Many distinctive rock bands reach a point where the individual sound they have pioneered starts to lose its appeal. Pantera unintentionally became a parody of their favoured barroom brawl metal sound, while In Flames simply forgot how to be good. For Stratovarius the decline was inevitable; their polished, symphonic power metal style had remained constant since the mid-90s and most of their albums sound the same.
The new millennium brought Elements, envisioned as an epic two-part concept album released in two halves a year apart in the style of Helloweens Keeper of the Seven Keys, or more recently, System of a Downs Mesmerize/Hypnotize. A lofty idea and one that suits the bands flamboyant style, but not something that their confined sound could successfully achieve.
This first release has all the usual Stratovarius elements (yes, that was a pun. Well spotted) such as operatic choruses, a mix of short and snappy tracks with longer progressive pieces, catchy riffs and vocals and use of synthesised and live orchestration to add a grander texture, but its all pushed a little too far.
As much as it shames me to use this hackneyed criticism of power metal, an offshoot of classic heavy metal characterised by high wailing vocals, high pitched guitars and songs about dragons and warriors, I may have to: Elements is cheesy.
2. Soul of a Vagabond
3. Find Your Own Voice
5. Learning to Fly
9. A Drop in the Ocean
The first thing that disappointed me when listening to this first of two concept CDs was the general lack of a unifying concept or sound to tie it all together. These tracks all stand alone, as it should be, but they dont really benefit from being placed in the order they are, and tracks could be removed or replaced without affecting the general sound of the disc. Brilliant concept albums such as Dream Theaters Metropolis part 2: Scenes from a Memory and Jethro Tulls Thick as a Brick manage to align every part of the album with recurring riffs, themes and lyrical refrains, but this is completely lacking from Elements. Admittedly, Stratovarius never claimed to be a prog band, but there is essentially no real reason for the Elements albums to be considered two halves of a greater whole any more than the bands previous album Infinite, which seems to provide the structure and sound of almost everything on Elements Part 1, should be considered a prelude.
But even leaving aside this gripe, Elements isnt a great Stratovarius album, or even a great power metal album. Eagleheart tries unsuccessfully to sound like Meatloaf, the lengthy tracks Fantasia and Elements are too repetitive and dont sound distinctive enough from the rest of the album to merit extended length, the soft conclusion A Drop in the Ocean is completely unmemorable and Soul of a Vagabond is ruined by horn sections that are, unusually, far too foregrounded and oppressive to the regular instruments.
There are still many good songs on here, despite the odd decisions made. Find Your Own Voice and Learning to Fly are impressive speedy power metal anthems reminiscent of the bands best work, while Papillon succeeds in trying something new (the only real instance on the album), beginning with what sounds like a choir boy backed by haunting acoustics and fading almost imperceptibly to Timo Kotipeltos great voice and a slow, powerful drum beat. It still drags on in the last couple of minutes though. Stratofortress isnt a great instrumental, but its a lot of fun, and instrumentals are a rarity in a genre where high vocals often determine the sound of a song.
Stratovarius immediately became one of my favourite bands when I first heard their classic albums Twilight Time and Destiny, but exploring the rest of their discography, and realising how much they reproduce almost the exact same sound, was disappointing. Elements is not necessarily the peak of this lack of creativity, but the failed attempt at elevating the sound to new dimensions makes it all the more noticeable.
Fans of Nightwish, the more successful band primarily influenced by Stratovarius symphonic style, should enjoy the operatic pomp of the title track Elements, but Id recommend looking back to the bands earlier work. As mentioned earlier, 2000s Infinite is, perhaps sadly, a much better version of Elements, despite being the previous album and one that is often ignored. Eagleheart is essentially a reworking and spoiling of Infinites Hunting High and Low, the terrible A Drop in the Ocean tries to recapture Celestial Dream and the semi-eponymous Infinity achieves epic proportions much more listenable than Fantasia.
To end on a downer, Elements Part 2 is much worse.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 Soul Of A Vagabond
3 Find Your Own Voice
5 Learning To Fly
9 Drop In The Ocean