During the last half of the '90s, STRATOVARIUS ruled the roost when it came to top-notch A-game power metal. Over the course of three albums in three years - Episode ('96), Visions ('97) and Destiny ('98) - the band set a standard that was hard to match. Guitarist Timo Tolkki was elevated to the status of guitar god, new vocalist Timo Kotipelto (as of '95) cemented his position as the band's frontman in spite of initial fan misgivings, and the quintet was deemed pretty much unstoppable. That wasn't the case, and Stratovarius' fall from grace in the years that followed was well documented, with the brakes finally being applied to halt complete self-destruction when Tolkki departed once and for all in 2008. Three albums into what has been touted since 2009 as a fresh start with axe-monster Matias Kupiainen in Tolkki's place and the band have hit one out of the park with new album, Nemesis. It's a record based on change of a tried and true formula, and nobody - not even vocalist Timo Kotipelto - could have predicted the wave after wave of positive feedback that's come down since the press got a hold of it.
"The reactions haven't been like this in about 12 or 15 years," says Kotipelto. "I'm always excited about releasing a new album when it's done, of course, but this time it feels like a fresh new start. Not just because we have a new drummer (Rolf Pilve) but because things also clicked together in a good way."
Which is a huge understatement to the ears of anyone that has followed Stratovarius since the '90s. Kotipelto is hard pressed to identify what it was about the creative process this time out that coughed up a record worthy of their late '90s run.
"When I had the demos there weren't any vocals, just guitar melodies or weird keyboard melodies from Jens (Johansson). At that stage it's hard to tell if it's going to be a good song or not. I can recognize of there's a melody in there that makes some sense that I can work with, but it can be difficult. Especially with Matias' songs because he doesn't compose with vocals and lyrics in mind; a lot of the time I end up thinking 'What the fuck is this...' when I hear his stuff (laughs). And sometimes when we're recording Matias sometimes suggests we change things about the vocals because he has a vision in his head of what he wants. We give each other feedback in the studio, and it really works. When Jens composes he has a more melodic approach from a singer's perspective, and I guess that's because we've been in the band together for so long. For the last couple albums we made demos and Matias mixed them in the studio so we could hear how the songs would sound. They weren't perfect but they gave us a better picture of where we were going. Of course, by the time I get to do my vocals two or three months have passed and the songs have changed a bit."
"Nemesis is well produced but it's not overproduced," he adds. "It's very easy to add stuff to a song - 'Hey, let's put an orchestra here... and samples there... and over there...' - but there isn't very much of that on this album. There are a lot of keyboards, though, but not orchestral keyboards. Maybe we're going in a heavier direction, more basic metal instead of putting too many symphonic elements in the songs."
The album is indeed heavier than the last couple Stratovarius albums in spite of the fact Johansson's keys are just as prominent as the guitars. Not something one expects when trying to imagine a keyboard-loaded batch of songs, but somehow it works.
"That's true," Kotipelto agrees. "Jens explained it to me; he said that he'd been sending a lot of keyboard tracks for the other albums, but they were mixed by Mikko Karmilla, and maybe he didn't want to have very much to do with the 'keyboard experience.' Matias is a bit more crazy and is willing to give Jens a chance to have more of his strange sounds on the album (laughs). I think it's good because Jens is known for his solo playing, but to me it seems that he has brought sounds to the album I haven't heard before."
As such, Johansson will probably be blamed for the trance-influenced 'Halcyon Days', which enters unexplored territory in the Stratovarius world. In actual fact it's a Kupiainen-penned track, and the band was so confident in it they shot a video for it, although Kotipelto is on board with the vast majority of fans that are perplexed the first time they hear it.
