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Where's the wonder, where's the awe? Right here - 75%

antichrist_inside, December 13th, 2011

So after four years, Nightwish finally has a new album. Dark Passion Play was a disappointment with standout moments like "The Islander" and "Last Of The Wilds" about evenly split with bland, radio-ready, mid-tempo songs and equally mainstream-minded ballads. Given the circumstances, keyboardist and main songwriter Tuomas Holopainen goes through a number of trials in his personal life while trying to accommodate the band's new found mainstream success, all the while with an all new singer with a different style. An uneven album was really the best anyone could hope for, but four years later, Tuomas should have gotten his life together by then and plowed straight through his latent teenage angst, right? I'm supposed to say "yes" or "no" here fpr it to have an extra impact after that introductory paragraph, but if I did, why bother writing a whole review?

Imaginaerum is the sum total of everything Nightwish has done so far, plus a few new things. It's not a complete return to form, but it's their most varied album to date. There are flashes of Oceanborn and even Angels Fall First, and there are a few radio-oriented singles, too. And some songs even explore new ground with plenty of success. More importantly, this is Nightwish's first attempt at a concept album, centered around a loose theme of longing for a lost fantasy world, although Tuomas has said there's a concrete plot about an old composer who thinks he's still a little boy (does that remind you of anyone?). In either case, it looks like our favorite Finnish metal manchild has finally pulled himself together and tried to recapture the magic he once had.
The first track, "Taikatalvi", is sung entirely by Marco, in Finnish, with a soft, wintry background that builds into the lead single, "Storytime". It's not the bang that Dark Passion Play opened with in part 1 of "The Poet And The Pendulum", but it's better tailored to Imaginaerum's theme of fantasy; it wouldn't sound out of place on "Angels Fall First" (well, at least if the orchestra was replaced with cheesy '80s synth strings). On the other hand, "Storytime" itself proves to be another bland radio anthem with a catchy chorus and little else going for it. It even uses the same guitar riff as "Master Passion Greed". "Rest Calm", later down the track list, suffers further for its long and completely unnecessary outro. If DPP's "Seven Days to the Wolves" overstayed its welcome, you might want to skip this one after the first five minutes or so. But they do get the "catchy single" formula right on "Last Ride of the Day" with its bombastic but memorable intro backed up with a soaring chorus and well-executed guitar solo.

There are ballads of course, and they're a mixed bag. "The Crow, the Owl, and the Dove" coasts by with a suitably melodic chorus, but unfortunately the only other part that I ever seem to remember is the bridge, which is sung in an irritating '90s boy band style. "Turn Loose the Mermaids" is much better and is one of the album highlights, reminiscent of "Creek Mary's Blood" from Once, only without the annoying chanting. The folksy atmosphere covers every second of it, thanks largely to guest Troy Donockley's Uillean pipes that also grace "I Want My Tears Back" with a catchy intro melody worthy of an Amorphis song.

Emppu Vuorinen's guitar work has improved slightly on this album (but not much). "Ghost River" kicks off with a decent riff for a change that shows something more than downtuned chugging, and his leads over "Rest Calm" and "Last Ride Of The Day" are a bit more interesting than usual. Nightwish still isn't a band to listen to for guitar work alone, but Emppu seems to be making the most of his now-permanent position in the rhythm section. Still, his finest hour by far is the middle of "I Want My Tears Back" where he and Troy trade soaring, Celtic-influenced folk melodies for a minute straight, right out of "The Wayfarer".

It's been awhile since Tarja Turunen was fired from the band and by now most Nightwish fans have accepted, for better or for worse, that she's never coming back. The good news is that on this album, Anette seems more at home than ever. Her voice is more expressive and much less strained (no moments like the screechy ending of "Amaranth" here!). More importantly, her highs help give "I Want My Tears Back" some of the atmosphere Angels Fall First had, proving that Tuomas no longer needs to hire a guest vocalist to do that (as he did on "Eramaan Viimeinen"). And Marco Hietala makes the most of his parts with a full-throated roar that Tarot's Gravity Of Light proved to still be in tip top condition.

