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I fell in love with Nightwish in the summer of 2008. I was floored by their huge, bombastic sound, a blend of a full orchestra, choirs, native instruments, and metal equally able to produce beautiful ballads and towering compositions of incredible grandeur and power. Songs like "The Poet and the Pendulum", "Ghost Love Score", and "7 Days to the Wolves" became central to my definition of what "epic" music sounds like. Their 2007 album Dark Passion Play has been one of my favorite albums ever since. Now, for the first time since I got into them, Nightwish has released a new album. My burning question is, of course, how does it compare with Dark Passion Play, and more generally, how does it represent and evolve their sound as a whole?
This is their first album to feature an intro track, specifically "Taikatalvi" ("Magic Winter"). It's a nice symphonic song with all-Finnish vocals and some sound effects tying into the movie. It blends right into "Storytime", the first single of the album. Unlike "Amaranth" or "Bye Bye Beautiful" of Dark Passion Play, "Storytime" is a pretty good musical summary of the entire album with the characteristic heavy guitar riffs, epic orchestral flourishes, and a great vocals by Anette Olzon. Hearing this song for the first time, the message I got was: Nightwish is back! Rejoice!
From there "Ghost River" kicks off with an interesting guitar riff that fades into a beginning that sounds sort of similar to "Storytime"...until it takes a nightmarish turn with super-heavy chugging guitars and some great, scary-sounding harsh vocals by bassist Marco Hietala that I wish could have been mixed a bit louder. Despite the extremely dark sound it has the same kind of standard pop-rock rhythm of "Storytime". The focus on the pounding rhythm in the chorus almost reminds me of nu-metal (don't worry, it's really good). Also a random children's choir interlude that sort of works.
"Slow, Love, Slow" is a faithful tribute to '30s nightclub jazz (believe it or not), easily the biggest surprise of the album. Very mellow, with great brushed snare drumwork and a surprisingly convincing vocal performance by Anette. The fantastical atmosphere of the album is maintained by some swirling piano until the rest of the orchestra comes back towards the end along with the guitars. Very interesting song, a completely new direction for Nightwish, but it works fairly well.
At first I thought "I Want My Tears Back" recalled "Bye Bye Beautiful" in its bouncing rhythm and chugging, industrial-type guitars, but then I realized Nightwish is actually channeling fellow Finnish folk metal band Korpiklaani. Check out a sample Korpiklaani song like "Northern Fall" for comparison. I'm not saying Nightwish is ripping them off or anything, but many of the same elements are there. As Nightwish's symphonic epic-ness continues to grow, it's nice to see them keep room for traditional instruments like the uillean pipes (last heard on the Dark Passion Play instrumental "Last of the Wilds") The vocal trade-off during the chorus is also nice and has some of Marco's most melodic singing yet.
"Scaretale" is about childhood nightmares; call it Nightwish's version of "Enter Sandman". Predictably, it sounds even more nightmarish and horror-genre influenced than "Ghost River", with some kind of weird circus breakdown and "creepy" vocals that aren't like anything Anette has done before. It's very impressive and one of the more progressive songs on the album recalling a mix of Mr. Bungle and Unexpect at times, but I confess, it's not that fun to listen to. "Arabesque" is an instrumental outro to it, added to fit the movie, but overall a very enjoyable and diverse song for its length. They should do some lyrical songs like it.
"Turn Loose the Mermaids" is a tender, acoustic ballad that, like "I Want My Tears Back", focuses more on folk than symphonic instrumentation. Following it is "Rest Calm", a longer song whose intensity rises and falls like waves before building to a climactic ending similar to "7 Days to the Wolves". Much of this is the chorus line being sung repeatedly, alternately by Anette and Marco (and the children's choir at one point); luckily it's one of the most beautiful vocals on the album. It's bookended by another quieter song, "The Crow, the Owl, and the Dove", another folk-influenced ballad written by Marco. It's a beautiful duet between him and Anette (if you couldn't tell, Nightwish's two vocalists have a much better dynamic on this album, and Marco's singing and range of styles have improved, period). It does have some electric guitar and drums, which keeps it from sounding too similar to "Turn Loose the Mermaids".
And then we have "Last Ride of the Day", a song inspired by a roller coaster ride and in my opinion the strongest song of the album. Immediately we get punchy strings accentuated by drums and choral vocals telling us, this is going to be big, building excitement like climbing up the first hill. And the ride that follows does not disappoint. It's easily the fastest and most intense song on the album with the band, the orchestra, and the choir all turning their parts up to 11. And then around the 2:45 mark, it's--what's this? An honest-to-goodness shredding guitar solo! Huzzah! That metal staple that so many otherwise-great Nightwish songs have been doing without lately triumphantly returns. Man, this song is almost better than a real roller coaster.
The album's obligatory epic, placed late in the songlist this time, is "Song of Myself". It clocks in at about 30 seconds less than "The Poet and the Pendulum" and the first half is pretty comparable, with even better use of the choir than "Last Ride of the Day" to sing part of the chorus, but the second half (last ~six and a half minutes) are a recitation of part of the epic Walt Whitman poem this song is based on. The band keeps playing for most of it, but the focus is clearly on the reading, and it seems to drag on too long. With a few minutes left as I was following the lyrics, I realized, "Oh, the song isn't coming back, it's just more poem." Good for Walt Whitman fans, a bit disappointing for the rest of us.
And lastly, the title track is a symphonic medley of the rest of the album that will presumably be played over the end credits of the movie. Hearing the strings play the chorus line from "Storytime" is nice and nostalgic, and the arrangement is top-notch, but I kind of miss the band on this song.
Comparisons with Dark Passion Play aside, Imaginaerum is a great album. Nightwish shows evolution in the diversity of their style, in terms of band dynamic, songwriting, and individual ability. They keep the bombast and grandiosity that made Dark Passion Play amazing while better blending their diverse influences and exploring new musical territory. Conceptually, it's hard to fault Imaginaerum.
The album is not, however, without some nagging problems. While Nightwish kept the good elements of Dark Passion Play, they also kept one of the bad ones, namely Emppu's tendency not to do anything interesting on the electric guitar (with the notable exception of "Last Ride of the Day" and, to a lesser extent, "Ghost River" and "I Want My Tears Back"). They also tend to lean heavily on the standard-issue rock drumbeat as heard on "Storytime", "Ghost River", "I Want My Tears Back", "Rest Calm" (considerably slower), and "Last Ride of the Day". And the two ending tracks, which I was expecting to be the standouts of the album, were both minor disappointments.
With these things in mind, I'm giving the album 90%. It's obligatory for fans of Nightwish, particularly Dark Passion Play, and a great album to introduce yourself to the band with.