I’ve been obsessing about music since about the year 2000. Over this time I’ve bought what must now be nearly 1,000 albums, and heard hundreds more through friends, relatives, streaming services and whatever else. I’ve also watched over a decade’s worth of music videos and heard countless individual songs on the radio, free covermounted CDs, websites and whatever else. All that, as well as read years and years worth of music magazines and websites.
I’m a nerd. Basically. Only, instead of Battlestar Gallactica or Model Railways, its Music I obsess about. Lots of people are nerds and don’t even realize it. Sometimes its obvious; trainspotting, stamp collecting etc. Sometimes its less obvious due to presentation. Some (make that many) football fans’ depth of knowledge about players and transfer costs and club histories would make many tram-enthusiasts seem normal by comparison. The amount of information that some people know about Reality-TV celebrities and their sex-lives would easily overpower my knowledge of bands, or the most dedicated Dr. Who fan’s knowledge of the Tardis.
But I don’t like Football or Reality TV or Trams or Dr. Who. I like Heavy Metal music. That’s what this Blog is all about.
Welcome to my First Impressions series of articles too, incidentally. In this series I (or sometimes my friends, or readers) pick an album for each entry that I will listen to for the first time. I then write in depth about what I know about that album or the artist that created it and the genre and subgenre to which they belong, before describing the experience of listening to it in real time, in a sort of semi-stream-of-consciousness way intended for entertainment purposes. I also enjoy writing reviews of albums, but when I write reviews my goal is to be helpful and provide you with information with which to aide your decision about whether to try out an album or not. When I write a First Impressions article however my goal is purely to entertain the reader, explore how much I know about music and be my own psychiatrist in the process.
I may go into some very specific detail and assume you have heard everything I’ve ever heard and perceived everything in the manner I’ve perceived it, and call out very specific sections of music and draw comparisons between things that the casual listener may find completely unrelated. Don’t worry, most of these songs are on Youtube and most of the terminology is on Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary anyway, so if there’s anything that goes over your head, you can always get clarification in a second web-browser-tab (or ask about it in the comments).
According to the aim of the series, the albums are considered by the public and music critics knowledgeable about the subject to be Classic albums within Rock and Metal, or at least within their own Subgenres. Classic albums that I’ve somehow missed out on, despite my nerdly need to hear and understand almost every piece of recorded Metal music ever.
If you have an album that you’d like to read a KingcrimsonBlog First Impressions article about, please suggest it in the comments, I’m game, I’ll give anything a try.
This entry, the sixtieth in the series, (sticking with the obviously intentional 1997 theme) will be about the Finnish Power Metal band Stratovarius’s classic sixth full-length studio album, 1997’s Visions.
I remember really early on in my music fandom, possibly 2002-2004, I had seen an advertisement for some Stratovarius albums in a magazine (Elements Prt.1 was definitely there, I don’t know if Prt.2 was, and I kind of think Infinite was but am not 100% certain anymore) and thought that the pun of their name was so clever (hey, I was young) and their album artwork was so cool, that I really wanted to check them out. My local music shop (“The Music Shop”) and the one in the town with my School in it (“Gene Stuarts”) however, didn’t have Stratovarius albums and by the time I got around to buying albums online as a normal thing, my interest was far away in the lands of Thrash Metal and later 1970s Prog Rock.
After watching Metal Evolution’s Power Metal episode, exploring Power Metal as part of my 1,000 Albums That Metal Fans Should Hear project, and falling in love with Helloween’s Keeper Of The Seven Keys records as part of this series, I suddenly remembered my Stratovarius curiosity. I also like buying Concert DVDs and now Concert Blu-Rays, and when I saw Stratovarius had a Blu-Ray I bought it, sight unseen, just because I thought it might be cool and I wanted more Blu-Rays.
