Album Review – Stratovarius / Episode (1996)

The best album from the best Finnish band of all time.

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stratovarius_episodeOi maamme, Suomi, synnyinmaa, soi, sana kultainen! Finland is by far one of the most Heavy Metal countries in the world, and I’m not inventing this information from out of nowhere: take a look at this map showing the number of Heavy Metal bands per 100,000 people and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Nightwish, Lordi, Amorphis, Sonata Arctica, Turisas, Apocalyptica, Teräsbetoni, Finntroll, HIM, Sentenced and Wintersun are just some of the biggest exponents of heavy music in this land that offers its people a lot more than just ice and snow, but none of them have changed the world of heavy music as the Power Metal/Melodic Heavy Metal band Stratovarius.

Since their start in 1984, Stratovarius have released many important albums which revolutionized Heavy Metal with intense and fast riffs, double bass, high-pitched screams and epic songs. Among those releases there was their fifth studio album, Episode, released over 20 years ago, which in my opinion was the most important step in the band’s history in terms of creativity and evolution. With the awesome Timo Kotipelto on vocals for the second time after the good album Fourth Dimension (and fortunately until present days), and the addition of the beasts Jens Johansson on keyboards and Jörg Michael on drums, Stratovarius became a synonym for Melodic Heavy Metal in the 90’s and influenced an infinite number of bands all around the world. That was the band’s most stable and powerful lineup of all time, until Timo Tolkki left the band in 2008.

The music in Episode is pretty straight forward, it’s fast and clean Heavy Metal with total synchronicity of instruments, together with lyrics talking about life, love, dreams, and all the struggles a man has inside his mind. Add to that the beautiful atmosphere created by the Sibelius String Orchestra and Sibelius Choir, and you have a musical masterpiece. The clock ticking in the beginning of the album just announces that what comes next is no less than memorable: Father Time is an incredible song that summarizes all the power and technique of the band’s members, especially Timo Tolkki and Jörg Michael. What those guys do with their instruments is beyond awesome, and seeing this song live is like having a musical orgasm. Furthermore, Tolkki’s riffs are a constant in the whole album and one of the elements that make it so special for all Heavy Metal fans.

The speed goes on with Will the Sun Rise, another classic showing how perfect the partnership Tolkki/Kotipelto used to be. Then things slow down a little with the beautiful Eternity, but after the instrumental intro Episode comes one of their fastest and most amazing compositions ever: Speed of Light can make even a Thrash Metal band jealous of its speed and riffs, and as Canadians love a mosh pit I can’t wait for a Stratovarius concert here in Toronto to slam into the pit with this song. On the other hand, Uncertainty is quite boring and the lowest point of the album, despite its nice intro.

stratovarius_1995The next track is another good ballad, Season of Change, where Kotipelto once again demonstrates why he’s a reference in Melodic Heavy Metal, followed by the instrumental song Stratosphere, where we can see an inspired Timo Tolkki and a crazy Jens Johansson “masturbating” their guitar and keyboards respectively for our pure delight. Babylon can be considered an “epic” song due to its lyrics, strong intro and variations, while Tomorrow brings back the band at full speed with its inspiring lyrics (“Feeling strong and brave inside / my head up high with pride / yes I’ll be back tomorrow”) and Jörg Michael pounding his drums with his unique technique.

Finally, we have the song Night Time Eclipse, a nice semi-ballad with pleasant riffs and solos, and then a ballad so beautiful I can’t even find the right words to describe it, Forever, where Timo Kotipelto melts the heart of any woman with his performance (“I’m still there everywhere / I’m the dust in the wind / I’m the star in the northern sky / I never stayed anywhere / I’m the wind in the trees / would you wait for me forever?”). The Japanese version of Episode also contains a good bonus track called When the Night Meets the Day, another nice song, albeit not as wonderful as the regular tracks.

If you don’t know Stratovarius, I would say Episode is probably the best album to start. The only “issue” would be the side effects of listening to this musical wonder, which are an extreme addiction to Finnish Heavy Metal and a compulsive obsession with the language, culture, drinks and people from the marvelous land of ice and snow.

Best moments of the album: Father Time, Speed of Light and Forever.

Worst moments of the album: Uncertainty is the only “weak” track of all, or let’s say the least awesome.

Released in 1996 Noise Records

Track listing
1. Father Time 5:01
2. Will the Sun Rise? 5:06
3. Eternity 6:55
4. Episode (instrumental) 2:01
5. Speed of Light 3:03
6. Uncertainty 5:59
7. Season of Change 6:56
8. Stratosphere (instrumental) 4:51
9. Babylon 7:09
10. Tomorrow 4:51
11. Night Time Eclipse 7:58
12. Forever 3:06

Japanese edition bonus track
13. When the Night Meets the Day 5:30

Band members
Timo Kotipelto – vocals
Timo Tolkki – guitars, backing vocals
Jens Johansson – keyboards
Jari Kainulainen – bass
Jörg Michael – drums

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Album Review – Iron Maiden / The Book Of Souls (2015)

As you read through the pages of The Book Of Souls you’ll inevitably realize that Iron Maiden’s gonna get us all, no matter how far.

