overground scene

What happened to us? #4 Timo Tolkki and Stratovarius

In this fourth installment of the ‘What happened to us?’ series of posts I decided to address one of the most dramatic and peculiar break-ups in the history of power metal, that between Timo Tolkki, the once undisputed leader of Stratovarius, and the rest of the band. The drama, publicity, issues surrounding mental health, temporary disbanding and side-taking characterising this case make it an interesting case of band break-ups.

Stratovarius was once a band I loved, and Twilight time (1992), Dreamspace (1994) and Fourth dimension (1995) were three of the most excellent and unique-sounding metal albums of all time. Even Episode (1996), which followed the departure of Ikonen and Lassila, two great musicians whose playing was integral to the band’s sound, is a great album, full of inventive song structures and beautiful yet weirdly melancholic melodies. I still have the utmost respect for all first five albums and I consider them masterpieces of metal music. The band developed into what I thought was a caricature of their former self, starting with the release of Visions (1997), and by the late 1990s I stopped listening to them. Because of that, I followed Tolkki’s break-up with the band from a position of relative disinterest.

In April 2008 Tolkki announced the dissolution of the band, a decision he later on retracted and left the band instead, transferring all rights to his songs and the band name to Kotipelto, Michael and Johansson. It is known that the break-up was the culmination of a period of extended crisis (read here and here), evidenced in Tolkki’s hospitalisation in 2004, Michael’s session-drummer status around 2004-2005, Kotipelto’s “firing” around 2004-2005, and Kainulainen’s departure in 2005. Tolkki’s decision to ultimately abandon the band is certainly a bizarre one. The information we have to make sense of the situation comes from public statements made by the various band members. The latter provide conflicting narratives of the break-up and the wider context within which it occurred. Tolkki cites a number of factors as contributive to the demise of Stratovarius, including the lack of camaraderie and continuing hostility among some band-members, musical differences between him and Kotipelto (i.e. the former disliking the latter’s ideas) and the lack of creative passion (read here). Michael, Johansson and Kotipelto responded that Tolkki was motivated by greed (read here) and that, overall, Tolkki’s subjective interpretation of the crisis the band faced constituted a misrepresentation of the situation. All the parties involved attempted to build convincing narratives in which they come off “right”. Tolkki mobilises affect as part of his strategy, painting a picture whereby lack of passion and friendship are the problems; The rest of the band mobilises a strategy at the centre of which lies a more rational argumentation, painting a picture whereby Tolkki’s behaviour is linked to the band’s declining popularity.

My research led me to Tolkki’s autobiography, a heartbreaking memoir with relatively few references to Stratovarius and his ex-music partners, where Tolkki pours out his heart. In his autobiography he describes his struggle with bipolar disorder. In this context he describes how someone suffering from this condition will find themselves acting on impulse without realising what they do, actions which they might later regret. I don’t know if that was Tolkki’s way of saying that he regrets giving up the rights to the Stratovarius brand, but it kind of sounds like it. Tolkki was for me, and any early Stratovarius fan I presume, the undisputed leader and main creative force in the band. I even preferred his voice to Kotipelto’s; I found Tolkki’s voice powerful, sweet and with a lot of character (all epithets that in my opinion cannot be associated with Kotipelto). His early music and lyrics were beautiful, inspired and at times confessed a subtle but heartbreaking pain and sensitivity. Despite the fact that Episode (1996) is the last album I liked from them, I cannot but scoff at the notion of ‘Stratovarius without Tolkki’ in it. Stratovarius the brand might still be alive, but Stratovarius the band is dead.

What happened to us? #3 Edge of Sanity and Dan Swano

A classic break-up was the separation of Dan Swano from the rest of Edge of Sanity in 1997. Back then Dan was widely perceived to be the creative force behind Edge of Sanity’s music, if not the undisputed band leader. I remember that when Cryptic came out and Dan was not part of it, it was not received well among me and my friends, and Dan’s absence was the main reason why. Back then I viewed it as an incomplete version of Edge of Sanity, but over the years I have come to appreciate it and now I consider it as one of the best Edge of Sanity albums and definitely one of the top Swedish death metal albums of the late 1990s. A few years later, in 2003, Dan resurrected the band without the other four members and released Crimson II, which is my least favourite album by them.


