Stratovarius – Survive Review

The metaphor isn’t hard to spot in the cover art of Stratovarius’ 16th album, nor in its title, Survive. The world’s pretty fucked up these days and we may very well be beyond the threshold, able at this point to merely mitigate rather than actually prevent real catastrophe. Time will tell, of course, but for generations raised on what now appears to be a fairly quaint notion of hope for a world in which the majority of people are allowed to enjoy life, the current trend feels like the punchline of an impossibly cruel joke.

The Finnish symphonic power metal stalwarts’ first new studio album in 7 years is pretty clearly a conscious response to all that doom and gloom. They’ve built their institution, after all, on a foundation of dramatic and emotional songs that tell fantastic and romantic tales of the human experience and our relationship with the earth, so resilience and, indeed, fortitude in the face of calamity certainly fits with their brand.

There’s another aspect to the concept of survival here, though, and it centers on the band’s identity, relevant because the band currently includes no one who was there when it was conceived way back in 1984. Thinkers have long pondered the paradox of the Ship of Theseus, the question of whether a constructed thing having all of its component pieces replaced remains the thing. Some folks think, of course, the thing doesn’t remain the thing; it’s been replaced throughout so it’s a new thing entirely. Others consider what the thing means to its creators and those who experience it and, therefore, that the idea of the thing is inextricably tied to its existence – the material thing is not the thing. In that sense, this new album is a reliable reflection of Stratovarius as a band more than an assemblage of players. Even more, Survive is a faithful instance of the Stratovarius ideal; that is, as a product of a band that has endured any number of difficult circumstances, adapted, and emerged stronger for it, looking ever upward and onward.

“Survive” ranks among the strongest of Strat’s opening tracks, full of energizing riffs and positive vibes and, most of all, a palpable strength conveyed through expert songwriting that lets fly the uplifting power of Timo Kotipelto’s voice. The lyrics speak to the emergence of a strong and resilient person from the depths, in which they believed neither about themselves, coming now to embrace their station, both an acceptance of circumstance and a tightening grip on that which they can control. It’s symbolic of both the individual and all of us, at least those of us aware enough to care about the fate of our societies. Absolutely the right pick to open the album.

Release date: September 23, 2022 Label: earMUSIC
Sure the theme is heavy and the lyrics have a darkness about them and so, in the context of so much that seems hellbent on rocketing us back to the Dark Ages, it may seem to be a hopeless lament or, worse, an opportunistic one. But, come on, this is Stratovarius. Look a little more closely at the lyrics to notice not whimpering, but a scream, a battlecry, a reminder that “survive” is a verb and, thus, requires action; to survive is to fight. From the moment the title track leaps from the gate, Survive is classic Strat symphonic metal, splitting the clouds to unleash the sun, all power and glory, because this album celebrates the indomitable human spirit.

Not every song’s relation to the overarching theme is obvious, but most of them follow a pretty well-defined, sometimes clever arc. The title track’s message is fairly straightforward and “World On Fire” smacks you upside the noggin with its admonition to world leaders for the late increase in geopolitical conflagration. Accordingly, the songs themselves are relatively quick, sharp shots.

“We Are Not Alone” takes a little more time and space to ponder the question of free will, of whether our survival is a matter of chance or destiny. Again, a heavy topic and one pondered from the beginning of conscious thought, but treated here with a wonderfully buoyant playfulness, especially in those bright shining keys playing like stars in the night sky, reflecting the curiosity that seeks light where the cynic sees only dark.

The melodies and choral harmonies feel relatively dark in “Frozen In Time” compared to the other songs, and the riffs are blunter, but it too is a celebration of survival, of the lovers discovered in the ashes of Pompeii. The tribute to timeless love is punctuated by a false ending full of erupting bass and percussion to symbolize the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the death of the lovers, whose enduring embrace is then exalted in an ascending coda with Timo kotibelting out one of his strongest high notes since “Forever Free.” Just a beautiful rendition of this lovely historical anomaly’s story.

Sometimes it’s a little harder to tell what the heck they’re getting at. “Glory Days” is obviously a depiction of some glorious battle, complete with resounding horns, but whether it’s historical or fantastical remains unclear (although, upon further reflection, it may very well be a metaphorical reference to that bright future so many fought for that is in danger of being stripped away). Similarly, in the case of “Firefly,” it’s not clear the band would even recall what they were getting at, but when the first line of the song is pulled from Survivor’s biggest radio hit, we can at least give them credit for sticking to the theme. And you’ll happily nod along with the song, too; it’s the most radio-friendly track on the album and will hook you like the smell of French fries from the passenger seat, even if its video has you cocking your eye and scratching your head.

“The Voice of Thunder” closes the album in grand fashion with a wonderful progressive break and a rousing orchestral crescendo. The closer offers some of Survive’s most effective melodies and emotive hooks, making it a perfect final chapter. Indeed, the track order is worth noting as a particular strength of the album, maximizing the impact of each song and allowing for variation without stalling the momentum, the kind of often overlooked detail that can push an album from good to great.

If there’s a nit to be picked here, it’s the production. Survive is big and strong and powerful throughout, custom built for the arena and absolutely fit for modern symphonic power metal. The problem is that it’s been polished to an almost absurd degree, smoothing the grit and dulling the edge. It’s certainly not a new approach, as it really just continues the trend begun after Visions and amped up after the self-titled album. The production will be a deal-breaker for some but, for most, the strength of the songs ought to render it a moot point after a few listens.

Power metal ain’t no gimme; it takes almost a perfect combination of some pretty elusive talents and personal attributes, not to mention chemistry and timing, to get it right. So it’s absolutely remarkable, the consistency with which Stratovarius has and continues to produce the good stuff. Survive is mature and expertly crafted, which means it’s reliable and comfortable and maybe even familiar as any of their last few albums have been. It’s also strong and dynamic and smart and fun as hell, a true sign that Stratovarius is nowhere near giving up the fight.

Posted by Lone Watie

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