Luckily; Their Blu-Ray is fantastic. I watch it fairly often (or did at least until my semi-broken PS3 started being too annoying to switch on). I reviewed it yonks ago, and my opinion of it has only gotten better. I love their stage presence, I love their singer’s personality and even his dress sense. I really fell in love with the song ‘Hunting High And Low’ off the back of that Blu-Ray; so I decided to pick up their Infinite album. It was pretty decent, but no Keeper Of The Seven Keys. I don’t know, I was sort of sold on the band with tracks like ‘Millennium’ [Also, the riff in ‘Phoenix’ at about 3.35 when it goes all low-pitched and the kicks match up to the guitar rhythm is still one of my favourite things I’ve ever heard from the band] but then something like ‘Mother Gia’ would balance that out with a healthy dose of “this is not my cup of tea.” Odd, because out of context, the song is actually not too dissimilar to Porcupine Tree. I think I like the verses, just not the chorus and the slow bit. Maybe that’s not the best example. But there is definitely some stuff on there I’m not keen about, even if I can’t instantly recall what it is.
So, anyway, I was on the fence about Stratovarius. I then decided to pick up the classic Visions due to a lot of Power Metal fans I consulted with over the 1,000 albums list project telling me to …as well as Elements Prt. 1 (which had tempted me all those years ago, remember?) which I bunged into the shopping basket too because it was going for cheap.
When their new album Nemesis was about to come out, I was pretty keen on getting it, and I listened to the first single in keen anticipation for some Accept’s Stalingrad style late-in-the-career rejuvenation. I loved the verses, but the chorus actually put me right off and I never did end up checking out the record. I wanted something more. I guess what I wanted was probably ‘Through The Fire And Flames.’
Up until the day when I wrote my DragonForce First Impressions article, I never really liked Elements Prt 1. I loved the opener ‘Eagleheart’ but the album was a total drag. I found it too long, sprawling, directionless, and lacking in “flow.” Since that day however, I’ve actually rearranged the order of the tracks and now find it to be a fantastic album (My Version is: 1. Eagleheart 2. Find Your Own Voice 3. Learning To Fly 4. Stratofortress 5. Elements 6. Soul Of A Vagabond 8. Papillion 9. Fantasia 10. A Drop In The Ocean). Well, at least, it went from a 3/10 to a very respectable 7/10.
I’ve been meaning to do a First Impressions on Visions since about last September/October, and as a result, I never really properly listened to it, or got to form an opinion about it because I was sort of “saving it” for my article, so I had kind of listened to and yet not listened to it, and it existed in some hypothetical netherworld between my collection and the shop.
I actually have done this a few times, I get an album with an intention of Blogging or Podcasting about it and then develop a sort of psychological block about it. I did the same thing with Slo Burn’s Amusing The Amazing EP, Cacophony’s Speed Metal Symphony, Gallows’ Orchestra Of Wolves, Faith No More’s Angel Dust, Iggy & The Stooges first 2 albums, Thin Lizzy’s Black Rose and also Van Halen’s 1984 ( but only until I did a First Impressions about it).
I almost had it with Helloween’s Master Of The Rings too, as I was going to write a Deris-era-discovery piece, but I scrapped that idea fairly quickly and was then just able to enjoy the album (especially ‘Soul Survivor’) without baggage.
Strangely, I have the same sort of Mental Block about the new QOTSA and Black Sabbath albums (Robot Ghost !!!!), even though I never intended to write anything about them.
I guess the problem with the block is that I listen to bits of them in shuffle, or when I’m about to go to sleep. That way, I’m sort of trapped, because my brain says that I haven’t listened to them yet since the article isn’t being written, but my Last FM Profile says differently. Then when I DO listen, I kind of have to pretend I’m not listening, so as not to spoil the article, if you follow…
Yes. I am sane.
I think its about time I free myself from these Mental-shackles and be able to actually listen to the music that I paid for without having to feel like I’m cheating on my readers. So, its time to give Visions the old listen-n-type treatment.
[Oh and by the way, actually listen to the music I paid for is teaser for a new feature of the Blog. I’m going to be setting myself money saving music challenges (inspired by the great Heavy Metal Overload Blog) in which I try to save my money without spoiling my passion for music (or hobby for writing) by writing about the albums I bought but never listened to much – possibly blended with don’t buy anything new for 15 days challenges. If you’ve been a regular reader of these First Impressions articles you’ll have noticed I spend way too much money on music and get so much stuff all at once that I can barely cope with it all. This blog will be about getting my money’s worth out of the albums that have slipped through the cracks or never got their due attention.]
