Strange as it sounds, I owe a lot to Stratovarius. Nearly a decade ago, they were one of a handful of bands that eased me into the wonderful world of metal, proving that there genre was so much more than hyper distorted guitars, savage grunting and breakneck drums.
Of course, I came to appreciate all of these facets of extreme music in time but back in 2003, you just can’t underestimate the impact a song like ‘Black Diamond’ and ‘Hunting High And Low’ had on such an impressionable young man as me. The high-pitched vocals and keyboards took me right back to the 70s prog I was raised on but the sheer power and joy of the whole affair were simply infectious and so a new passion was born.
Nine and a half years later and my tastes have immensely; so too have Stratovarius. The 2000s proved a chaotic decade for the band, as the Finns saw themselves riven by internal turmoil. Main songwriter and guitarist Timo Tolkki’s very public breakdown caused Stratovarius to temporarily disband and around this time infighting and poorly-judged publicity stunts suggested that the band might well be in terminal decline. A run of patchy albums from “Elements, Part 2” onwards eventually culminated in Tolkki’s departure and legal wrangling by remaining long-time members Timo Kotipelto, Jörg Michael and Jens Johannsson was required to ensure that the power metal group would live on to fight another day.
The following two records, “Polaris” and “Elysium”, made a significant critical and commercial impact in their native Finland and beyond and did much to restore Stratovarius’s good name. Drummer Jörg Michael’s decision to call it a day in 2011 was a further blow but with a new drummer announced and a fourteenth studio album expected in 2013, the band seems to have recovered quickly.
This live release from Nuclear Blast, “Under Flaming Winter Skies”, was recorded on one of Michael’s final shows with Stratovarius and in that respect, marks the end of an era. A twenty song set could never hope to fully encompass the band’s entire career and while the overall selection is ultimately satisfying, the setlist completely omits tracks from their first four records and, unsurprisingly, from 2005’s extremely divisive self-titled record.
What’s left, then, is a whirlwind tour of Stratovarius’s glorious late 90s peak with a smattering of newer material from “Polaris” and “Elysium” thrown in for good measure, along with a cheeky cover of Deep Purple’s ‘Burn’. There are plenty of big hitters; materials from ‘Visions’ features heavily, including ‘Kiss of Judas’, ‘Paradise’, ‘Legions’, ‘Coming Home’ and superb versions of both ‘Black Diamond’ (those opening keys are as spine-tingling as ever) and the epic ‘Visions (Southern Cross)’.
As well as the cuts from the most recent pair of albums, “Under Flaming Winter Skies” also features a couple of tracks from the ‘Elements’ records. While the absence of many more ambitious songs from this period of Stratovarius’s career is a shame, ‘I Walk To My Own Song’ and ‘Eagleheart’ are still a welcome addition and fit surprisingly well with the older material. ‘Father Time’ and ‘Speed of Light’ from “Episode” also make an appearance and ‘Hunting High And Low’ provides the perfect high energy closer that’s a fitting tribute to Michael’s contribution to the band over the years.
Setlist quibbles aside, there’s not really much else to fault “Under Flaming Winter Skies” on. Sound quality and live mixing isn’t perfect, by any means, but it’s no worse than many other live releases and strikes a good balance between capturing the live environment and allowing the quality of the songwriting to shine through. Crowd interaction is fairly limited and almost entirely in Finnish, though while this may alienate some listeners, it may well be for the best; Kotipelto’s attempts to work the audience on previous live releases like Visions of Europe were cringe-inducing.
Still, for fans of Stratovarius, “Under Flaming Winter Skies” is an essential listen and a fine swansong for Jörg Michael, not to mention an interesting snapshot of where the veteran Finnish band are today. It’s unlikely to convince non-believers but those new to power metal will find a rich seam of material here that acts as a good jumping-off point into Strato’s voluminous back catalogue. Those, like me, who retain a soft spot for the band will also find much to enjoy here and maybe even a spot of nostalgia looking back to more innocent times.