Stratovarius – Seeking Eternal Respect

Sunday, 6th September 2015

If you’ve been around the power metal scene for a while, you don’t have to hunt high and low (pun fully intended) to see the peaks and valleys surrounding Finland’s Stratovarius career-wise. Ascending to legitimate headlining status in the late 90’s, only to see their popularity fade while Timo Tolkki’s mental health issues spilled out for internet chat/message board fodder the following decade, the current incarnation has picked up the pieces and brought the reputation back to where it should be: more about the quality of the music versus any extracurricular activities.

Eternal is the new studio record, a varied affair that bridges the tried and true formula with a few nods to modern sounds as to expand upon the Stratovarius platform. Dare I say it’s the most consistent outing since those late 1990’s pinnacle records – a thought that made vocalist Timo Kotipelto beam at the conclusion of this Skype session when asking this journalist about the recording. Awakening earlier than normal from my morning slumber, get ready to learn about the whirlwind success during the Episode through Destiny days, how he battles shyness, and a love of Netflix beside the healthy new album talk.

Dead Rhetoric: Eternal is the latest Stratovarius album. At this point in your career, how does the band handle the challenge of creating new material without repeating oneself? Does it help to have five songwriters in comparison to the times when Timo Tolkki took on the majority of the writing?

Timo Kotipelto: First of all, there used to be only one guy writing, and now we have five guys writing. Rolf didn’t really write anything for this album, he did a lot of rhythmic and drum arrangements for this album that was a big input. If there is only one guy composing then he can compose more similar songs to each other. There is a lot of variety now. Let’s assume that the main writer would have writer’s block- then what do you do? Sit around and wait for a couple of years if something comes up. This time we had to wait for one year because we were originally planning to start recording already in May of last year. It didn’t happen because we didn’t have enough good songs- well, we had enough songs but they weren’t good enough for the album, so we needed to compose more songs. That’s why it took an extra year to compose the stuff.

I think it was worth waiting for sure. We had a lot of material to choose from. Of course then everyone wants to make sure their songs appear on the album, we are writing our opinions very loudly. I’m very satisfied with how this worked.

Dead Rhetoric: The song “Shine in the Dark” has a little bit of a modern electro-keyboard hook that seems a tip of the cap to Amaranthe, who you co-headlined with on a European tour in 2013 – what can you tell me about this song, as well as the 11:39 closer “The Lost Saga”?

Kotipelto: “Shine in the Dark” it was not really influenced by Amarnathe at all because it was composed by Jani L. and I, and Jani wasn’t on that tour. We wrote it 1 ½ years ago. The keyboard songs are created by Jens Johansson, and I have no idea what he was influenced by. There are more keyboards on the whole album because I think Jens spent more time creating new sounds and recording stuff, he sent more tracks compared to the past. We have a brilliant keyboard player, perhaps the best in the power metal scene. So why shouldn’t the keyboards be heard more on the album? It is more modern as you said, but I think it’s a good song to present the new Stratovarius stuff. There are a lot of other songs on the record that could have been written by us at the end of the 1990’s. “The Lost Saga” was composed by Matias in January or February. I remember when he told me that he had one long epic song coming up, then he told me he didn’t have any time to write the lyrics for it. I asked him what I should write about, and he said the song should be about Vikings, because he was inspired by Viking music when he was composing the song. Those lyrics to me are like Stratovarius / Iron Maiden epic lyrics, because normally we don’t have history based stuff/fiction on our album. We don’t normally have stuff about war, blood, and battles on our album. For this album we decided for this song to do this. There are a lot of different themes on the album.

Dead Rhetoric: When Timo Tolkki left in 2008, did you have any doubt regarding Stratovarius’ future or ability to remain relevant?

Kotipelto: For sure. First of all, the only thing that was certain was that Jörg, Jens, Lauri, and myself, we all wanted to continue but we didn’t know how we would continue and under what name, so everything was totally open. And then we got Matias into the band, wrote some demos, and played the demos for our friends. Everybody said that this was good stuff, the new Stratovarius, and then we were like ‘ah ha!’. A little while later when Timo gave us the rights for the name, it was the only solution for us to continue with the band. The truth is there were some very bad years between 2003 to 2007 or even 2008. There was a lot of bullshit going on and we lost a lot of fans. But lately with the last three albums and hopefully with the new album we’ve been trying to gain back the trust with the fans. We’ve been gaining that back slowly, it’s been a long process but I think the fans know we are back to being about the music like it used to be. Here we are, I am talking to you about the new album, and everything is actually quite fine. We are getting back from the ditch we were in 10 years ago.

Dead Rhetoric: What qualities need to occur to create a memorable Stratovarius show in your eyes? Is there any personal preference when it comes to theater shows versus larger festival gatherings?

Kotipelto: Now that we have played the Wacken Open Air for probably 70,000 people, of course that’s a great experience and a lot of energy going on. They are great experiences but when you are playing a festival it’s kind of a hectic thing going on stage because you can’t do a proper soundcheck. Even though we have our own crew and they are brilliant in what they are doing. If I compare these festivals to a club show, of course the club show is more intimate and very often the show is so much better because you are more prepared. You’ve got your own light tech, at the Wacken fest we played in the day light – so the only lighting effect is the sun. I prefer the small clubs, if I would say which one is better. You will meet tens of thousands of metal fans though at a festival.

Dead Rhetoric: How difficult of a proposition is pulling together a headlining set-list, especially balancing out fan favorites and still including a healthy amount of new material?

Kotipelto: That’s difficult of course. We’ve done so many albums, it’s not possible to play all of the songs we would like. On this tour in Europe we will headline, so we will play a longer set of old stuff as well as some newer songs. Last weekend we played on a metal cruise and we played two new songs, and it was exciting for the fans and very exciting for us to play new stuff because we’ve been “Hunting High and Low”, Jens and I, for thousands of times. It’s not exactly the same as when it used to be when the song was just released. We are promoting the new album, so we will play probably 1/3 new songs- of course we could play ½ the set from the last 4 albums if we wanted to. We haven’t decided what songs we will play, next week we will start rehearsing together and then we will make the set list.

Dead Rhetoric: Are there any special rituals to keep your voice in shape- and do you feel that you’ve learned to be more expressive and dynamic as the years go by?

Kotipelto: I think nowadays singing itself is much easier for me. I’ve been trying to think (about) what the reasons are for this. I think I’ve learned a lot from touring so many years, and I’ve been doing a lot of acoustic duo shows with Jani L. and those are helping me to sing power metal at a high pitch voice. Even though most of the songs are basically the same during our duo shows, the approach is different because I have more colors in my vocals. Also, in 2010 during the Christmas time was when I lost my voice totally. We were touring with Helloween and there was some bacteria coming from the food. I got it, and some Helloween crew guys got it, and that was very bad because I lost my voice totally for one month. It took 2 years to get back, and I am lucky I got it back because it might have ruined my voice totally. It was a slow process to get it back but now it’s so much easier to sing. For this album there is more freedom to the vocal lines. I recorded the vocals at a cottage instead of going to a very expensive studio, I have the same gear so it was an easy and relaxed atmosphere. We took the time it needed so I’m satisfied with the result. We will see how the fans react to this album, this is probably one of my best performances throughout my whole career.

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