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It's safe to say I came into Imaginaerum with a strong bias, Being a long-time Nightwish fan, the poppier songs on Once were already dubious enough, but Dark Passion Play was a step further in that direction and I was not wild about it. Of course, the signs of brainless pop-metal were present and damning ever since the very beginning, but not enough to raise any real concern from me. It was songs from Once and Dark Passion Play like "For the Heart I Once Had" and "Wish I Had an Angel" that caused me to await the new album nervously, as opposed to with gleeful anticipation. And so, it was with a fearful heart that I pushed Play on Imaginaerum, but all was not as it seemed! Rather than the dreadful Rammstein-influenced trash I was expecting, I was treated, instead, to an album with a hell of a lot more folk and symphonic influences than I was led to believe. Think less “Bye Bye Beautiful”/”Master Passion Greed” and more “The Islander”/“Last of the Wilds.”
Strange and unusual for a Nightwish album, Imaginaerum boasts a healthy collection of fast-paced tunes. “Storytime” is probably the most likely to become the favorite with its infectious chorus and purposeful tempo, even if it does meander at times. “Ghost River” emerges as another upbeat keeper, boasting some soft melodies contrasted by dissonant, dark passages with shouts courtesy of our pal, Marco Hietala. The result is song that is all over the place, musically, but consistent enough to retain interest. In terms of pure energy, both songs fall far short of “Last Ride of the Day,” pushing forward at one of the fastest paces heard in a Nightwish song. That would be interesting by itself, but it also helps to have some well-written vocal lines and a solid solo as part of the deal, too.
Not all the faster songs are upbeat, though. “Scaretale” starts off with an ominous string quartet passage underlying a nursery rhyme, spoken by what I can only imagine are the twins from The Shining. After that, we get a song very much like “Planet Hell” from Once, with deep bass and melodies drenched in Tim Burton-esque darkness until halfway through, where the song suddenly becomes more like something you’d hear at the carnival from hell, complete with a ringleader. The whole song just seems like it sprang from the mind of Tim Burton, and if you’re a fan of that sort of thing (like I am), you’ll enjoy it greatly. And without missing a beat, the song leads into “Arabesque,” which uses some stereotypical Arabian-sounding melodies mixed into a pounding, war-march atmosphere. It all comes to an end, naturally, because this is Nightwish, and so there are ballads and otherwise plain ol’ slow-moving songs in the mix also.
Right at the very start, we run into “Taikatalvi,” a very folksy, Finnish-style tune opening with the soft melody of a music box and ending with kettledrums and choral arias. It’s very simplistic, but it’s well-crafted and enjoyable. “Turn Loose the Mermaids” utilizes a very similar sound, despite the fact it’s a My Dying Bride reference, building up to violin solo that closes up another great song. “The Crow, the Owl, and the Dove” does not use the more overt folk elements in the other ballads, instead featuring acoustic guitar work remniscient of Dark Passion Play’s “The Islander.” Makes sense, considering Marco wrote both songs. Among the ballads, “Slow, Love, Slow” stands out as the clear oddball: Nightwish playing lounge-style cool jazz. I will repeat that: Nightwish playing lounge-style cool jazz. Ready for a bit of news even more shocking than that? It’s really well-done. Anette seems to have a voice built for this sort of thing, and Jukka sounds like a natural doing brush-work on the hi-hats, but doubtless, many will be so distracted by the notion of Nightwish performing this kind of song that it will completely fly over their heads. Pity, really—it really is a good song.
The album’s epic, “Song of Myself,” covers all the bases, both intense and serene, making full use of the choirs, heard all throughout Imaginaerum, which underscore nearly every vocal line without overwhelming us. Loosely based on the Walt Whitman poem of the same name, “Song of Myself” travels all over the spectrum—from fast and booming to soft and serene, the latter mostly during the spoken-word segments in the second half. Various speakers tell their stories, remember the people they’ve met, and share their hopes with us, culminating in the speaker stating “I am all of these,” completing the central theme of both the poem and the song in a surprisingly profound way. It may take multiple listens to fully grasp it all, but once you do, it just becomes that much more worthwhile.
I have only a few complaints; they’re called “I Want My Tears Back” and Emppu Vuorinen. “I Want My Tears Back” sounds way too much like “Bye Bye Beautiful” for comfort with its chuggy guitars and industrial-sounding drum work and overall blandness. While it’s nowhere near as awful as “Bye Bye Beautiful” (the pipes do remind me of “Last of the Wilds” at times), I would definitely mark it as the weakest song on the album. As for Emppu, well, I don’t know if it’s his fault or not, but he rarely plays anything interesting. He’ll play some power chords, do some of those start-stop riffs people get really angry about, and only occasionally rip some solid riffs or bust out a blistering solo. Maybe it’s just how things turned out, and maybe it’s because he’s limited as a musician, but he’s not really doing anything no one else can do. Some people will be turned off to the album entirely because of it, but there’s far too much good here for me to dismiss Imaginaerum entirely.
I was nervous about how this album would turn out, hoping beyond hope that my 4 years of waiting wouldn’t be in vain, but everything turned out better than expected. Much better, in fact, considering there’s really only one song I didn’t enjoy. Not since Oceanborn have I enjoyed nearly everything on a Nightwish album. Even though Imaginaerum isn’t quite on the same level as their legendary sophomore album, it certainly is a sigh of relief amidst the band’s current dubious direction. Whether or not their future endeavors will continue to avoid proverbial shark-jumping…we’ll just have to wait and see.