From left to right: Benny Larsson, Anders Lindberg, Andreas Axelsson, Sami Nerberg, and Dan Swano.

It appears that several factors contributed to the break-up of this legendary line-up responsible for some of the greatest and most innovative albums in the history of death metal. According to an interview with Dan, he was kicked out of the band in 1997. His exit, according to him, was the company’s (Black Mark) decision. From his account of the situation it is unclear why the label had to choose between him and the rest of the band to grant permission to use the name Edge of Sanity. It is implied that him and the rest of the band were two entities by that point, so the label decided to go with the entity that resembled more a functioning band, and that entity was the one with the four musicians on board (Andreas, Sami, Benny and Anders) rather than only Dan. 

I was unable to find official accounts on why by that point the band was split between Dan and the other band members. However, there is plenty of information available to help fill in this gap. First of all, there is evidence to suggest that Dan and the rest of the band had different, potentially conflicting, creative visions and drew inspiration from different genres; Dan from symphonic rock, pop and soft rock, the rest of the band, extreme metal and punk. Both Andreas Axelsson and Dan have made this claim (see here and here respectively) and from Andreas’s account it could be inferred that different creative visions can be a problem. Conflicts based on creative differences have also been implied by Dan, who has argued that the rest of the band refused to incorporate more Gothic rock elements in the band’s style. Sami Nerberg has also suggested that Swano’s departure was a positive thing as the band’s style became more coherent.

The notion that Dan was the leader of the band could have been another cause for conflict among band members. Sami has even insinuated that Dan had taken over the band (read an interview with him here). While this is also the popular sentiment, in another interview Dan does not take credit for the significance/legacy of Edge of Sanity, and explicitly points out that Edge of Sanity’s magic was a collective effort. However, his discourse farther ahead suggests that he does consider himself the quintessential element in Edge of Sanity’s sound. He was indeed bitter about the rest of the band recording Cryptic without him, saying “[Crimson II] was revenge towards the other guys for doing the Cryptic album”, and he goes as far as to describe the latter as “anti-Edge of Sanity”. For him, the legitimate Edge of Sanity vision corresponds to his own, and the Edge of Sanity chapter should be closed accordingly. 

Linked to the previous argument, there is also a chance that Dan and the rest of the band drifted apart over the years because Dan did not think highly of others’ (apart from Benny’s who is objectively a genius) musical skills. I remember reading an interview back in the day on a Greek metal zine on which Dan explained that the reason he played on the songs he composed on Infernal was because the others couldn’t play them properly (if I remember wrong someone could correct me?). This might have been a reason for Sami, Anders and Andreas to dislike Dan.

Dan has also acknowledged that while the rest had always been friends with one another beyond the band, he was an outsider. His association with Sami, Benny, Anders and Andreas, was only in the context of Edge of Sanity, a band that begun as one of his numerous projects. Not being friends outside of the band meant that it was easy for them to drift apart.

It should also be considered that different band members were differentially invested in the band. For example, in the case of Dan, Edge of Sanity was only one thing amongst other important ventures such as his recording studio and his other projects. In a 1996 interview with Andreas on Chronicles of Chaos, the interviewer asks him why the band does not tour much. Andreas’s answer suggests that the reason behind the band’s reluctance to tour was Dan’s job as a studio owner. It could be hypothesised that the rest of the band considered Dan an obstacle to the band’s success.

Finally, we should not ignore that the death metal genre was dying in the late 1990s, and morale was low for many death metal musicians who felt that the potential for money or recognition was limited. For these reasons, maybe Edge of Sanity was not a priority for Dan in the mid-90s. Indeed, recognition seems to be an important consideration for him. On this interview he very eloquently describes his conscious effort to associate his music on Crimson II with the Edge of Sanity “brand”, because it would receive the attention it deserved (in 2003 when death metal was again on the rise), instead of being overlooked under a different, unrecognised, moniker. 