Ok. Here we go. Win me over Power Metal classic. Fill me with soaring vocals that make Bruce Dickenson seem restrained and guitar and keyboard duels that make Blackmore and Lord seem talentless…
The album opens with the famous ‘Black Diamond.’ I understand it’s a concert favourite. They play it on their Blu-Ray.
It opens with a sort of tasteful sounding Harpsichord line. Some long hanging chords ring out, then the double-kicks come in. Its at once both very fast and really midpaced sounding, due to the mixture of the slow choral sounding held-keys and the fast drums. The vocals come in, they’re pretty restrained and simple for a while, they start to get a bit more adventurous around the chorus. As do the drums, he throws in some China cymbals.
After the chorus there’s a quick little guitar only flourish, then a groovy breakdown that is powered-down by having the Harpsichord in it. Then the song kicks up a notch with a nice thrash riff and the guitar solo comes in. Then the keys and guitar start dueling. After that the harpsichord comes back in, only with a neoclassical little guitar solo underneath, and then the drums start building up powerfully with nice fills, and the chorus returns. There’s some nice little touches especially in fills that include the hi-hats in them, and a vocally impressive alternative last chorus vocal line. It ends on even more classical sounding keys fading up as the Metal fades out. There are what sounds like some bassy strings (Cellos I guess) in the background.
It’s a very good and very solid track, and I like it a lot. I don’t get however why its such a big deal. Its very good, but I don’t know why people rave about it if you follow. Why that one? Its not exactly amazingly better than everything else. It doesn’t particularly stand out as especially brilliant in the way that Trivium’s ‘Pull Harder On The Strings Of Your Martyr’ is just waaaay better than the rest of the album. Its great mechanically, but I don’t personally see the extra special “wow factor” that people act like it has. But again, I should stress, I did really enjoy it.
Next up comes the ‘Kiss Of Judas’ which slams its way into your ears, like a Chav to the front of an orderly queue of Elderly bus passengers. Its lead by a bass line with that nice clunky feel you’d get from a Testament or Metallica bass line where the guitars are cut out. I can almost see Newstead’s head banging along.
The guitars tease down the strings with scrapes. Then the choral keys come in, the guitar riffs add some nice chugs synced up to the double kick rhythm. The vocals are much more grandiose and showy than the previous track. A little guitar run pans from one speaker to the next. Then chorus comes in, more a change of texture than of music. I love the sound of the clean slowly-strummed guitar chord that’s played over the heavy, steady rock bass line and drum beat. Somehow it reminds me of Queensryche’s ‘Empire.’
The next time the chorus comes in, there is a really neat, powerful little simple drum fill with a lot of attitude. As that chorus rings out and transitions into the next part there’s a cheeky little guitar lead that crawls down the speakers like a curious spider. Then the music starts building up powerfully, with one of those “both sticks swishing the hi-hat in a sort of circular way” (y’know, like the bit in that Slipknot song where he sings “pull your hands away, uh huh, goodbye, its so depressing, withering away, take a look inside”). Then there’s a change of tone with a key solo and some very nice solid hard rock drumming with unexpected fills. Then a solo in a more Chris DeGarmo and less Neoclassical vien than usual. Then the chorus comes back in, only with a little extra ‘do do dah’ from what sounds like violins but is keyboards. It makes the chorus that extra bit more driving. As it starts fading out, they add galloping Maiden style double kick on-offs (dubbbbble duh dubbble dah -dubbbbble duh dubbble dah).
Again, really neat, mechanically perfect song.
Next up comes ‘Forever Free.’ While the last to tracks were both almost six minutes long, it bucks the trend by being exactly six minutes long.
It opens with a fairly crunchy guitar part, then the double kicks come in and back out as the leads come. Then the verse comes in, like the way they would on that DragonForce album. When the chorus follows, its one of the first on the album that conforms to Power Metal expectations by sounding like a big giant sing-along for a whole Festival. Those leads come back and really remind me of Queensryche. Then the bippity boppity gallop of the verse. I like the heavier thrashy pre-chorus and the nice wallop fill that segues into that glorius-victorius chorus.
This time the heavier bit comes in extra heavy, then things thrash out only with a harmonized slow solo that really works along Queensryche lines apart from the notes they use toward the end that are a bit too happy for Seattle. Then an absolutely superb keysolo + guitar solo combo pack. With extra hanging guitar background parts if you call now and use the promo code “TV.”