The lyrics don't seem to have the plot that Tuomas promised, but they work well enough just as songs. The imagery and references from their first few albums are back in full force, with "I Want My Tears Back" being dotted with nods to Alice In Wonderland. On the opposite side, "Ghost River" paints the same grim painting as "The Devil and the Deep Dark Ocean", with haunting lines like "the mills grind slow in a riverbed ghost town", or "every eye sewn shut". The contrast between Marco's harsh growls and a children's choir hearkens back to the tradeoffs back in the old days between Tarja and Tapio Wilska (or even between Tarja and Marco in "Planet Hell").
The band's little known orchestra arranger, Pip Williams (who's almost a sixth member at this point), also improved a bit for this release, but he's still the biggest thorn in Imaginaerum's side. He still doesn't seem to know how to arrange a backing track for a metal band, but instead treats them as part of an orchestra, to be drowned out in symphonic "sturm und drang" at a whim. His over the top arrangements sink "Rest Calm" and make the outro even more of an ordeal than it already is. To his credit though, the closing title track, a medley of melodies from the rest of the album arranged as a closing credits theme for a movie (more on that later), makes a fitting closer for the album.

The last real song on the album is "Song Of Myself", Imaginaerum's answer to "The Poet and the Pendulum". It's anticlimactic. By this point, Nightwish has spent so much time spamming choir hits and tense strings that when they show up in this song, they're the most mundane and least remarkable part of the album. More importantly, they're used in place of any type of creative songwriting. The heavy, memorable intro riff of "The Poet and the Pendulum" was one of its highlights - there's nothing like that here. After the second chorus, we're treated to the three minute chugging breakdown of "Piano Black", and after that things finally get at least somewhat interesting as Tuomas calls on various people for a six minute recital of a poem he wrote. The lyrics are unfocused, but the conviction of their delivery (from everyone) redeems them. And the soft, symphonic backing track makes me wonder how Pip could have listened to it after he was done and not though to himself, "Maybe I should tone things down a bit, if this is what that would sound like...".

You'll notice I took care not to mention two specific songs up until now. These two songs, "Scaretale" and "Slow Love Slow", prove how adaptable the entire band is; they took on whole new styles for these songs and did it well. "Scaretale" adds in elements of humppa and Danny Elfman scores to make exactly what you think that would make, Nightwish tackling Finntroll's sound. Jukka breaks out the double bass for a minute or so, and while (thankfully) we might never hear Anette doing black metal screams, she puts on a scorn-dripping tone that sounds kind of like the Wicked Witch of the West. The two minute break in the middle in particular sounds like it would be at home on Finntroll's latest, Nifelvind, with all of Marco's hammy, Disney-villain posturing. It's not supposed to sound evil to anyone over six years old, but it's an amusing ride nonetheless. "Slow, Love, Slow" is a jazz ballad of all things. If you've read any reviews of the album already, odds are this has been mentioned at least once, so you should be over the shock by now. Randomness aside, the whole band handles this new style admirably with Tuomas pulling out some jazzy comping, Marco playing a walking bassline, and Jukka taking lessons from Wintersun's Kai Hahto on playing drums with a brush set. Anette further proves her worth by putting on a performance for an imaginary 1930s nightclub with a sultry, smooth voice that contrasts sharply with the next two songs. Emppu even plays a bluesy, finger-picked solo to complete the mood. It's not a perfect imitation of cool jazz, still stylized a bit (which was inevitable anyway), but a well-written and enjoyable song anyway.

In a couple months, Imaginaerum will be released in a completely different form, an actual full-length movie that actual people can watch on an actual screen in actual theaters. This isn't the first time a metal band has mixed sound and visuals in a way less superficial than the obligatory performance music video, but maybe then, after another peek into Tuomas's mind, this album will make more sense. Until then, I'm treating it as a diverse, if slightly inconsistent, collection of songs and also proof that Nightwish might have finally made it out of their creative slump.

Highlights: "I Want My Tears Back", "Scaretale", "Turn Loose the Mermaids".