Valhallan doom, complete with a guest tenor vocal and a choir!
A rather dark, melancholy vibe creeps in, the further you venture into "Stratovarius", the album. "Back To Madness" and "Leave the Tribe" are positively glum, and even album closer "United" sounds more like a bittersweet requiem than a stirring call to arms. It's impossible not to hear the lyrics to "Maniac Dance" and "Fight" in the context of Tolkki's public meltdown and subsequent recovery, while the Kotipelto-penned "Just Carry On" sounds like a letter to a troubled friend. Exile, madness, and perseverance against tough obstacles — the band's recent travails are easy to find in the songs on this album.
The band's newfound simplicity leaves a sense that things are a bit rushed here, perhaps out of some urgency to get the band back out in the spotlight (in a positive way). As a result, some songs don't seem fleshed out or fully realized. And a couple of STRATOVARIUS's congenital defects are still on display — Jörg Michael's bland and nondescript drumming does little to enliven things, and the band is sometimes content to coast on dated hard rock cliché or overstretched endings (see the eternal finish to "Gotterdammerung (Zenith of Power)").
But for a band that is still crawling back from the brink of disaster, this is an impressive achievement — hell, it's a more varied, interesting and ultimately enjoyable album than either of the "Elements" installments. "Stratovarius", the record, should reestablish the band as a force to be reckoned with, and will hopefully lay the foundation for a long, fruitful and drama-free new phase of their career.