Then a last chorus with more energetic drums and two goes around. Then they tease out that heavy bit again but with especially showy vocals, and it ends fading out on a groove with a Lead guitar squeal that really, really, really reminds me of ‘Empire.’ In fact if you covered both of them live in your pub band, you could use that squeal to transition between the two by correctly timing the “Last time the word came dowwwn,” opening vocal.
I think this song is my favourite of the three so far.
[My back and knees hurt; the Physio cracked my spine seven ways to Sunday to find out why my feet and knees always hurt and it hasn’t helped with the problem. Price of diagnostics I guess, but its left me with yet another day where I have to lye in bed all day like some kind of Sloth during a Red Bull Prohibition scenario.]
‘Before The Winter’ follows with some ice-level-in-Final-Fantasy sounding plucked guitar, and a very different vocal style. It actually reminds me a bit of King Crimson’s ‘Moon Child’ and ‘I Talk To The Wind’ in places. The drums slowly, slowly come in, like an A Sun That Never Sets beat. Then a fill. Oh lord, it’s a Power Ballad. I can see those European lighters up in the air, and their glow reflected in the Plastic Viking Helmets being sold in the Festival’s concessions stands. Then after a quiet section, one of those big slow-to-fast-November Rain-style Cliffside-church guitar solos. Then the Crimson vocals again (‘Peace – A Beginning’ this time). Then the Power Ballady chorus.
There was nothing particularly wrong with that song, but I’d edit it out of an exercise playlist if you know what I mean. I don’t think I’ll keep that one on my phone. Its not a phone worthy song (there’s only 16GB of space on that phone, so only scorchers stay on.)
The band then decide to cover ‘Queen Of The Reich.’ Ok they don’t. Its their own song called ‘Legions,’ but that opening riff is shamelessly similar to the main riff in ‘Queen Of The Reich’ I tell-you whut.
As such however, it is excellent. Then after a hi-hat count, they swirl away with a little direction-shift-signaling keyline, a silence, and then another one of those boppity bop verses. The keys stop it just being Priesty Trad Metal but it sort of is. The chorus, two-part though it be, is excellent. The first part is Happy Happy, like ‘Eagleheart,’ and the second part is ‘Queen Of The Reich.’ The shift from one to another is enjoyable. Y’know, the unique slant they slap onto the stolen Queensryche riff is also reminiscent of Helloween’s ‘Halloween.’ Is it possible someone just asked what two great songs where, and then tried to stick ’em together?
Anyway, after that there’s this superfast keyboard solo over dynamic on-off music. Its very impressive sounding. Then they compete with a similar guitar solo. Then they go into a sort of Neoclassical sounding pompy bit that feels sort of out of place but not enough to raise eyebrows on a less scrutinizing listen. Then a great alternative verse and chorus-is-coming-teaser-bit with great showy vocals and extra showy final chorus.
That song is an absolute banger. Also their drummer doesn’t get enough credit. Oh yeah, and then to prove my point, it ends on a concert-like ending where everyone shows off and drags out the end with cymbal washes and extra stabs and slow fills repeating. Kind of like a little drum solo. I remember the first time that I saw Metallica live, The Darkness were supporting, and they did this, to a ludicrous degree, for every single song, and filled their one-albums-worth-of-material discography with almost a whole extra album’s worth of over-ending the songs.
Next up is ‘The Abyss Of Your Eyes.’ It opens with a weird on-off, oddly-tuned riff, that flows in a very Rap Metal rhythm. It feels like it could have a sort of Downset thing going on next. I expect a Brooklyn accent to shout ‘ch-cH-CHA-CHECK 1,2!’ over a drum fill that goes ‘bruh buh bap, bu-bap.’ …or, equally, it could easily transition into ‘Bored’ by the Deftones. I can kind of see it taking a pained, haunted direction. I don’t see how its going to turn into Power Metal.
They kick it out with more of that nice clunky bass and a slow stompy rock beat. The sweet key sound makes it sound like Stratovarius at last. Then a very, very, very Empire-era Queensryche sounding bit comes in. Then another that sounds like ‘Jet City Woman.’ Then it does a heavier version of the main bit. Then there’s another two parts that sound like the last 4-5 songs on Mindcrime. What’s with all the Reich pilfering guys? I really enjoy this ploddy midpaced Reich-thief though. I like the showy “My Life Is Changing, I Cannot Recall” vocal part.
