During my tenure here at AMG, I don’t think I’ve taken quite so much guff for a review as when I gave the last Stratovarius opus (Elysium) a mere 3.0. I found that rather funny, since a 3.0 is a pretty good score around these parts. While Elysium had some very good songs, it had several rough spots and a general lack of energy that short-circuited the album’s flow. Now I’m tasked with examining Nemesis, the follow-up by one of the titans of Euro-power and a band I’ve respected and enjoyed for a long time. It turns out to be a tough album to get a handle on. While its more consistently energetic than its predecessor, it’s also far more symphonic, fruity and puffed up with distracting keyboards and sound effects. The latter developments take much of the air out of the former and we end up with an album that’s both faster and less heavy than Elysium. This is a much poppier, commercial Stratovarius and though you get some hooky choruses and speedy refrains, there’s a good amount of flat, generic material that fails to impress and feels like filler. Even the good songs are weighed down with overblown sound effects and everything feels watered down, weak and toothless to the point where some of this stuff sounds like dance club music [They’re just fans of Amaranthe who want to pay homage – AMG]. Yes, they’ve gone through bombastic stages before (Elements I and II), but this is the biggest step toward a commercial sound that they’ve taken to date and Steel Druhm likes it not.
Okay fanboys and girls, get those angry message board posts set to “flaming,” because I’m about to become your Nemesis once again (because this album is positively en fuego)!
The annoying mix of traditional Euro-power and saccharine sweet, overdone symphonics kicks off as soon as the album does with “Abandon.” The song itself is decently catchy, standard Stratovarius fare with an above average chorus, but the inclusion of all the chanting and keyboard fluffery in the background detracts from what is essentially a simple power metal tune and makes it seem lightweight and forced. “Unbreakable” is a better song with a nicely hooky chorus and its less burdened by excessive keyboard noodling and faux-symphonics. This is one of the album highlights and harkens back to the better stuff in their Elements era. Timo’s voice shines and the guitar gets more space in the mix than the keys (enjoy it, because this is a rare victory not to be repeated much on Nemesis).
Other respectable moments come with “Halcyon Days,” which has a chorus strong enough to overcome a wealth of chanting, sappy electronica-dabbling and digital effects that do their collective damnedest to drag things down. The one-two punch of “Castles in the Air” and “Dragons” end up the album’s highlight, though both songs are rendered fairly tame by fruity keys and omnipresent background nonsense (tell me “Dragons” doesn’t sound like dance music, I dare you). Both have big choruses that force the songs into the memory bank and both stand up to repeat spins despite the wall of symphonic crap piled on top. Also worth a mention is the more ballsy (relative term here) aggression during “Out in the Fog,” which sounds more like old, pre-neuter Stratovarius than the rest of this post-op stuff.
Other songs like “Stand My Ground” and “One Must Fall” reek of filler and never get going in a way that makes me want to hear them again. “Stand My Ground” in particular is crammed full of vocal effects and overdone keys and it just doesn’t work. The same can be said of the title track, though at least it’s a bit heavier and has meaty riffing. “Fantasy” has a suitably catchy chorus, but its so damn cheesy and candy-coated, I just can’t take it seriously as a metal song. It reminds me of the epic cheese Annihilator used to write when they were hellbent on killing their rep as a promising thrash band (circa Set the World on Fire).
As a long time fan of Timo Kolpelto’s vocals [And therefore a man of questionable taste… – AMG], I’m happy to report he sounds as good as ever here. He isn’t the problem and he makes the material sound as good as it can. He stays within himself more than usual and doesn’t reach for quite so many high notes and his delivery is the strong point on all the songs. The guitar-work of Matias Kupiainen is fine and the man can rip off a nifty solo, but he’s largely relegated to a distant second seat by the oppressive keys of Jens Johansson. I’ve always enjoyed Jens and his contributions to Stratovarius and he’s a master at his craft, but on Nemesis he’s too upfront and doing too much, too often. He drowns out the guitar and becomes the focal point way too much and it emasculates the music.
The mix contributes to this problem by putting the keys too far upfront and the guitar too far back. When you add in the constant symphonic drone, silly effects and chanting, it becomes like a musical condom protecting you from direct contact with the “dangerous” and “dirty” metal. I can’t speak for everyone, but I hate musical condoms and therefore, I hate this mix.
Nemesis is not the Stratovarius album I was hoping for. I hate the new infatuation with symphonic pap and I hate that a lot of this sounds like teeny-bopper commercial metal. After all the bashing and complaining, I can’t deny the catchiness of some of the songs and there are a handful of winners that somehow overcome the sappy, crappy effects and pomp, but there aren’t enough of them to save this. I’ve seen reports that Nemesis is their heaviest opus in years, but don’t you believe it! Flame on.