'Best Of' (2CD, 3CD special edition includes Wacken 2015, download)
One of Europe's premier power metal bands, Finnish band Stratovarius formed in the mid 80s (originally as Blind Water) and have since released 16 studio albums, four DVDs and three live albums along the way, and while there have been a couple of compilations, none were as comprehensive as this three disc set. And there's an exclusive new track to boot, alongside the Wacken 2015 live show, the third disc of the special edition.
The band's early direction was solid and influential power metal that sat alongside Helloween, Gamma Ray and Blind Guardian. They have since moved, more famously and more successfully, in a more symphonic and neo classical direction. There have also been a large number of changes, their line-up at times chaotic.
Currently featuring lead vocalist Timo Kotipelto, keyboard player Jens Johansson (Dio, Yngwie Malmsteen), bassist Lauri Porra (a noted filmscore composer), guitarist Matias Kupianen and drummer Rolf Pilive, there are no original members in the band and haven't been since drummer Tuomo Lassila left in 1996. I'll leave that debate to the pub and a pint or two.
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Formed as Blind Water in 1985, the band featured guitarist Staffan Strahlan, keyboard player Mike Ervaskari, bassist John Viherva and drummer/vocalist Tuomo Lassila. Strahlman was soon replaced by guitarist/vocalist Timo Tolkki and the band became Stratovarius. The 1989 debut, 'Fright Night', consisted of Tolkki, keyboardist Antti Ilonen, drummer Tuomo Lassila and bassist Jyrki Lentonen and while it achieved acclaim as a 80s metal album, it was criticised for lack of fluidity.
With Tolkki handling both guitar and bass (Jari Behm joining too late to record but is oft credited) 'Twilight Time' followed in 1992 and was known as 'Stratovarius II' in some territories. This was a more melodic affair with a retro British feel.
With bassist Jari Kainulainen on board and drums split between Lassila and Sami Kuoppamaki, 'Dreamspace' was released in 1994 and had a sharp European power metal attack while aptly titled 'Fourth Dimension' (1995) added lead vocalist Timo Kotipelto and touches of Judas Priest and Scorpions to the sound.
Keyboard player Jens Johansson and drummer Jorg Michael (Saxon part of a very long CV) came in for 1996s 'Episode', the start of a very stable period for the band. 'Visions' was a Nostradamus oriented concept album that highlighted the band's move in a neoclassical direction before 'Infinite' kicked off the new millennium and a move to Nuclear Blast, with four bonus tracks spread across different territories (collecting Stratovarius is an expensive interest).
The progression (and progressive touches) continued through the 00s, with live work aplenty along the way. 2009s 'Polaris' featured a new line-up, the first without then band leader guitarist Timo Tolkki.
After so many releases, this career retrospective is well deserved, and opens with the new track 'Until The End Of Days', featuring the current line-up.
A thumping rhythm and hints of filmscore, the vocals and keyboards both soar high and low, the blistering guitars nod to classic power metal. 'My Eternal Dream' (from 2015s 'Eternal') is a fast track which mixes shred aplenty with melodic metal. 'Eagleheart' (2003s 'Elements Pt 1') is heavier on the vocal and guitar harmonies, while 'Speed Of Light' (2006) is a more blistering affair. 'Forever Free' (1997) features some wonderful keyboard/guitar interplay worth checking out.
With no tracks from their debut (deliberate or a licencing issue?), the second album is represented (solely) by 'Break The Ice', which shows how far the current band have come. This is raw power metal compared to the symphonic metal band into which they morphed. 'Fourth Dimension''s 'Distant Skies' shows how things are starting to change, chunky and heavy with a rough edge or two and the symphonic threads are starting to creep in. The first five years are definitely glossed over.
From then on, and more of a symphonic direction, from vocal harmonies to melodic shred, there is more coverage. Whether a single (the band released several across Europe, to some success too), a stand-alone album track or part of a concept, there's not one bad track here, across the first two discs that make up the compilation part. Rather light on the early material, but even so a good representation. Many will argue (myself included) that the more melodic power metal and symphonic work is better than the earlier raw power metal period. 29 tracks over two discs is a fair amount of music that will keep you going for a good hour or two.
The third disc (special edition) is a live album recorded at Wacken in 2015. The intro builds well, as does the crowd, before they launch into 'Black Diamond'. The harpsichord sound to the keyboards couples well with the blistering bass and drums, and there's a fine version of 'Eagleheart' to follow. The rhythmic keyboard intro to 'Dragons' quickly gets the crowd clapping along before the band come in; a good live number.
Anyone who regularly follows MetalTalk will know how good and popular the Wacken festival is and Stratovarius fit it well as this set shows.
Wonderful music, and (largely but far from completely) a good career span. The bonus disc of Wacken is definitely well worth searching out, if you were there or are a fan.
Aside the track list quibbles (as there will be with any and every compilation on earth), and the lack of original members (that's another debate) it's an excellent set and good value.