Stratovarius – Episode
Here sits, in this reviewer’s sometimes humble opinion, the crowning achievement of 90s power metal. This is extremely tough competition, and I don’t mean to discredit any of the other brilliant albums from what is probably power metal’s strongest decade, but what Stratovarius puts on the record with Episode is, to my ears, unmatched.
Even among many of the haters (the people who despise everything from Jens Johansson’s solos to Timo Kotipelto’s vibrato), I’ve heard a lot of concession that there’s something really cool going on with Episode. I find more disagreement among the fan base as to if this is Strato’s best album, but I think in the greater community, to say that this is their magnum opus is completely fair. To understand that, let’s have a bit of background: this is the first album to be released with, what seemed like at the time hired-guns, Jorg Michael and Jens Johansson. While today their names are both strongly associated with the band, at the time they were both much more regarded for their previous works than what seemed possible with Stratovarius. Jorg was already known as a founding member of Rage, as well as playing with Mekong Delta, Axel Rudi Pell, Grave Digger, and Running Wild. Jens Johansson had been a part of Yngwie Malmsteen’s original solo band, and then after nearly a decade of that, had moved onto a variety of jazz and fusion projects.
The album opens with the anthemic “Father Time”, a brutalizing drum attack from Jorg Michael, a soaring vocal performance from Timo Kotipelto, and one of Timo Tolkki’s catchiest and most aggressive guitar attacks to date. The drums on this (and through much of the album) are turned way up, moreso than one might usually expect for power metal. On the merit of the drums alone, there is something incredible to be heard on this album. Nevermind about halfway into the song when fans were introduced to the first real treat of things to come- the outstanding shredding duels between Tolkki and Johansson. While similar to what Malmsteen had been toying with near the end of the 80s, I find the approach on Episode to be much more refined and effective.
Every song on Episode is catchy. Power metal bands have always seemed to struggle balancing “heavy” with “catchy”, and I’ve always believed this is because of attempts to mimic what was put on display here. To put it simply, the heads are banging, but they’re singing along too. Look no farther than the song “Tomorrow” if you’re unconvinced.
Also on the highlight reel is the concert staple “Speed of Light”: three minutes in length, of similar construction to “Father Time”, and with everything turned to 11, this is generally a solid litmus test of the album, and I think it actually represents a shift in the entire power metal genre. Being that “Speed of Light” is perhaps the most representative track of the entire album, bands like Rhapsody/(Of Fire), Children of Bodom, Sonata Arctica, Twilighting, Thunderstone, and Theocracy owe a lot of their influence to material like this.
While Episode did set the groundwork for what would later become the band’s obnoxious habit of two ballads per album. What is featured on Episode is downright fantastic: both “Season of Change” and “Forever” are examples of power metal ballads done right, and I honestly can’t fault them for either track. Even the bonus track “When the Night Meets the Day” is fantastic, though not available on most versions of the album.
The band does flex some of its progressive muscle on “Babylon”, harkening a similar style to the earlier albums, though with the new members in the band the approach is more professional and refined. It’s a slower track, and so some segments of audiences will hate it for that reason alone, but it’s also a very compelling track, and everything seems to be in really good balance.
Near the end of the album, there is another of the bands explorations into more epic material, similar to “We Hold the Key” on the previous album but with much more flare. The song is built around a very pounding, very catchy neo-classical riff. The song captures everything that I love about this album, the brilliant fusion of catchy melodies and riffs with blistering metal assaults, and masterful interplay between the keyboard and guitar.
Dagg’s rating: 5 out of 5
Fourth Dimension (1995)