There’s a slow bit, that sounds like its going to be part of a Power Ballad. Then the toms build up, and an atypical guitar solo comes in (with very enjoyable extra double kicks in the 2nd half) then the repeat of the chorus adds very Scott Rockenfeild style drums. What’s going on, seriously? Is it a competition to see how many Reich bits you can fit into one song. Why not stick that riff from ‘Legions’ in there too?
Still. Great song. Because it sounds like Queensryche. I like Queensryche.
PREDICTABLE KCP IS PREDICTABLE.
Next up there’s a superfast key-solo right from the off as the instrumental ‘Holy Light’ comes in and knocks the pace up a few dozen BPM. It reminds me a lot of ‘Stratofortress’ off of Elements Prt. 1. Perhaps Stratovarius are like Soulfly only instead of world music influenced tracks all with the name ‘Soulfly’ its all speedy instrumentals. Was there one on Infinite? I can’t remember right now.
If I was to describe the “stereotype Stratovarius sound” it would be the faster bits of this song. (There’s some slower groovy bits hidden in there for variety too.) Say around 3.08. Ok. Anyway. Around 1.20 its all very Thrash Intro Song (think ‘Crystal Anne’) with sweet sounding Spanish guitar and viloning high-pitched lead guitar quietly crying in the background. There’s a nice stompy but still neoclassical sounding transitional bit. Then it goes into a fat, slow bit that sounds like both Megadeth’s ‘Dawn Patrol’ and Metallica’s ‘God That Failed.’ Then it gains a dark, crystal-cave in a SNES game tone. It kind of reminds me of Donkey Kong Country 2. The level with the Wasps and the Crystals. There’s some furiously quick guitar solos going on but you don’t notice how fast they are over the ominous slow main part.
Then the next track, ‘Paradise,’ comes in and it really sounds like its going for the mood of the intro to ’22 Accacia Avenue.’ Timmo sings “Late at night I find myself again…” but you can just tell he wants to say “If you’re feeling down, depressed or lonely…” The delivery of the word “TV” has an out of character sound effect slurch out. The main riff has this brilliant rockin quality. It say ‘Duhn Duhn DennaNuhn’ as it stomps around air-guitaring on top of its bed imagining its dressed in a biker jacket. The pre-chours is fun and chorus is a bit more what you’d expect from the band. The transition between the two strangely reminds me of ‘Misery’ by Green Day.
There’s another fun out of character guitar solo and some very interesting simple fills around this time. Its interesting to hear a guitarist who has a clearly identifiable style not-play-it. Its like Kerry King busting out a Dave Gilmour style “get-sexy” solo. You wouldn’t expect it from him.
This is the only song on the whole album under five minutes (at four and a half minutes). Its good fun though. I can see it being a good song to try on someone who likes Hair Metal to try and win them over with. Not that it sounds like Hair Metal. I just think it might work. Its got the right attitude.
[Oh Good; Lamb Of God are touring here in January!]
‘Coming Home’ starts next with all sorts of nice guitars, soft vocals and pleasant soft keys. It’s a bit like the first two tracks on Coheed’s Good Apollo album, as well as the ‘Wake Up’ ballad, all rolled into one. (Ironic; with all that band’s home-coming and coming home and not-coming-home themed lyrics).
Then the big Power Chords and the brilliant, showy vocals come in. It starts into this slow steady rock beat and a little lead guitar line that once again sounds like a large scale fantasy film (Like the bit in LOTR after they come out of the mines, and walk on top of the mountain and the camera pulls out to reveal the vastness of the landscape. Or the bit where John Snow kisses whatshername on the top of The Wall. Or the bit where Robert DeNero & Joe Pesci appraise the painting his mom did in Goodfellas. – Oh wait, not that last one.)
