"We'll be back in the autumn", said Symphony X vocalist Russel Allen at the end of the forty minute set the American band had played in support of the night's headliner Stratovarius. Those must have been the most welcome words I heard the entire night, because it was for the performance of Symphony X in the first place that I had journeyed to the 013 in Tilburg this Saturday at the end of March. I was very impressed with their latest album The Odyssey as well as Allen's vocal talents both in the studio and live, having previously seen him performing at the Ayreon / Star One concert last year. However, due to my own stupidity, I missed most of the band's performance: I had forgotten my ticket, so I had to go back home to collect it, wasting about one hour and a half in the process. In the end I only saw Symphony X perform two and a half songs, which is hardly enough to form a definite impression of the band's performance. I will therefore defer my opinion on Symphony X live until I've seen them again in the Autumn, an event I'm looking forward to very much.
The Americans had been very well received by the sell-out crowd, which now settled in to wait for the next performance. A curtain depicting the Fleur-De-Lis (French Lily) hid the stage from view while roadies cleared away Symphony X's equipment and prepared the stage for Stratovarius. The lily is the Finnish band's sigil and appears in almost every piece of artwork associated with the band.
When the curtain was dropped at last, it revealed a stage that had at first glance somewhat of an austere appearance. There wasn't a lot of musical equipment visible, no racks of (bass) guitars and keyboards. Indeed, Jens Johansson had only one relatively small keyboard mounted on a plain keyboard stand. There were however no less than twenty four lights on stage. Twelve of these were stationary lights mounted in six columns, which were evenly distributed left and right of the raised platform that supported Joerg Michael's drum kit. The other twelve lights were beamers with more degrees of freedom than I could count. Standing at my usual spot to the left of the mixing desk, I was right next to the guy responsible for operating the lights and he had a full time job of it.
Throughout the performance, a huge projection screen at the back of the stage showed beautiful pictures and animations of a fantastical and surrealistic nature. Together with the lights this created a visual extravaganza that I have rarely seen equalled, much less surpassed at other concerts I've been to. And somehow amidst this visual onslaught the music managed to hold its own. This was helped in no small part because of the sheer loudness of it, which was only barely below intolerable. As usual in 013 the sound was good, although during the first few songs the keyboards were too low in the mix (also as usual, I might add). This situation improved considerably during the course of the concert, however.
At the start of the gig, vocalist Timo Kotipelto announced that the band would be playing a long set tonight, and this enabled them to present a well balanced set of songs representing not only the old and the new in equal measure, but also the two main styles that Stratovarius' music can be divided into. The first of these represents the more straightforward metal songs, fast paced and with Kotipelto belting it out at the top of his lungs. This style was evidenced in opener Eagleheart and follow-up Kiss of Judas. Both of these tracks were also accompanied by visual and acoustic effects in the form of firecrackers and loud explosions, the latter of which must have scared at least half the audience shitless!
Then followed the epic Soul of the Vagabond, a fine example of the other of the two main styles I referred to earlier. These songs are primarily slower paced and less heads-on than their metal counterparts. Instead, they are more symphonic, featuring tempo changes and identifiable sections, allowing Kotipelto to display a broader vocal range. Personally, I prefer these tracks over the faster stuff. The majority of Stratovarius fans think otherwise, though, because as it turned out, they voted Paradise, which clearly belongs in the first category, as the number one track they wanted the band to play live! During the chorusses of Soul of the Vagabond, fires erupted from the light columns. Very spectacular.
More fuel for the speed freaks then came in the form of Speed of Light (Kotipelto: "So, do you want to hear something fast now?") and Father Time, in which Johansson and guitarist Timo Tolkki duelled ferociously with eachother. I lost count of how many lightning fast solos Johansson produced out of his keyboard. It was great to watch, though, because his keyboard was tilted slightly towards the audience (a very unusual setup) so I had a very clear view of his fingers flying over the keys.
About halfway into the set, everybody but Kotipelto and Tolkki left the stage and the remaining two performed Forever, a gentle ballad which I felt was a bit out of place. It's okay to have a bit of a resting point here and there in the set, but the contrast was just too great. It was Kotipelto's turn to leave the stage when the band played a fast paced instrumental, in which Tolkki and Johansson squared off again.
A well executed medley featured some of the band's older material, while the title track of the Destiny album was followed by a piece called Fantasia, which featured lyrics which were no doubt well meant but also very cheesy.
Sampled background vocals accompanied the intro of the epic Elements, the titletrack of the latest album, and halfway during the song fake snow started falling from two boxes attached to the lighting rink above. And during one of the faster paced songs (I can't recall which one), two roadies with moose heads appeared on stage while the backdrop showed the same two moose as comic characters banging their heads. The two moose capered around for a bit before disappearing backstage again. They repeated this funny act for the last encore Black Diamond. This was after Kotipelto had taught the Dutch audience to count till four in Finnish. Don't ask me, I've already forgotten!
All in all, this was an enjoyable show by Stratovarius. Even though musically I don't think they're the greatest band alive (so to speak), three aspects of the performance especially contributed positively to my verdict: the incredible lightshow, the many different things that were happening onstage (and above stage!) which kept it interesting at all times, and the band's connection with the audience, which made you feel like you were part of the performance, not just a witness of it. And with those words this participant ends his report of the night's proceedings.
(not in correct order and possibly incomplete)
Kiss of judas
Soul of a vagabond
Will the sun rise?
Fright night/Hands of time/We are the future/
Tears of ice/Eyes of the world/We hold the key
Hunting high and low
Season of change
Speed of light
Find your own voice