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The Long, Winding Roads of Recovery (An Edit) - 83%

ParabolaX, December 3rd, 2011

Nightwish and I have a very strained relationship.

It is an unhealthy one, as my love for them is like a sinusoid; peaks and troughs of fangirling and absolutely scary obsession, and indifference bordering on outright criticism. I binge and I love and I hate on Nightwish like any bad spouse does. I can't live without them; they introduced me to metal, the exact music that gives me happiness and purpose in my life. I can shit on their bad material, love their good material, even hate their good material when I binge too much. Nightwish and I have it rough.

Imaginaerum was announced at a time I went “meh” over Nightwish. They wrote good stuff, but I honestly had better things to listen to. I didn't set my expectations high for Imaginaerum, maybe expecting another Dark Passion Play I'd listen to and like and ignore for months on end. As the trough of criticism started to creep back up into my loving peak, the unleashing of Imaginaerum into the world grew closer. Samples leaked, singles released, and my hopes were still hoping for an album I could give an 80% at the least. I missed the days of giving Nightwish an 80%.

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While in times of criticizing Nightwish, I always like to focus on their last two efforts, Once and Dark Passion Play. I thought that was a path they were permanently on, a path of simple songs, chugging riffs, and vocals that could be anywhere from goddamn unbearable to decent but rough. While Once can only redeem itself through nostalgia and a great production job, I did enjoy Dark Passion Play, and resolved that Nightwish was forever stuck in that phase. Simple pop music, marginally metal, yet strangely comforting and nice to put in the CD player or on my iPod every now and then. As a metal neophite at the time of its release, I found it to be a great album, but I moved on to better things. Better symphonic metal had appeared on my radar, and better metal in general clouded my radar. It was not so much a hate of Dark passion Play, but an ignorance of it. I had no use for it with such good material I could savor. I could criticize it too, for Anette's passable yet limited vocal performance, for a lack of decent riffs by Emppu (save for, what, two or three songs?), and because it was just too damn safe. I felt that Tuomas wanted to really play it safe with DPP. No experimentation, nothing that could alienate the average Nightwish fan apart from a vocal shift. Traditional song structures, predictable ways, and a formula that could draw in new fans. Perhaps even an extra sell-out move, even more than Once was.

So I lost some hope for Nightwish. Two albums of bland, comforting pop metal and it seems like a move they are comfortable with. One tear rolls down my cheek, and I still wait for Imaginaerum.

Imaginaerum is unmistakably Nightwish. There is no getting around it. But it is Nightwish in a way I was not expecting. I was expecting catchiness and poppy hooks, as Nightwish have delivered since Oceanborn, but there was something very off by the time “Ghost River” started.

What is that, a real guitar riff? A skilled guitar riff? Say it ain't so, Nightwish got a decent guitar part! After a predictable yet solid single like “Storytime,” this was a shock to my system. I could barely handle it. Riffs continued throughout the song, many retaining the simplicity of Once and Dark Passion Play, but at the forefront. It was Nightwish being more than borderline metal.

A harsh delivery from Marco? A crystal-clear performance from Anette? A children's choir used correctly? A guitar at center stage? A slightly non-traditional song structure? This was too much for me. Nightwish had listened to my desires!

Indeed, experimentation is a large part of Imaginarum. The circus-like vibe of “Scaretale,” the smoky jazz ballad of “Slow Love Slow,” the poetry of “Song of Myself,” the theatrical duets and absolute brutality of “Ghost River;” it’s new ground for Nightwish. Song structures are mixed up, sometimes being absolutely chorusless such as “Scaretale,” or “Song of Myself,” sometimes just mixing it up a bit, like placing the chorus first in “The Crow, the Owl, and the Dove” or just having a small amount of lines in “Slow Love Slow.” Even the more conventional is welcome, such as the folk-metal tendencies among a familiar verse-chorus structure of “I Want My Tears Back”, something I thought I wouldn’t say about folk and metal in the same song. Speaking of the folk, Troy Donockley’s near omnipresence with his uilleann pipes makes much of the album very folky. He is a master of his instrument, and its pureness brings the album far above mediocre folk metal, taking the best elements of his work on Dark Passion Play and multiplying it over the album. It’s certainly a welcome addition. Even his vocal spot on “The Crow, the Owl, and the Dove” grew on me, his repeated line making for a surprisingly nice bridge.

And as I jizz over the experimentation, I do think about how disjointed this whole album is. Jazzy ballads, power metal, circus music, spoken word, folk. While the themes do carry for a whole song, which is always a plus as opposed to having multiple themes in a song, Nightwish don't have the flow that they were able to achieve on earlier albums. But hell, Dark Passion Play didn't flow well either.

Disjointed flows, simple riffs, lack of bass, Jukka being a simpleton and maybe using 1/8 of his drumkit, what a collection of flaws. Oh how they refuse to totally return to form.

