The problem with most album or band reviews online is that they are being done by people who are already fans of the group. Unfortunately, many fans will love anything their favorite band puts out and will give 5 stars to an otherwise 2 star performance. It is nearly impossible to find a band on Ticketmaster with less than 4 stars.
For anyone seeking new music to add to their iPod, or a show to go to when they have nothing better to do, these reviews are quite pointless. For this reason, I have decided to review a band that I am admittedly not a fan of. Not because I hate them, but because I have only heard one song.
If you mention Finnish metal to someone you can bet money they will bring up Nightwish. And let me tell you, people love Nightwish. Especially Tarja Turunen… Dear lord people adore her. So much so that Google search suggests looking for her height. In my mind a person would have to be close to stalker level to care about how tall a celebrity is. Is it so they can gauge the tensile strength they need for rope when they meet the celebrity? This can make you uneasy when you think about how many searches it must have taken for Google to have that as their first suggestion.
This obsessive fandom is what prevented me from listening to anything else from the band, simply because everyone talked them up so much that I would be disappointed if they did not blow my mind after hearing more. So that was it. No more Nightwish for me until people discovered a new band to obsess over. But the new band never came along and the response when I mention Finnish metal is still “Dude, Nightwish.”
Band co-founder and keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen said in an interview that the band would be entering the studio in 2014 to record their 8th album, which will be released in 2015. Additionally, Floor Jansen was announced as the new lead vocalist in October 2013 after replacing Anette Olzon. What better time to obtain all 7 albums and finally listen to the phenomenon that is Nightwish! If you care to join me, I will give my own personal review and rating for each album (albeit minus bonus tracks). If you care to join me, grab a fresh brew because this is not going to be short.
The debut album Angels Fall First was released in November of 1997, about one year after the band officially formed. The album begins with an ode to J.R.R Tolkien, if you will, and is a bit difficult to listen to at first. The contrast between the instruments and high-pitched operatic singing is harsh, but the band was young and it is clear they had not yet found a balance between the two. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ has fast paced keyboards and distorted guitar riffs that get you starting to bang your head and get in the mood for a hard hitting song. Then the vocals begin… The male lead put me in mind of a less enthusiastic Ronnie James Dio and truly took me completely out of the song. Far from the tune I expected from Holopainen. Tarja’s voice would have been much better paired with a baritone male, which is exactly what I anticipated after the great opening. The male vocals fall flat again with ‘The Carpenter.’ There is no real vocal range until the chorus when Tarja’s booming voice is brought to the foreground, but this only helps to emphasize how monotone the male lead really is.
The title track ‘Angels Fall First’ is the first on the album absent of male vocals. The keyboards, light guitar work and flutes help give this song a sense of foreboding, while the female vocals are spine-chilling. We then get to ‘Tutankhamen’ where the instrumental work is phenomenal, especially for a debut album. ‘Nymphomaniac Fantasia’ is easily the worst song on the album, both lyrically and musically, ending with a flute solo that comes out of left field and fits in awkwardly. ‘Know Why the Nightingale Sings’ makes you forget the previous track and has you back to banging your head. The most surprising of the album is ‘Lappi,’ a 4-part track consisting of ‘Erämaajärvi,’ ‘Witchdrums,’ ‘This Moment Is Eternity’ and ‘Etiäinen.’ These melodic songs seamlessly flow between the Finnish and English languages and are hauntingly beautiful.
For the most part Angels Fall First sounds unfinished, but that is to be expected with any debut album. The guitars do not always flow with ease alongside the rest of the instruments. The best way I can describe it is they sound like they are added in and floating over the rest of some tracks, which is the result of low production quality. This single album review was hard to wrap-up in just 3 paragraphs due to each song having such drastic differences that they do not transition fluidly from one to the next. Angels Fall First is charming in an odd way, but is one I believe can only truly be appreciated by those who are just revisiting the album once their fandom has been established. This album should never be recommended to a person who is listening to Nightwish for the first time: unless you want them to smirk and never listen to them again.
Oceanborn came out in October of 1998 and packs a punch right out of the gate. The violins and cello are a very nice addition: adding a lot more depth to the dark music and smoothly ties in the operatic vocals. Gone are the days of the instruments and vocals sounding like their own element. It is clear with this album that Nightwish has found their sound and are ready to take on the metal world. ‘Stargazers’ boasts much more well-rounded instrumental work with drum beats that stand out brilliantly. Guest vocals are provided by Tapio Wilska (Sethian lead vocalist and ex-Finntroll vocalist) on ‘Devil and the Deep Dark Ocean’ and ‘The Pharaoh Sails to Orion.’ Tapio’s deep, baneful voice sets these tracks above the rest by establishing a malevolent undertone. Wicked male vocals like this are what Angels Fall First was lacking.