It goes back into spanishy guitars and viloning. Then the massive, massive chorus erupts like an ancient alien tower suddenly rising from the earth to near skyscraper size. Yes. Yes sir. If you insist on Powerballading, then Powerballad like this. Powerballad the fuck out of it! Make it sound like the world is at stake. The heavy bits around the 3-minute mark with the tom rolls are great. The solo which follows is simple and tasteful, the whole thing feels important. It doesn’t seem like filler to sell records to the soppier fans. It sounds like they HAD TO write this song. The long, super high-pitched “I’m Coming Hoooooo-oooo-ooo-ooome” towards the end is excellent.
Needless to say, I liked that. (Didn’t have the last laugh though, Partridge fans).
[Side Note: You know the way people like Ian Gillian and David Coverdale and Geoff Tate (and arguably Bruce Dickenson and Rob Halford) all lose their voice as they get older? Yeah? Why is that just a UK & America thing? How comes all the Power Metal and German Trad Metal guys are able to keep it up well into their fourth and fifth decades of living? You never watch a Power Metal concert and think, “Man; he just can’t hack it anymore, listen to how much lower pitched the whole song is to compensate, this sounds rubbish compared to the studio version!”]
Finally, comes the Title-Track “Visions (Southern Cross).” [Well, I’d call it the Title track. The album is only called Visions though, not Visions (Southern Cross), so if you wanted to get pedantic it could not be the Title Track. But it is. Get over it, ok? – Also; while we’re at it, ‘Raining Blood’ is the Title Track to Reign In Blood. Agreed? Good!] It decides that if the rest of the songs are going to swan around all being five minutes long, its going to show them who’s boss by being ten minutes long.
It opens with some atmospheric bits, then a midpaced bit, then a bopity bop. Its got a slightly more serious and harsh edge to it for reasons I can’t quite explain. Then there’s a slower bit, with some vo-coder backing vocals, that turns fast but keeps the robot.
There’s a fun fill that sounds like it almost goes out of time but gets saved at the last minute. There’s been a few different bits, most of which are all good. And one of those pitch-shifting screams like the opening one to Queen Of The Reich. Then a story telling talking bit like in 7th Son Of A 7th Son and Keeper Of The Seven Key’s Title Tracks. [Title Track, Title Track, Title-Title-Title-Track, Made Of Your Existence! Title Track, Title Track, Title-Title-Title-Track, Money And Our Failing!]
It cuts out to another Thrash-Albums-Spanish-Intro-Track sounding bit. Only some lyrics about rainbows come in. There are a lot of different approaches to vocals, its kind of like a little showreel. Then the guitars and drums come back in, and its kind of in “Power Ballad, as done by heavy-ass band” territory. Like Pantera’s ‘The Sleep’ and ‘Cemetary Gates.’ There’s a brilliant interrupting Thrash Riff, and it suddenly sounds like the middle of a Testament song, then the momentum gets murdered when a highly treated vocal comes in, then they try to go back to fast but it doesn’t sound as fast after that. Then they add a middle bit in with lots of double kicks. Then the thrash bit again into a boppity bop that sounds a bit like DragonForce for the shortest second before the song starts sounding like a Queen’s wedding. Its took this regal, churchy direction. It sounds like the end of a song. It does start cymbal washing and stabbing again. Then that narrator comes back, sounding oddly like Gerry Adams in the world’s most confusing choice, then the keys sort of fade out over about twenty seconds, then silence. Boom. The album is over!
I get the idea of the “ten-minute Title Track with multiple tempos and volumes, and a narrator, and some proggy influences mixed with Power Metal tradition and the odd Thrash riff thrown in,” – I really do. I do because ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys’ is one of my favourite songs of all time. ‘Visions (Southern Cross)’ took all those ingredients and just set them out, in a big line, with seemingly no thought given to making the song feel rounded or well composed. It was a load of bits, more than it was one big song. It didn’t feel larger than life.
Ok. That Title Track, and the 1st Powerballad, I could’ve lived without. Especially since ‘Coming Home’ sounded like an album-closer anyway. Plus then it would be a more manageable length. More succinct. It would leave a better first impression. Otherwise however, that was a really solid and enjoyable record. It obviously hasn’t dethroned Land Of The Free or Keeper Of The Seven Keys, (and heck, no one song on it is as great as ‘Hunting High And Low’) but I’m glad I own it. And now I can listen to it free from the mind-goblins who want me to feel bad for jumping the gun. The goblins have been slain. Hmm. Sounds like a Power Metal lyric.