After a decade of tedious symphonic experimentation and unnecessarily long songs, Polaris is a return to Stratovarius' frilly cheese anthems of yore. Kind of.
Considering its success and influence on the European power metal scene, you would expect Stratovarius to be a pretty solid, reliable band when it comes to its output. However, with the exception of career highlight Visions, Timo and Timo, et al. are distinctly erratic in the quality of their records. For every over-the-top Eurovision metal delight like "Black Diamond" or "Eagleheart", there is a pointless plodder like "Papillon" or "Alpha & Omega", and more non-entity speed fests with no melodic creativity than I care to remember. They are essentially the kings of filler, and have sadly passed the bad habit onto many of their protégés. A manic double-kick beat, a relentless rhythm guitar, and a frenetic keyboard solo, and you've got another throwaway piece to add to the track listing. And considering most of Stratovarius' albums consist of eight or nine tracks, that’s pretty pitiful going.
After the unforgivably dull self-titled effort of 2005, key songwriter Timo Tolkki called it a day. The band returned in 2009 to try and regain its crown as king of the European scene. A 2010 reissue of Polaris coincides with a re-release of their turn-of-the-century effort Infinite. Infinite was the last record in the style of old-school Stratovarius before a decade of tedious symphonic experimentation and unnecessarily long songs, and Polaris is a return to its frilly cheese anthems of yore. Kind of, but we’ll get to that.
In a way, Infinite already hinted that the band wanted to head off in more pretentious territory. "Mother Gaia" and the title track are defiantly epic, but, unlike certain tracks from the symphonic Elements records, Stratovarius still seem to realise the importance of melody in these long hauls, rather than believing that bigger is better. Still, over the course of eight and nine minutes, Stratovarius proves that despite its frequent efforts, it just hasn’t got enough tricks to pull out of the bag to prevent these tracks from dragging.
Nevertheless, elsewhere on Infinite, Stratovarius pump out four-minute pop songs (three minutes for the song, one for the solo) and mostly get away with the tried-and-tested formula. Lead single "Hunting High and Low" proudly retains one of the strongest choruses in their catalogue; "Phoenix" and "Glory of the World" might regurgitate past riffs, but there’s enough going on to distract from this. However, it is the Europe-esque keyboard hooks of "A Million Years Away" and the hilariously straight-faced "Freedom" that point in the direction that Polaris now picks up ten years later. Unfortunately, Stratovarius enjoys its big post-chorus instrumentals, so much that the group forgets to write a decent chorus to precede it, only drawing attention to lead singer Timo Kotipelto's broken phrasing.
So does Polaris finally get it right? Looking at the album cover, it looks more like a proggy Dream Theater or Pagan's Mind record than the fantastical artwork that suited the harpsichords, fable-esque lyrics, nigh-on-castrati vocals, and electric guitar concertos so aptly in the past. And as you would expect, the future-techno keys that lace the guitars of endless Europrog bands are prominent here all over Stratovarius' 12th album. Electronic burblings and sizzling synth pads replace dramatic string arrangements (although the odd harpsichord can still be heard) and the album feels more futuristic than Stratovarius would previously have attempted. I guess it's been a long 15 years since "Father Time".
Or has it? "Higher We Go" is defiantly old school Stratovarius, with an infuriatingly catchy chorus, something that has eluded the band for years. Although opening duo "Deep Unknown" and "Falling Star" are drastically infused with the spirit of Dream Theater, it's clear the band remembers how to write a decent vocal hook again. But here's what's most satisfying, as track after track passes by: The skip factor is the lowest it has been on a Stratovarius record inr 13 years. "Forever is Today" and the aforementioned "Higher We Go" are instant band classics, and the dreaded mid-tempo numbers actually justify their length, with the melancholy keyboard flourishes of "King of Nothing" and surprisingly tender melodies of "Somehow Precious".
Some bad habits still remain, even after Tolkki’s absence. The closing ballad "When Mountains Fall" is as terrible as they always are and "Emancipation Suite" borderlines on drama over melody, but, on the whole, Polaris proves that a good comeback is all about trial and error. It seems that Tolkki, the band founder, had become the error.
The 2010 reissue of Polaris comes with a live CD recorded from the 2009 tour, which features a selection of tracks from Polaris itself as well a standard lineup of fan favourites, despite the surprising absences of "Black Diamond" and "Eagleheart". The good news is that riff-tastic tracks such as "Speed of Light" and "Phoenix" bounce along eagerly at double pace, and the band seems to be having as much fun as the dedicated crowd.
However, without the luxury of an onstage spectacle, it becomes more obvious that the band is not as tight as it could be, and Kotipelto's ad-lib ridden voice grates in a live setting. Whether the band has suffered slightly with Tolkki's absence or not is debatable, but regardless, the main attraction here is still Polaris the album, which establishes Stratovarius firmly as a band on the mend.