The keyboards in ‘Sacrament of Wilderness’ are a great display of Holopainen’s talent and give the track an eerie feeling, which shows that his home is in keyboards and songwriting. ‘Passion and the Opera’ is used for Tarja to display her range by hitting different octaves repeatedly. Anyone familiar with opera would know of this as being the cadenza of the album. For those new to the term, a cadenza “is a section of an aria where the singer may improvise, usually in such a way as to best display their vocal talents. Cadenzas are virtuosic and rhythmically free.” This part of the song begins at 2:21 and continues through the remainder of the 4:51 long track. 2:30 may not seem like a lot of time, but it can feel like an eternity when you are listening to a repetitive vibrato. The boredom that set in continues through ‘Swanheart,’ a slow-moving power-ballad. The novelty of the female vocals begins to wear thin for me until ‘Moondance’ begins. This solely instrumental track brings the tempo back up while also holding steady with the enigmatic sense lingering over the album and serves as much needed break from the overpowering vocals. The break is short-lived as the album ends with two more slow-paced power-ballads. This album starts out strong and can really satisfy a metal fan, but will put that same fan to sleep toward the end.
The music is much more refined in the May 2000 release Wishmaster. One noticeable difference with this album is that Tarja seems more confident with her voice and is now bellowing the lyrics much louder while hitting higher notes from word to word. The instrumental work has evolved quite a bit and flows together nicely with the more prominent vocals. It feels as though Nightwish has finally solidified their unique style. The album has a clear fantasy theme, but is also dark with ‘The Kinslayer,’ which is about the mass school shooting in Columbine, Colorado, USA. ‘Two for Tragedy’ is an extremely slow song with flutes and a guitar solo. It is quite a bore until ‘Wishmaster’ kicks off, thus far the best track on the album with its fast tempo and well integrated backing vocals.
The instrumental break in ‘Bare Grace Misery’ is remarkable and ends with heavily distorted guitar riffs before the skillful singing continues. ‘Deep Silent Complete’ is a very well written song, but is strategically placed on the album to prepare the listener for another slow-moving track. As with the majority of their slow songs, ‘Dead Boy’s Poem’ is laborious and has a guitar solo befitting a power-ballad. Wishmaster is a very tight-laced album, but it feels like something is missing. The band is wildly talented, however the great instrumental work only comes out in a few tracks like ‘FantasMic.’ Most of the album seems to want the focus to be on Tarja’s vocals and it would have been nice to have some male vocals thrown in to cut the monotony.
The 4th studio album, Century Child, was released in May of 2002. The album begins with an almost church-like choral group as an orchestra builds us up for a bass heavy number. ‘End of All Hope’ is an epic track with excellent guitar riffs, a great backing chorus, intricate keyboards, and fast drumming. The fantastic instrumental work carries over to ‘Dead to the World,’ though the vocals at the beginning do not sounds like they fit. While I do enjoy male vocals being thrown in, Marco Hietala is doing something a little odd for my taste. Almost like he is trying to be operatic himself, but has a shortage of training and range to be successful. ‘Ever Dream’ incorporates the orchestra perfectly. I know Tarja is a soprano, but there are a few moments in this song where her pitch should have been lowered to fit the tempo. ‘Slaying the Dreamer’ has profoundly distorted heavy metal beats with more suitable male vocals, making this the unparalleled best of the album. ‘Forever Yours’ brings us back to Nightwish’s slow side and is a disappointment following such a heavy track.
Unfortunately, the remainder of the album becomes quite dull. The cover of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’ is just like you would expect a metal version of the famous opera to sound and contains no stand-out moments to make it memorable. The finale is ‘The Beauty of the Beast,’ a 3-part track comprised of ‘Long Lost Love,’ ‘One More Night to Live’ and ‘Christabel.’ The first part of this 10:22 track is a bit on the slow side, but the pacing increases afterward and makes for an appeasing end to the album. In my opinion, there are 4 phenomenal songs on Century Child and the other 6 feel like filler tracks. It is very easy to lose interest after the halfway mark.
Once (June 2004) sounds noticeably more mainstream and uninspired than in previous releases. The band seems to be trying to play it safe with this album and be a little more approachable to general audiences. ‘Dark Chest of Wonders’ is energetic and enjoyable to listen to, even though the power-chords are typical in the metal world. ‘Wish I Had an Angel’ sounds very nu metal, which is far from what we have become accustomed to with Nightwish. There is definitely something amiss with this album and Tarja does not seem to be singing with the same fervor she used to. The keyboards in ‘Nemo’ paired with the London Philharmonic Orchestra are a great combination and enable the song to be one of the more pleasant on the album. ‘Creek Mary’s Blood’ is a very interesting track about Native Americans featuring John Two-Hawks playing a cedar flute. Though the Lakotan dialogue at the end from Two-Hawks does last a little too long after the last verse from Tarja ends. The album becomes contrived until the 10:03 long ‘Ghost Love Score,’ which is another slow song from the band, but is welcomed after the string of heavy tracks that all sound similar. ‘Kuolema Tekee Taiteilijan’ is the first full length song in Finnish and while I love for a band to perform in their native tongue, this track is dreadfully slow. The band seems to have a very specific pattern for their albums: Begin with a bang and sizzle out by the end.