Nevertheless, it looks like Dan and the rest of the band did not end their creative relationship bitterly. Dan has suggested that his decision to resurrect the band back in 2003 was not done against the will of the old band-members, and Andreas argued a few years ago that him and Dan were still good friends. Since the first and second demise of Edge of Sanity, Dan has been involved in numerous bands, either as a producer or as a musician. I thought that the Moontower album was an excellent example of progressive melodic death metal. The Jesusatan album with Infestdead as well as the first album he did with Bloodbath were also ace. Benny Larsson now plays in the death-thrash ensemble Plague Warhead. Andreas remains rotten to the core with his new incredible band, Tormented. Dan, Andreas and Benny released the crust album Total Terror in 2009.

What happened to us? #2 Rage and the Efthimiadis brothers

This second instalment in the split of classic line-ups series of posts is dedicated to my all-time favorite power metal band (alongside Blind Guardian), Rage, and its split with Chris Efthimiadis (Drums) and Spiros Efthimiadis (Guitar) in 1999.


I understand that calling the split with the Efthimiadis brothers the split of a classic line-up is a bit far-fetched. Peavy Wagner (Vocals, Bass) has always been the undisputed leader of Rage. Chris (previously of Atlain) first appeared on the band’s third album (Perfect man) and Spiros did not appear in the picture before 1994’s 10 Years in Rage. However, it can be safely said that the arrival of Chris marked the beginning of a period of great creativity for the band. Again, this does not mean that Chris was solely responsible for that. His arrival coincided with the entry in the band of guitarist-extraordinaire, Manni Schmidt, a genius of guitar playing. In any case, Chris’s unorthodox and manic style of drumming – borrowing a lot from hardcore-punk I would describe him as a pissed-off Philthy (Motorhead) – to a large extent defined Rage’s sound. The more qualified drummers that preceded Chris (Jorg Michael) and followed his departure (Mike Terrana) never came close to capturing the magic that Chris brought into the band.

Spiros on the other hand might have not been on classic releases such as Perfect man (1988), Secrets…(1989), Trapped (1992) and Missing link (1993), but he played in at least two albums that I consider classic, namely Black in Mind (1995) and End of all days (1996). His contributions in those two albums are without any doubt brilliant. He and his brother contributed in two more pretty good Rage albums (13 (1998), Ghosts (1999)) and, just when this line-up seemed to be the definitive Rage line-up, they were out of the band, along with Sven Fischer, the other guitarist.

From interviews with Peavy, Fischer and the Efthimiadis brothers it can be postulated that the split should be understood as an outcome of a combination of factors which include: the internal tension created in the band due to divergent creative visions among band members, discontent related to conforming to the norms of the heavy metal genre, and perhaps the limited opportunities for a breakthrough in the music industry field faced by heavy metal musicians. Chris tactfully avoids going into detail on the split and instead describes his time in Rage as a great time, among great people, that came to a natural end (read his interview on Rock Overdose here). The assertion that the Efthimiadis brothers willingly left rather than being ousted from the band is further supported by an interview with Peavy (read here). However, on the same interview Peavy suggests that there was animosity between band members. According to Peavy, Spiros turned against him for reasons the former could not understand. (In another interview he identifies Spiros as one of the biggest mistakes he did in his career.) Peavy goes on to say that Fischer and the Efthimiadis brothers stopped being interested in Heavy Metal by the late nineties, a claim which further supports Chris’s attitude that their time in Rage had reached its natural end. In another interview with Spiros and Fischer, the latter suggests that being in Rage meant that the audiences had specific expectations which effectively limited their creativity (read the interview here). Finally, the decision to play a more radio-friendly style of music should be interpreted in the context of late-90s music culture, a time when heavy metal’s popularity had long faded and the potential for economic and symbolic compensation was small.