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Iron Maiden_The Book of Souls“Here is the soul of a man…”

Unless you were one of the luckiest bastards in the world who joined Mr. Bruce Dickinson on a special 737 flight from Cardiff, UK to Paris, France on August 26 to hear in its entirety the brand new album by Heavy Metal titans Iron Maiden, the 92-minute Mayan-inspired masterpiece The Book Of Souls, I’m pretty sure you have been suffering lately from several “withdrawal symptoms” such as anxiety, palpitations, restlessness and poor concentration, counting every second left until today to close that excruciating five-year gap since their 2010 album The Final Frontier. However, you can definitely relax now, because the band’s first ever double studio album is not only ass-kicking, but so dense and multi-layered we have enough Iron Maiden at their finest to soothe our souls for the next five decades or so.

Furthermore, there are so many noteworthy details surrounding The Book Of Souls it’s hard to summarize everything in just a few lines. For instance, the album was recorded at Studios Guillaume Tell in Paris, the same studio used for their 2000 release Brave New World, with several songs being written and recorded immediately after to give them a live and fresh taste. Also, the album cover features the original version of the Iron Maiden logo, not used on a studio album since their 1995 release The X Factor. And finally, although The Book Of Souls is not a concept album, many songs have references to the human soul, mortality and death, depicted in the artwork as the idiosyncratic “Eddie Sapiens” by English illustrator Mark Wilkinson, who by the way has already worked with other music icons such as Marillion, Fish and Judas Priest, as well as with Iron Maiden themselves in previous works like Best of the ‘B’ Sides and the single The Wicker Man. In addition, the band hired Mayanist scholar Simon Martin, who also translated the song titles into hieroglyphs, to validate the accuracy of the artwork. If there’s a band that pays attention to every single detail in their albums, that’s undoubtedly Iron Maiden.

Nevertheless, it’s when the music starts that we’re all reminded why we love these British veterans so much, and in the case of The Book Of Souls there’s A LOT of music for us Maidenmaniacs to relish. Starting with the first disc, the intro in the excellent If Eternity Should Fail already gave me goosebumps, and besides, it’s really comforting to see that Mr. Bruce Dickinson’s voice continues to be stunning after his battle against cancer (even knowing the album was recorded before his treatment started). After that it’s pure Iron Maiden, which means powerful riffs, galloping bass and drums, and a gripping storyline, with the creepy narration at the end (“the harvester of souls”) reminding me of what Bruce did in some of the songs from his excellent solo album The Chemical Wedding. And if you think this is a lengthy song with its imposing eight minutes, let me remind you it’s only the fourth one in terms of duration. Moving on to the next track, it’s not Iron Maiden if you cannot enjoy some extra freebies such as a behind-the-scenes exclusive footage of an official video or playing a special game inspired by a song, which is the case in the high-octane Speed of Light, where Hard Rock is taken to the next level with the help of some dashing cowbell, Bruce’s vibrant screams and a fuckin’ awesome rhythm led by Iron Maiden’s guitar triumvirate formed by Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers, taking us fans back in time to a Piece of Mind-ish musicality with a touch of Brave New World. Moreover, this electric tune has that type of chorus you’ll be singing nonstop in the shower, in your car, at work, school and anywhere else in the world with your fists in the air and a huge smile on your face (“Shadows in the stars / We will not return / Humanity won’t save us / At the speed of light / Shadows in the stars / We will not return / Humanity won’t save us / We’re slippin’ through the night”).

Iron MaidenThe Great Unknown, which reminds me of some of the songs from The X-Factor but with the addition of the high-end progressiveness found in their latest albums (especially The Final Frontier), showcases the always superb Nicko McBrain firing his unique beats and fills, as well as another eerie story told by Bruce, keeping The Book Of Souls at an incredible level of quality. But it’s from The Red and the Black on that the album becomes a brilliant tribute to Heavy Metal. No words can describe the verve of its intro, and it doesn’t matter if you consider it old school or more contemporary Iron Maiden, as long as you acknowledge its awesomeness. It’s obviously another masterful and epic creation by the one and only Mr. Steve Harris, with highlights to the combination of Steve’s flawless bass lines and Dave’s, Janick’s and Adrian’s riffs and solos. I can’t wait to scream its electrifying “Ooh-Oooh! Ooh-Oooh!” together with the band when I see them live next year (if they play it, of course), and while some people might complain this song is too long, I prefer complaining it has “only” 13 minutes. Too short for its greatness, don’t you agree?

