Stratovarius – Nemesis
Nemesis is the best Stratovarius album in 15 years. I’m just gonna get that out of the way right now; it’s better than Destiny, better than Infinite, and better even than Elysium. Perhaps not quite up to Episode or Visions, but in a similar echelon of quality. Not only is this then one of the most solid front-to-back entries in the Stratovarius catalog (And that is something I do not say lightly), it’s some of the most refreshing and unique material the band has ever released. Stratovarius has moved in a number of new directions that really improve their style. Firstly, Matias Kupiainen has grown a lot as a rhythm guitarist. I never doubted his lead playing or his solos, but the riffs on this album are not only more creative and unique, but behind the mixing desk he does a great job really bringing them out and making them drive the songs. Similarly, the production brings up the bass and gives it more punch and presence. Jens Johansson uses a much wider palette of sounds on his keyboards, and while some of them come off as a bit strange (particularly the intros to “Dragons” and “Fantasy”), it adds a lot of flavor, and his solos are as fantastic as always.
Timo Kotipelto also sings much more within himself, not straining into his seemingly damaged upper registers, and uses a lot of vocal layering, choirs, and even production vocal effects on “Stand My Ground”. “Abandon” was really a positive surprise, (Being in the same model of fast paced ultra riff fests) but “Stand My Ground” is when the new style really hit home for me. The band has certainly moved into new territory on this album, playing much more to their strengths, and as a result, every song is memorable and has a potential to claim your heart as the best song on the album (“Halcyon Days” won it for me, at least for now).
One of the big questions heading into the record is Rolf Pilve’s drumming. The band said they weren’t looking for a clone of Jorg, and he certainly is not that. Rolf still plays within the tropes of power metal drumming. It’s still heavy and we get double bass drum pedal assaults here and there (which were an endearing aspect of Jorg’s style), but with the band very much expanding its melodic footprint, Rolf is an excellent choice because his style is just so much more versatile. I’m not sure he’ll have any moments quite as metal as “Father Time” (though it was one of the audition songs, so I’ve got to imagine we’ll get to see him play it), but he’s a perfect fit for the new sound of the band.
What is really going to make this a legendary Stratovarius album is the consistency. Even as the most ardent defender of the band, I’ve always had problems with their consistency, as their material from the late 90s through the end of the Tolkki era had songs I downright hated, and even with Polaris and Elysium, songs that I just never found cause to listen to. Nemesis, however, is solid front to back, and that’s because there are 5 brilliant musicians contributing to the process. In addition to the 4 man wrecking crew of Lauri, Jens, Matias, and TK, there are songwriting contributions from former Sonata Arctica guitarist Jani Liimitainen on the two songs “Out Of The Fog” (cowritten with TK and Matias) and “If The Story Is Over” (Cowritten with TK). “If The Story Is Over” is the album’s only ballad, which is a very nice semi-acoustic piece, and “Out Of The Fog” has alleged folk elements, though I mostly just hear grand instrumentation with great vocal melodies. Mr. Liimitainen also appears in the choir that does much of the backing vocals, though I only know that from pictures in the studio. I don’t know what his voice sounds like, nor could I pick it out of the choir. Additionally, Jani plays some acoustic guitar parts, I’m not sure on which songs, but he made reference to it on his blog. I was slightly sad however, that Pasi Rantanen (Who was on the Infinite choir) did not appear on the Nemesis choir.
Mr. Kupiainen’s contributions are the most distinct, having written the 6 heaviest songs (“Abandon”, “Unbreakable”, “Stand My Ground”, “Halcyon Days”, “One Must Fall”, and “Nemesis”). A lot of this material is in line with “Deep Unknown” and “Infernal Maze” but heavier, and with more shredding and awesome riffs. Throughout the album, Matias does an excellent job spicing up transitions with little bits of shredding, especially in “Stand My Ground”. I think it’s safe to say his contributions are probably the most “metal”, but other band members are slowly falling into shape. When its all said and done, “Halcyon Days” will probably be my favorite song on the record: it’s blazing fast, with great melodies and great rhythm guitars. My personal theory is that it came from the same chunk of music that became “Elysium” and “Infernal Maze”, both for its lyrical themes and its aggressiveness and melodic qualities being much in line with “Infernal Maze”. “Stand My Ground” is a ton of fun as well, with ultra heavy riffage and drumming, and a strange array of vocal effects for Timo Kotipelto.
Similar to Elysium, Lauri Porra only contributes one song to the main release on Nemesis, and as I have not been fortunate enough to hear the special editions, I can only comment on his contributions through “Fantasy”. “Fantasy” is hands down the catchiest track on the record and also the cheesiest, very fitting of Lauri’s personality, I think. I thought that Mr. Porra made some brilliant contributions to Polaris, but “Lifetime In A Moment” was a bit of a head-scratcher on Elysium, so I’m glad to see him back to form. Outside of songwriting however, Mr. Porra’s bass is mixed very favorably in the album. It reminds me a bit of Angra, and I think it’s a great production decision to bring the bass to the forefront at strategic times. Matias Kupiainen did most of the studio work himself on this album, and I don’ t know that anyone ever gave him the memo about marginalizing bassists in power metal.
Mr. Johansson contributes 2 songs, also in line with his output on Elysium, though where I wasn’t terribly on board with “Move the Mountain” (Seriously? Another mountain ballad?), both “Castles In The Sky” and “Dragons” are excellent. An improvement over Elysium is that even with 5 different musicians contributing songwriting, the album has much more cohesion. Though I have no qualms about naming “Fantasy” the catchiest song on the record, “Dragons” is an easy second. “Castles In The Air” is accentuated by some great keyboard work, a brilliant vocal melody, and a really interesting progressive midsection with a bunch of different stuff flying around. Your mileage may vary with “Castles In The Air”, but it’s very well put together. Let me just say that this album has been the kindest to Timo Kotipelto of perhaps any Stratovarius release he has appeared on. Earlier albums certainly had memorable choruses, and when he was younger his soaring vocals were excellent, but this album has really given him the best group of vocal melodies to perform in years. In that regard this album reminds a bit of Gather the Faithful, in that by smart writing, Timo Kotipelto becomes a much better vocalist than if he were still trying to sing “Find Your Own Voice”.
There’s lots of implications I could make about how this once and for all proves that the band doesn’t need Timo Tolkki, but I’d rather not spit on the man’s legacy, especially with him being well behaved lately. The greater point here is that Stratovarius continues to be a fine assembly of musicians, and in a time when many of the great bands are either faltering, dead, or have wandered into repetition or out of the genre entirely, Stratovarius stands tall, reinventing themselves but holding onto their core values of melody and metal. There’s plenty of great new bands on the horizon, but there’s more life in Stratovarius than I think anyone, myself included, could have expected.
Dagg’s Rating: 4.75/5