Stratovarius – Polaris
By 2008, Stratovarius was more a punch line than a legitimate titan of power metal. Since releasing the well received (but a bit dry) Infinite in 2000, they had released the controversial Elements Pt. I, a somewhat useless Elements Pt. II, and an extremely underwhelming self titled “comeback” album after a series of “breakups” that were merely (terribly) orchestrated publicity stunts. While guitarist Timo Tolkki WAS the brains behind the entire operation (See: the one who was running the band into the ground), he was also the brains behind nearly everything good the band had ever done, writing the vast majority of the material and driving the band for two decades. When he called it quits in 2008, that was seen to be it for the band.
So, with the release of Polaris one year later, a lot of questions had to be asked. Primarily “Is this really Stratovarius?”, and “Regardless of the identity, is this going to be any good?”. The creative duties on Polaris fall primarily to bassist Lauri Porra and guitarist Matias Kupiainen, both making their Stratovarius debut. Jens Johansson contributes three songs, and Timo Kotipelto cowrites two (with Kupiainen), but even they had done at most one song per album in the past. Even Kotipelto who had released three albums with a solo project had generally failed to gain significant acclaim. Even with all this, there was a legal battle still raging from the collapse of Sanctuary Records, leaving the band in quite a bit of debt.
With the deck sufficiently stacked against the band, what came out was… pretty all right. I’m not going to say that they defied all expectations and released absolute brilliance, because that’s not what happened (yet). There’s a lot of structural problems with this album, many of them having to do with the growing pains of completely changing the creative formula. What I can credit the band with is making a Stratovarius record, because the general tone of the songs has a lot to do with the band’s 90s sound, updated for a more modern audience. Were one to be ignorant of the situation the band was facing, this wouldn’t be altogether surprising (except that unlike the last two albums, it was very much worth listening to).
Some of the highlights of the album are songs like “Deep Unknown”, “King Of Nothing”, “Blind”, and “Forever Is Today”; all songs with power metal muscle and progressive flair. It’s evident, whether by creative or talent differences, that Kupiainen is a much more technical guitarist than Tolkki, but on songs like “Somehow Precious” and “Emancipation Suite Part II” he still shows the emotional precision that fans expect. “Blind” is among the fastest songs the band had done since the mid 90s, and the talents of Jorg Michael seem much more intelligently used. The man DOES have some progressive rock ability, but stripping him of his second bass drum is just wrong. His strong suit on the album is both complex and monstrously fast drum beats.
As for what draws the album back, again, growing pains. There’s a point in “Falling Star” where there is a keyboard solo, followed by 20 odd seconds of keyboard rhythm, and its almost dumbfounding as to why there is no guitar solo there. Similarly, “King Of Nothing” does not feature a strong lead guitar presence (but it is made up for by a brilliant keyboard performance). While the “Emancipation Suite” has a beautiful lyrical narrative, some of the music does drag on a bit in the first part, and I feel that a bit more complexity or speed might have kept listeners more engaged.
This is really a great comeback album, but with distractions and the like, it doesn’t quite reach the heights it is capable of. It was a great sign of things to come for a fan base that was lost and confused, and had enough good material to justify itself, but the band falls a bit short of the homerun that is its right.
Dagg’s Rating: 3.25 out of 5