With hints of Seventh Son of a Seventh Son and their Punk Rock attitude from Iron Maiden and Killers, the fast-paced tune When the River Runs Deep, written by Adrian and Steve, truly makes my blood run wild, and I’m certain that if this song was part of any of their old albums it would have become an all-time classic without a shadow of a doubt. Bruce and Nicko are absolutely on fire, making me wonder if they’re really over 50 years old as they sound like they’re in their 20’s, so fiery their performances are. Then closing the first album we have the title-track, The Book of Souls, exhaling beauty from its melancholic intro to the poetry in its lyrics. Everything was meticulously put together by the whole band in this song, which has actually two distinct parts if you pay good attention, the first composed by a grandiose and marching rhythm enhanced by the keyboards in the background, while the second is a lot faster and heavier, showcasing Maiden’s traditional guitar riffs and solos until the songs fades to a somber and calm ending.

In order to properly kick off the second disc and tear the house down, Adrian and Bruce got together to craft another fighting anthem the likes of The Duellists entitled Death or Glory, the perfect soundtrack to an epic battle movie where nothing sounds out of place, with highlights to its exciting backing vocals, blazin’ guitar solos and a potent battlefield sonority. Truth be told, I can’t stop banging my head and playing air bass guitar to this straightforward tune, which is also the case in Shadows of the Valley and its “Wasted Years 2.0” intro, another strong candidate for their live performances. Despite beginning in a very similar way as one of their biggest classics of all time, it ends up following a pattern closer to songs such as “The Fallen Angel” and “Montségur”, mainly due to its characteristic galloping bass guitar and Nicko’s solid drumming. One thing I love doing while listening to Iron Maiden is closing my eyes and absorbing the story Bruce is telling me while the other band members generate a thrilling ambience, and let me tell you this song is perfect for that.

Iron Maiden’s Boeing 747-400 Jumbo Jet, also known as Queen of the Skies

Iron Maiden’s Boeing 747-400 Jumbo Jet, also known as Queen of the Skies

Tears of a Clown, a reverent Heavy Rock tribute to one of the most important actors in the world, Mr. Robin Williams (R.I.P.), is a lot more inclined to Bruce’s solo career, and albeit its instrumental parts sound very cohesive what really stands out in this song is the story told through its lyrics. And The Man of Sorrows, which also sounds closer to something Bruce would do on his own rather than with Iron Maiden (it was written by Steve and Dave, by the way), is completely different from Accident of Birth’s “Man of Sorrows” regardless of their almost identical names. It starts as a heavy ballad, evolving to a darker, more progressive and more melodic musicality than usual, increasing its complexity and impact on the listener.

And last but not least, Empire of the Clouds, featuring Bruce on piano for the first time ever and based on the historic crash of the titanic airship R101 in 1930, replaces “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as the band’s longest song ever at 18 minutes in duration. It is perhaps the most melancholic and sorrowful song ever composed by the band, and as we all know they have the guts to play something like this live I bet it will be part of their upcoming setlist next year for our purest delectation. Bruce gives a History lesson about the R101 during the whole song, taking its epicness to the second power, with the music perfectly representing the audacity, dreams and failure involved in that important historical fact. Additionally, after nine minutes it becomes a music voyage full of changes in rhythm, progressive passages and symphonic elements, culminating in a gentle and passionate climax that closes The Book Of Souls with a flourish.

In summary, Iron Maiden triumphed once again (as if anyone is really surprised with that), delivering a bold, venturous and elaborate album that will keep them atop the highest mountains of heavy music, consequently attracting more and more fans to their extensive family and keeping Heavy Metal strong and relevant for many years to come. Now all we have to do is wait patiently for their gigantic world tour next year on board of their Boeing 747-400 Jumbo Jet (aka Queen of the Skies), listening to The Book Of Souls over and over again until then. And as you read through the pages of the new epic album by Heavy Metal’s greatest band of all time, you’ll inevitably realize that Iron Maiden’s gonna get you, and you, and you, and you, and all of you… no matter how far.

Best moments of the album: The Red and the Black, When the River Runs Deep, Death or Glory, Shadows of the Valley and Empire of the Clouds.

Worst moments of the album: WHAT!?

Released in 2015 Parlophone/Sanctuary Copyrights/BMG

Track listing
Disc one
1. If Eternity Should Fail 8:28
2. Speed of Light 5:01
3. The Great Unknown 6:37
4. The Red and the Black 13:33
5. When the River Runs Deep 5:52
6. The Book of Souls 10:27

Disc two
1. Death or Glory 5:13
2. Shadows of the Valley 7:32
3. Tears of a Clown 4:59
4. The Man of Sorrows 6:28
5. Empire of the Clouds 18:01

Band members
Bruce Dickinson – lead vocals, piano on “Empire of the Clouds”
Steve Harris – bass, keyboards
Dave Murray – guitar
Adrian Smith – guitar
Janick Gers – guitar
Nicko McBrain – drums