Dark Passion Play (2007) is the first featuring vocals by Anette Olzon. We begin with ‘The Poet and the Pendulum,’ another multi-part track comprised of ‘White Lands Of Empathica,’ ‘Home,’ ‘The Pacific,’ ‘Dark Passion Play’ and ‘Mother And Father.’ The female vocals at the beginning are extremely high-pitched and unpleasant, but the instrumental work is their best yet. Hard hitting double kick drums, heavily distorted guitars and the London Philharmonic Orchestra do a fantastic job of getting you amped up for what may come. The only problem is that the incredible music is so grandiose you will be taken aback by the sudden onslaught of overambitious chords. Olzon’s vocals are sadly very typical of female vocalists. By this I mean you could lay just the vocal portion over any genre of music and it would work. There is nothing about her style that is unique and behooving such an uncommon band. A gem of the album is ‘Bye Bye Beautiful,’ though a deep brooding male voice would have been an excellent contrast against Olzon’s sharp pitch.
Halfway into ‘Amaranth’ you start to feel like Olzon’s voice is being overwhelmed by the accompanying instruments. ‘Master Passion Greed’ is a heavy track with no female vocals and is possibly the best on the album since the vocals are not buried under the instrumental work. Olzon’s voice is more prominent in ‘Eva,’ though the song seems a little stale and has the usual ballad-esque guitar solo that has become standard with Nightwish’s slower tracks. The refrain in ‘Sahara’ is quite enjoyable and may get stuck in your head. Olzon shows more intensity in ‘For the Heart I Once Had,’ but is has a very 80’s era pop sound. I am surprised that it was not released as a single.
While Anette may not have the same vocal range Tarja boasted, she does exhibit much more passion than what was displayed with Once. Finnish and Irish folk music are pulled into the mix with ‘The Islander’ and ‘Last of the Wilds,’ two very intriguing tracks that alter the tone of the album. It is a very welcome change for the last half of Dark Passion Play to still have some heavy elements, even though ‘Meadows of Heaven’ is slow finale with a slightly obnoxious resolution. There are many points in Dark Passion Play where the band seems restrained. The vocals are extraordinary and the high pitch that is hit is not always easy on the ears when paired with metal chords. Anette is a talented vocalist, but we are back to the music and vocals feeling like separate entities.
In 2011 the band released their 7th studio album, Imaginaerum, along with an accompanying movie of the same name. Marco Hietala delivers a chilling performance with ‘Taikatalvi’ by speaking in his native tongue. Performing the opening track in Finnish was a great choice as the language easily sets a mysterious tone for a foreign listener. Olzon’s voice is more amiably fused with the music in ‘Storytime,’ but her sharp pitch is more pronounced in ‘Ghost River.’ Hietala singing the chorus makes this a very catchy track and the guitars set a great tone. It is clear that Imaginaerum is meant to be alongside the movie when the album reaches a strange jazz vibe with ‘Slow, Love, Slow’ and veers into folk music with ‘I Want My Tears Back.’ I felt like ‘Scaretale’ was hard to listen to as each vocalist is consciously attempting to sound frightful. This melodramatic number lasts about 3 minutes too long and is pretty annoying. The duet ‘The Crow, the Owl and the Dove’ is a routine soft rock ballad. ‘Song of Myself’ features a choir, but Anette’s voice is a little too shrill until around 4:03 into the 13:38 long track. The song then has an instrumental break at 5:54 that fades into a short keyboard solo at 6:53. This should have been the end of the album, but instead we have dialogue to carry us through the remaining time.
I did not watch the movie Imaginaerum since this is simply a review of Nightwish’s albums. It is possible that this album is a masterpiece if it shadows the film. As a stand-alone album it feels pretentious, dull or at times like it should be the soundtrack for a Tim Burton animated feature. I will apologize to the diehard fan that finds pleasure in this album, but this release has no awe-inspiring moments: and that is a shame with the album length being 74:55.
For any novice to Nightwish, I hope this article comes in handy, even if it is merely my own opinions. I will leave getting into the politics of vocalist changes to the listener that falls into the deep obsession most do. I only care about the music they provide, because that is what they set out for in the first place. Becoming a spectacle over member disputes is just a circumstance of theirs.
In an effort to give a fair assessment of each album, I listened to each one about 7 times. I can now say in all honesty that Nightwish is an extremely talented band. While they are not my cup of tea, I do understand why they have such a devoted fan base. To me personally, the operatic vocals of Tarja Turunen are a novelty that gets old at a rapid pace. I prefer vocals like that to be used more sparingly (an example being Cradle of Filth’s use of the gift). I feel as though Anette Olzon was only an appropriate replacement if the intent was merely to appeal to a wider audience. In my opinion, the only thing new that she brought to the table was mediocrity as the last two albums feel like your run-of-the-mill metal albums.
If I were to recommend a Nightwish album to someone, it would be either Oceanborn or Wishmaster. I may never listen to these albums again, yet will without a doubt keep ‘Devil and the Deep Dark Ocean’ and ‘The Pharaoh Sails to Orion’ in rotation on my iPod. Thank you, Tapio Wilska, for making these 2 tracks memorable.