Thursday 3 November 2022

Stratovarius - Survive (2022)

Country: Finland
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 21 Sep 2022
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It's been seven years since Stratovarius put out an album and that's a long time for them, given an interminable habit of line-up changes every five or ten minutes. However, they're as stable as they have ever been, the new fish right now being drummer Rolf Pilve who joined in 2012, meaning that they've gone a decade without a change for only the second time. Anything further would be new territory for them.

The flipside to that admirable consistency is that they've never gone more than four years without a new album until now but it's been seven since 2015's Eternal. It appears that the gap has worked for them though, because this is their highest charting album in both Switzerland and Japan and Switzerland and it topped the Finnish charts, as only three of their fifteen prior albums managed.

The opening title track left me in two minds. I loved how it kicked in hard with machine gun guitar riffs, an approach that sounds great on a few songs here—especially on the intro to Broken—, but didn't like how tinny it all sounded in a section that pauses most of the instrumentation for effect stopped, as if the producer threw a perfectly good song through a filter to make it sound edgy and contemporary. I wasn't as fussed when that filter applied to the vocals of Timo Kotipelto, even if it didn't seem necessary, but it affected the drums of Rolf Pilve and that's harder to accept.

That introduction to a new album left me paying extra close attention to see what else they might do that didn't work for me and the good news is that there really isn't anything else. Survive has a drive to it and a good hook and that mindset, rather than the tinny filter, is what pervades most of the album. Demand picks up the mantle with a good riff and an upbeat feel and we're in motion. I can't say the filter isn't there, especially on the vocals, but it's obvious from moments when songs pause the instrumentation for half a line of lyrics that it's turned down once we get past the title track. Mostly.

The catch is that, while it's all generally perky power metal that's delivered with emphasis and an ear for hook-laden choruses, making it very easy to dig the delivery, especially Matias Kupiainen's guitarwork and often the interplay between his guitar and the bass or keyboards, it doesn't really surprise at any point. The song that stood out for me on a first listen and a second was Glory Days, eight into the album, and even then not because it did something different or unusual but simply because it does the same job as everything else but notably better.

What that means is that, if you like one song then you'll like all of them but, if you don't like that first sample then nothing else is going to convince you. I liked it but I didn't love it. I gravitated to the instrumental sections, where Kupiainen dominates and Jens Johansson makes himself known on keyboards, because these are quintesential power metal with an edge of symphonic metal and I love that sound. However, during the verses and choruses, it often felt like this was pop music at a serious clip and a serious volume. Maybe that's a different filter: take a pop song and apply the symphonic metal filter.

There are only two songs that try something different, both of which start out notably calmly. The first is Breakaway, which takes a full third of its four and a half minute running time to bulk up. It's really a power ballad but an exquisite one. Kotipelto delivers that first third beautifully against a backdrop mostly of orchestration and the point where it heavies up is handled perfectly. The other is the closer, Voice of Thunder, because this is the album's epic at over eleven minutes. To provide a perspective there, only two of the ten others makes it past five.

What surprised me here is how Voice of Thunder ended up playing to me as just another track. It's usually the epics that stand out for me in symphonic metal or even power metal because they're a chance for the band to truly let a piece of music breathe, without boundaries. This one firmly hints at that early on, with a soft introductory vocal set against acoustic guitar and the crackle of a fire and a storm. It beckons us in effectively and the riff that heavies things up is an excellent one. Two minutes in, this was one of my favourites here. By four, it's still decent but no longer special. Once again, Kupiainen elevates it midway with another strong solo, but he can't keep it up there. It's a good song but it's not the favourite that it promised to be.

And with only Glory Days filling that category, I think this has to be an enjoyable 6/10 but nothing higher. I wanted more from a band who have been away from the studio for the longest time in an impressive career that's almost at the four decade mark. Let's hope that they find their way back to the studio soon and knock out something that resonates more deeply. And without the filter of tinniness.

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