In spite of that, some of the form is back in Imaginaerum. And how they could get back is largely because of one lady named Annette Olzon. Anette’s main flaws in Dark Passion Play were her lack of chemistry with the band and lack of versatility. She sang in more or less the same tone on “The Poet and the Pendulum” and “Meadows of Heaven,” on “Bye Bye Beautiful” and “Eva.” While I could tell that Anette had a decent set of pipes, it was hardly anything worth writing home about. Imaginaerum is miles away from DPP in terms of vocal quality. Anette’s voice is varied, versatile, meshing perfectly with the band, whether being a sinister witch on “Scaretale” or the same sweet Nettie we all know and (maybe) love on “Turn Loose the Mermaids,” or being a sultry bar maid on “Slow Love Slow,” or showing herself to be a perfect power metal fit for “I Want My Tears Back” and “Last Ride of the Day.” Her screechy belting of Dark Passion Play is replaced by a great sense of how to hit high notes and which ones she can hit. Her belting is professionally done, never at all screechy or weak. Even her head voice peeks out at times, especially during “I Want my Tears Back.” While I personally prefer her chest voice (especially her superb lower register) and the belting, her head voice definitely shows that she has more of a vocal range than our sense originally felt.

Even Marco has markedly improved. It took him a while to develop even decent vocals for Nightwish, which is a shame, considering he sings like a metal god in Tarot. I could hardly stand him on Century Child, was further annoyed with nearly mechanical and downright silly vocals in Once, and while he had some nice moments in Dark Passion Play (especially in “The Islander” and “7 Days to the Wolves,” both written or co-written by him…), he still “graced” us with a very mechanical performance in “Bye Bye Beautiful” that sounded pretty terrible live, and a disturbing nu-metal tone in “Master Passion Greed” (though he had some nice moments there too). Here, Marco does something new; he sounds downright brutal. He reaches for his angriest snarls for “Ghost River,” his deepest growls for “Scaretale,” contrasting with his trademark weary ballad voice in “The Crow, the Owl, and the Dove,” and his creepy ballad voice in “Taikatalvi.” Sure, some more normal performances on “I Want my Tears Back” and “Rest Calm” appear too, but they sound a ton more natural for him, on par with his job in Tarot. Since they used a lot of demo recordings for the vocal tracks on this album, I think that was really to his benefit, as the freshness and quality that he retains for all his other projects is present here on Imaginaerum.

Everywhere this album is an example of vast improvement. Though the buzzing, chugging, simple riffs of the last two albums still rear their ugly head, Emppu proves that he is still capable of more. The solo on “Last Ride of the Day” was amazing, showing a talent that he never even could muster up during the Oceanborn era. Leads in “Ghost River” and “I Want My Tears Back” make me cry tears of joy. Nightwish is still metal. A jazzy solo in “Slow Love Slow” shows that Emppu can also cover new ground with his instrument (though it could have carried much further). Blow me away Nightwish, these solos are actually good! No more “repeat the vocal melody of the chorus” solos that have annoyed me endlessly since even the days of Oceanborn. Even with the simple riffs, they often get the spotlight instead of being the faint static behind the orchestra, some even verging on power metal in “Rest Calm.” Dark Passion Play must be jealous.

I can hear the keys again, rendering Tuomas not so useless anymore. Piano fills the choruses of “Storytime” and “Last Ride of the Day,” a strange electronic sound breaks up the riffing of “Scaretale.” I could hardly hear anything Tuomas had done for a while now, and I’m glad he got tired of just being the songwriter and not doing anything useful performance-wise. Even Marco’s bass gets its four minutes in the sun in “Slow Love Slow.” While Jukka’s drumming is largely the same, he never changed that much from his first beats on “Angels Fall First.” But he has one moment, literally about one minute, of drumming excellence. The intro to “Scaretale,” once the guitars kick in, features some double bass. Double bass, in a post-2000 Nightwish album? I was having my doubts too. When all the members of a band have improved in one way or another on an album, it's hard to hate it.

I’m impressed with how the band can mix this with the pop sensibilities that have dominated their later material. Every song is full of hooks and catchy melodies, mostly being accessible and still with the comfort and familiarity of Dark Passion Play. The orchestral arrangements of Once (easily the best part of that album), the drama and cinematic feel of Century Child carries itself over, with the theatrical franticness of Oceanborn, the variation of Wishmaster, and the subtle folk of Angels Fall First all carries over to Imaginaerum. It is the ultimate synthesis of all of Nightwish’s discography. It synthesizes glorious, bloated bombast and pretention with the simpler elements of Nightwish’s work (acoustic guitars, folk songs, pop choruses). It blends the symphonic with the metal and the metal with the symphonic in ways they have never been able to succeed with, until today.

Nightwish are not perfect. I never believed they were perfect and they have fallen from their pedestal of quality since 2002. And Imaginaerum is a flawed album. I give it a good review because I am a fangirl over my guilty pleasure band. But even beneath all that, Imaginaerum is a good album. Nightwish might never reach the top of the pedestal again, but it seemed that Tuomas and the crew were able to hold on to some part somewhat near the top for a time. Time enough to do this album, anyways.

If this the new era, then I welcome it on its road to recovery. The reports are saying they might have been set free.