"When I first heard the 'Halcyon Days' demo I thought 'This song is not going to be on the album,'" Kotipelto reveals. "When I sang on the demo I began thinking 'Hmm, this could work. I'm not into techno, but...' And when I sang it for the album I though, 'Fuck, this is the best song on the album...' (laughs). When we play it live, the guys have arranged it so it won't have that heavy techno part, so it's going to be much heavier, but I still think it's a cool song. It's an experiment, so some of the older Stratovarius fans might be like me when they hear it for the first time and say 'What the fuck is this?!' Hopefully they'll have the same reaction I did after a few listens, where they end up loving the song."
First single 'Unbreakable' is less of a curveball in comparison, but as the first single off a Stratovarius album it doesn't follow in the footsteps of previous singles like 'Black Diamond', 'Will The Sun Rise?', 'Father Time' or 'Hunting High And Low', all of which are fan favourites to this day. The pop elements of 'Unbreakable' are - to these ears, at any rate - reminiscent of the NIGHTWISH hit 'Amaranth' from their Dark Passion Play album.
"That's funny," laughs Kotipelto, "and it's nice that you mention it because Stratovarius influenced Tuomas (Holopainen/keyboardist, founder) in the past, so maybe we can steal a little bit from him (laughs). He's a very cool guy."
A completely unexpected bonus on Nemesis is the lone ballad tacked on near the end rather than having the power metal requisite of at least two splattered over the course of a record.
"Nobody else composed any ballads for the album, and we thought that maybe we should only have one this time. We wanted Nemesis to be heavier and more straighforward compared to the previous albums. I had the main idea for 'If The Story Is Over' two or three years ago, and I presented it to Jani Liimatainen (ex-SONATA ARCTICA) about a year ago. We co-wrote the song and he composed the lyrics. There was room for one ballad, not more."
"There are plenty of good songs on Nemesis," he adds, "so maybe we finally did something right."
One of those things was choosing the right drummer to replace Joerg Michael, who provided the Stratovarius backbone as of 1995 until opting to leave for health reasons in 2012. Songwriting for Nemesis was underway long before Rolf Pilve was invited to grab a seat behind the kit, but there's no question he had an influence on the final result.
"When we decided on Rolf, I think his playing affected Matias' songs the most," says Kotipelto. "Those two spent three weeks in the studio trying out different things so they had lots of time to experiment, and I think that can be heard on the album. And, Rolf has been a huge Stratovarius fan since he was 15 or something, which also made a difference. When we did the audition he was supposed to play four or five songs, and I asked him if he knew any other songs; he said 'Yeah, just pick one.' (laughs). He played those songs better than the rest of us. Rolf's playing style is more modern, I guess you can say, but he can also play power metal with a groove. He's a great player and a nice guy, so that had an effect on the recordings, definitely. Joerg is a brilliant drummer but his style is different, so bringing Rolf in did change things."
No matter how good the songs and the players might be, however, the track sequence plays a huge part in how an album goes over as a whole. Call it dumb luck or gut instinct, but the flow on Nemesis is a huge part of why it works so well. One has to wonder how many times the song sequence was hashed and rehashed before the band let the album go.
"This is probably a question for Matias. He called me when the album a couple days before going to mastering and asked what I thought the song order should be. It's a neverending game is you start asking everybody in the band about that, so my vote and Rolf's vote was for Matias to pick the songs (laughs). I just didn't want the album to be too long because we had 15 songs, and my opinion was that it had to be as good as possible and not as long as possible. The song order Matias cam up with is almost what I have picked; maybe I would have changed one of the songs with one of the bonus tracks. I'm very satisfied with what he came up with."
Wrapping things up, Kotipelto is made aware of the fact that Timo Tolkki actually praised the band in public back in mid-January when press for Nemesis was building. Taking to his official Facebook page, Stratovarius' former guitarist - who hasn't exactly seen eye-to-eye with his former banmates on a number of issues since his departure - posted an update stating "Just heard two new clips, 'Unbreakable' and 'Halcyon Days', from my ex-bandmates. I am actually floored. These are really cool songs. The production is fresh and modern. Way to go!"
Kotipelto is understandably pleased by the news, as life is too short for any more drama.
"That's something new from him, so I'm very happy if he likes the songs."