After the break up, Rage continued with new members Mike Terrana (and more recently André Hilgers) and Victor Smolski, all of them extremely technical and experienced musicians. However, and although Peavy was the undisputed driving force and true genius behind the Rage I loved, I personally think that the magic that Rage achieved with the Efthimiadis brothers on board has never been reached again. The Efthimiadis brothers went on with Sven Fischer to create the pop-rock band Sub7even, which enjoyed moderate commercial success in Germany, and more recently Chris put together the ethnic-pop-rock band Tri State Corner.

What happened to us? #1 Deicide and Amon

If I had one penny for every idea I have for a new theme for posts, I would now have… well, three pence. Anyway, this dramatically named new theme will address the topic of classic line-ups breaking up. What better way to start than the departure of the Hoffman brothers from Deicide in 2004.


The Benton-Asheim-Hoffman-Hoffman quartet constituted the line-up whose both incarnations, namely Amon and Deicide, were bound to change the world of extreme music forever. Initially the band named itself Amon and recorded a couple of demos in the late 1980s which had a big impact on the underground extreme metal community. After these two demos they changed the band’s name to Deicide and released a series of phenomenal (e.g. Deicide, Legion, Once upon the cross, Serpents of the light) and some not so good (Insineratehymn, In torment in hell), in my opinion, albums. Deicide developed early on a trademark sound that has either heavily influenced many bands (check out bands that carry on the Deicide legacy such as Centurian) or has been shamelesly copied (check out Pessimist, a pretty good in my opinion Deicide clone) over the years. After the Scars of the crucifix album the Hoffmans were either expelled from the band or quit (Asheim here gives his own account of the situation and Eric Hoffman his account here), for reasons which apparently had to do with financial disagreements (not very brutal of them) and with hating each other’s guts (more brutal of them).

Two are the most important implications of the Hoffmans’ break-up from Deicide: there is now a band called Amon which is not really Amon and a band called Deicide which is not really Deicide.

Although the music in old Deicide records was credited to the whole band, for many years there has been a rumor that Asheim has been the main songwriter in the band. However, listening to Deicide’s output after the Hoffmans’ departure it makes me think that Asheim’s role in the band was something akin to Dio’s role in the bands he played, namely writing the song structures and melodies. While Deicide’s post-Hoffmans albums have, in my opinion, typical song structures (intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus), like in the past and some pretty catchy choruses, they are a bit light on riffs. I personally find the post-Hoffman Deicide, unexciting. While songs like “The stench…” and “Crucified for the innocence“, off the Stench of redemption album and “Severed ties” and “Horror in the halls of stone” off Till death do as part album, are amazing, the rest of the songs miss the amazing “rifforchestration” that Deicide songs had on their first two albums, as well as on Serpents and Scars.

The Hoffman brothers under the moniker Amon released their debut album, titled Liar in wait, last year. I like it more than anything the post-Hoffman Deicide has released. In my opinion there are some pretty amazing songs on this album. Every single song has very impressive and catchy riffs. While the association with early Deicide is apparent, they do not rip-off Deicide. This album is full of riffs and arrangements that would make any post-Legion Deicide album blush! Songs like “Lash thy tongue…”, “Eye of the infinite”, “Sentience and sapience”, “Semblance of man” (with a flavor of Legion) and “Liar in wait” are simply brilliant brutal death songs, where all the elements that make a good song are present: interesting structures, clever arrangements, cool riffs and inventive vocal patterns. The difference between Amon 24 years ago and Amon today is that it’s missing, in songs like “Among us” and “Wraith of Gaia”, Asheim’s skills on how to put a song together and most importantly, Benton’s brilliant  insanity.

While it appears that if we put back together the Hoffmans with Benton and Asheim we could have a pretty amazing band, this is not necessarily the case. For one thing, even with the Hoffmans on board Deicide released two albums that in my opinion suck monkey balls. The chemistry that Deicide had (a great songwriter, a great vocalist and great riff-players) sometimes worked and others it didn’t. Maybe the Hoffmans and Deicide are better off separate after all. In that latter case, I prefer Amon.