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The greatest lie ever told in Nightwish’s career is that this album would mark the first time that the band would have to re-invent itself. To the astute observer of all things surrounding this group, it is obvious that they’ve done this several times. Their debut was a mishmash of folk, power and gothic influences that made the band difficult to truly define. “Oceanborn” and “Wishmaster” emphasized the power metal side of the band the greatest, while “Century Child” pushed them into the symphonic realm and “Once” married that same symphonic tendency with some modern sounds.
Throughout this rather unique evolution only two things really remained constant, Tuomas’ lyrics and melodies, and Tarja’s unique operatic voice. With the latter of the two gone, there is obviously going to be yet another drastic switch in the band’s sound paradigm. Would they try to revamp their sound completely in order to compensate for a new singer, who would likely have a completely different voice? Or would they stick to their guns and continue the evolution as it would have likely occurred if Tarja was still in the Nightwish fold?
At first listen, “Dark Passion Play” sounds quite similar to “Once”. This is mostly due to the still heavily present live symphony orchestra, the low reverb mixed drum sound, and Marco’s dark and raunchy bass timbre. However, once you get past the pomp and circumstance symphonic sounds mixed with modernist guitar and drum production, hints of the grand old days of “Oceanborn” start to peak through in the song writing. To the band’s credit, this album is a step back towards the metal edge that some claim they never exhibited.
The opening epic “The Poet and the Pendulum” marries the narration approach of “Dead Boy’s Poem” from the “Wishmaster” LP with the orchestral flair and fast paced aggression of “Dark Chest of Wonders”. The chorus on here is unforgettable, brilliantly layering Marco’s and Anette’s voices with a backing chorus that takes me back to the splendor of “End of all Hope”. Second album single “Amarath” comes off as a somewhat less melancholy and more triumphant version of “Nemo”. “Master Passion Greed” is a more modernly produced version of “Devil and the Deep Dark Ocean”, pure speed and fury with riffs galore and Marco pulling off a decent thrash vocal performance.
Several songs on here stick closer to the newer Nightwish sound and actually improve upon it. “Bye, Bye Beautiful” is basically “Wish I had an Angel” without the goofy sounding techno drums and a good deal more guitar presence. “Sahara” has similar middle-eastern tendencies as several songs found on the previous LP, but we are once again treated to some quality lead work by Emppu. The beginning of the song in particular showcases his unique approach to balancing memorable melodic ideas with technical flair. In fact, there is almost as much lead work on this album as what was heard back in the “Wishmaster” days, a definite improvement from the last album that had almost no lead work at all. “7 Days to the Wolves” is almost a hybrid of “Ghost Love Score” and “Higher than Hope”, and is my personal favorite on here.
Although quite an improvement, this album is obviously not without some flaws. “Meadows of Heaven” would be a pretty solid closing ballad for the album if it didn’t have all that ridiculous R&B vocal wankery going on around Anette’s voice. I’m not partial to the overbearing, melisma steeped vocal ad libs of Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera, and I suspect that 90% of Nightwish’s audience isn’t either so I am at a loss on this one. “For the Heart I Once Had” is also a bit too popish for its own good, underscored by the depressing lyrics sung over a comical major chord progression. Other little odd quirks in the vocal delivery can also occasionally be heard in “Cadence of her last breath”, which is otherwise a solid groove riff driven rocker.
In short, this is an improvement from the last album on many levels, but it probably won’t be enough for Nightwish’s core fans who got into their late 90s and early 2000s material. Anette’s voice is radically different from Tarja’s, almost like a slightly lighter and smoother version of Sharon Den Adel actually. Anyone coming to this album expecting to hear “Oceanborn” is not being realistic, although I do sympathize in their desire to see the band get back to a more traditionally symphonic power metal approach rather than all the Industrial/Pop stuff they’ve been mixing in of late. If you liked “Century Child”, this listens a bit similar, but if you absolutely hated “Once” then you’ll probably want to skip this as there are many remnants to be found here.