A few years ago, Stratovarius did a tour where they played the classic album Visions (1997) in its entirety. This year it was Episode‘s (1996) turn to get a special gig, as the album turned 20 years old. To top things off, Thunderstone was announced as the support act for the Finnish mini-tour to make sure ticket-buyers would get a double dose of domestic prime power metal. Musicalypse checked out the show at Pakkahuone, Tampere, on November 19th.
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I arrived at Pakkahuone around 19:45, just in time for Thunderstone’s set, and they kicked things off with “The Path” much to my surprise, as I’d expected “Veterans of the Apocalypse” to remain in the opening slot. However, as a single that’s received plenty of airplay on the rock stations in Finland this year, “The Path” wasn’t a bad choice by any means, and “Veterans…” did get played later on in the set anyway. What can I say about Thunderstone that hasn’t been said on these pages yet? These guys’ enthusiasm is infectious! Pasi Rantanen – the Finnish Coverdale – is a beast of a singer, and I’m amazed Atte Palokangas catches his drum sticks every time he throws them in the air.
Thunderstone’s nine-song set naturally concentrated on this year’s Apocalypse Again, but there was also room for good ol’ warhorses like “Tool of the Devil” and the closer “Until We Touch the Burning Sun.” The most memorable moment for me was “Weak”, for the start of which the house lights were turned off, and the band asked people to light the room with their cellphones. For a few minutes it felt like you were transported back to the classic era of stadium ballads! Thunderstone were an excellent choice for support band, as Pakkahuone was packed right from the start with a lot of TS fans in the crowd. The attendance was better than at the record release gig at Tavastia back in April, and bassist Titus Hjelm seemed to acknowledge this when he said “Helsinki may be the capital city of Finland, but Tampere is the rock capital!” 2016 has been a strong comeback year for Thunderstone, and playing for such a receptive audience must’ve been a great ending for it.
At 22:00, the familiar notes of the instrumental title-track of Episode started ringing through the PA and the Stratovarius members made their entrance to kick things off with “Speed of Light.” After the classic, which lived up to its name, Timo Kotipelto said they would play Episode “from start to finish,” but as the opening had demonstrated, this wasn’t exactly true, as “Father Time” is the first track on the CD. In other words, the band played the songs in a different sequence, most likely for the sake of pacing and in order to preserve Kotipelto’s voice. I thought this was sacrilegious and that full album performances should be played in the correct order, but if the changes were needed to make sure the band could deliver, then I guess they were justified.
I haven’t followed or listened to Stratovarius actively in about 4 years, but I was curious to hear Episode live because it had been my favorite album by the band during my fandom, and because I’d never seen them in concert before. Therefore, the show did a great job reminding me of the greatness of the material. “Eternity” was an unexpected choice for the second song, being on the slower side, but I didn’t mind, because it’s one of the crown jewels of the Strato catalog. For a prog fan like me, the other highlights of the set were the ambitious “Season of Change” and the underrated “Night Time Eclipse”, the former of which seemed to be a favorite among the fans as well, based on some enthusiastic screams heard when the song was introduced. A deep cut that surprised me positively was “Uncertainty”, which is one of the very few Stratovarius tunes completely penned by Kotipelto. I’d never been a big fan of it, but in the live environment it sounded heavy as hell, and the rhythm section of Lauri Porra (bass) and Rolf Pilve (drums) laid down a sweet groove during the verses that brought to mind “Heaven and Hell” by Black Sabbath. Porra also did a great job with the call-and-response vocals in the chorus with Kotipelto, and later on he played cello on a gorgeous rendition of “Forever” – it should be no surprise that a multi-talent like this is a descendant of Sibelius!
Then of course there were the speedy tunes, which Stratovarius is best known for: “Will the Sun Rise?” and the instrumental “Stratosphere” allowed guitarist Matias Kupiainen and keyboardist Jens Johansson to present some killer neo-classical solo work, and the melodies of “Tomorrow” sounded glorious, making me wonder why it’s been played so scarcely live. “Father Time” was finally played at the end, and Kotipelto nailed the high notes of the chorus, which he might not have been able to do if it had been played as the first song. The only real downer and mood killer out of the 11 songs (not counting the instrumental intro tape) was “Babylon”: although I have a soft spot for oriental melodies in metal, “Babylon” is a boring and plodding song with an incredibly weak chorus, although at least Johansson managed to save the instrumental section with an impressive keyboard solo. The only other bummer – and a mild one at that – was the lack of the bonus track “When the Night Meets the Day”; since they weren’t staying faithful to the original tracklist, they might as well have thrown that one in.
The encore was reserved for newer material – although I haven’t really listened to the latest couple of Stratovarius albums, I haven’t been able to avoid “Unbreakable” and “Shine in the Dark” on the rock radio, so they were familiar tunes to me and sounded great. As an exclusive bonus, Kotipelto said Strato would play an additional song, so the Tampere crowd was treated to “My Eternal Dream” from the latest album, Eternal (2015), which hadn’t been in the set at the previous shows. The audience’s response to the new stuff was just as positive as to the 20-year-old main attraction, which showed that the loss of guitarist and songwriter Timo Tolkki was far from a death knell for the band. “Hunting High and Low” was the righteous closing song, being Stratovarius’ most famous hit. While I had no problem with the idea of the extended bit in the middle where Kotipelto interacted with the fans and asked them to sing louder, he could’ve rambled less, because the comparisons to crowd participation at the previous stops of the tour felt endless and forced. At least the nicely-full Pakkahuone did make a lot of noise, so the end justified the means, and “Hunting…” was a great finale for the night. Some fans might’ve been disappointed by the lack of “Black Diamond”, but Thunderstone had played a teaser of it at the end of their set, so it wasn’t completely absent.
So how was my first Strato concert? While I’m not really a power metal fan anymore, I feel Episode has aged extremely well, thanks to the nice balance between the progressive overtones of the band’s early stuff and the more straightforward and upbeat material of later years. Kotipelto rightly pointed out that the album is slightly challenging for listeners live, because there are a lot of epic songs, but the fans in Tampere didn’t seem to mind for the most part. While I bet the Visions shows were more energetic due to the higher number of fast tunes, I personally prefer the proggy and mid-tempo stuff. A cynical person might question the point of performing an album with only 2/5 of the line-up that played on it and without the primary songwriter, but the young musicians in the current incarnation of Stratovarius did justice to the material. Matias Kupiainen in particular treated Timo Tolkki’s iconic solos with respect and grace, while injecting a bit of his own style into them. The veterans were also in a good shape: Jens Johansson shows no signs of slowing down, and while Timo Kotipelto can’t hold high notes as long as he used to, he’s still capable of hitting them, albeit with the help of downtuning. As the warm reception to the encore songs demonstrated, Stratovarius is an institution: regardless of who’s playing or writing the songs, the spirit of the band has remained intact, and there are still lots of people – old and young – interested in what they’re doing. I’m sure these guys still have a lot more years left in them…
Intro (Barren Land)
1. The Path
2. 10,000 Ways
3. Tool of the Devil
4. Fire and Ice
7. Veterans of the Apocalypse
8. Through the Pain
9. Until We Touch the Burning Sun
1. Speed of Light
3. Will the Sun Rise?
7. Season of Change
9. Night Time Eclipse
11. Father Time
13. My Eternal Dream
14. Shine in the Dark
15. Hunting High and Low
Photos: Miia Collander