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Nightwish is a keepsake of sorts for me, as they were among my early discoveries in the power metal genre (I literally discovered them at around the same time that I bought my first Helloween album in the late 90s). It is almost to the point that I hold their early works in a sacred, dogmatic sense, and with that came a less than favorable reaction to the changes that began on "Once", though the true impact on the format was a bit lost on me until just recently. My expectations, in keeping with all of this, were naturally very low when I decided to bite the bullet and advance order this album.
To put it bluntly, "Imaginaerum" is not anywhere near a return to the band's roots. It is, in fact, an outright affirmation of the premise behind the past 2 albums, distilled to a purer form and given a slightly better performance. Anette sounds like less of a pop diva than on "Dark Passion Play", the symphonic elements are a bit more in line with the flavor put forth by Epica, the guitars don't sound quite as nu-metal infused, and Marco is back to playing support on vocals rather than almost sharing the stage with Anette. But in spite of a slicker production and a more song-oriented approach, this just doesn't really do much in the excitement department, and settles somewhere between being average and being adequate.
The feel of this album is more rock than metal, at least in terms of its tempo and riff set, largely feeling content to groove along and occasionally land in a mildly triumphant spot. The apex level of things doesn't go beyond the standard set by "Dark Chest Of Wonders", and this album reaches into that well quite a few times, culminating in a number of songs that are each individually good, but sort of run together when played back to back. "Storytime" has a powerful chorus and a driving groove, "Ghost River" mixes in some duet vocal work and the guitar work is a bit Zakk Wylde influenced, "Scaretale" strikes up the creepiness factor a little bit with a mishmash of vocal elements and Danny Elfman inspired orchestral interludes, and "I Want My Tears Back" has a chunky riff set and a nice little folksy air to it, but largely these songs find themselves in the same plodding beat, unwilling to throw in a climactic speed section for even a few minutes.
Things take a down turn when Tuomas and company try to mix things up even further, bringing in a slew of dry, meandering ballads and pretentious orchestral pomp that interrupts what flow this album possesses. "Slow, Love, Slow" tries at introducing some jazz elements into the mix, and comes off as utterly out of place beside the epic melancholy backdrop that this band never really pulls themselves away from. "Turn Loose The Mermaids" sounds more like an outtake from a spaghetti western with words about an unrelated subject, coasts through and doesn't go very far. The long-winded "Song Of Myself" goes quite well for the first 7 minutes and goes back into the earlier mentioned formula of a fairly energetic mid-tempo groove, only to spend the next 6 minutes bogged down in goofy voice-over narrations that sound completely out of place and a stagnant atmospheric backdrop that lingers way too long.
I've heard better, especially from this band, but it came from a time when they had a different vocalist and a radically different musical mindset. Tuomas seems more interested in orchestration and poetry than he does anything else, and the rest of the band may as well be extensions of the orchestral background, save Anette who has shown a level of improvement but is still far from a substitute for Tarja. To say that the sum was much more than the parts is well beyond an understatement, and I would argue that this band's former lead vocalist puts forth something far more interesting, albeit still removed from the grandeur that she accomplished with Nightwish, on her latest album. This isn't a total throw away, but it definitely wants for a fair amount.