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Time was I was a big fan of Nightwish. They helped get me into metal, as it were. Come 2011, a few things are evident. Tuomas Holopainen is and always will be a nob-end who's as self-obsessed as Madonna. Anette Olzon's particular motherly brand of ditzy-ness isn't really very metal. And their high-profile, high-budget music has as many non-metalheads listening to it as it does metalheads, if not more of the former. If you can put all those things aside (and many are unable to) they don't actually sound too shabby. For one thing, this latest and long-awaited splurge is about the most ambitious thing I've heard all year, and credit is due for that alone.
The whole thing is written with an accompanying film in mind, and the music fits the idea adeptly - from the less pop-like song structures and spacious arrangements, to the challenging pacing of the record, and even to a closing title track that revisits motifs from throughout Imaginaerum in purely orchestral format.
The amount of ideas shoved in is also impressive. 'Storytime', 'I Want My Tears Back' and 'Last Ride of the Day' are fairly typical for Nightwish in execution. Then basically the whole of the reminder of the album wanders through carnivalesque amusement parks ('Ghost River', 'Scaretale'), jazzy blues ('Slow, Love, Slow'), exotic instrumental ('Arabesque'), an attempt at Swallow the Sun and My Dying Bride style doom ('Rest Calm') and concept album-ready nigh-acoustic storytelling ('Turn Loose the Mermaids', 'The Crow, The Owl and The Dove').
As an exercise in flamboyant songwriting, it very often works fantastically. The opening to 'Ghost River' is vintage '90s Nightwish, whereas the song itself is a loosely-structured opus crammed with time changes, musical-like vocal exchanges, off-kilter film soundtrack breaks and a few groovy breakdowns. 'Scaretale' shows Dani Filth isn't the only one who's been watching too much Tim Burton, with nursery rhymes, polka beats, madcap narration and children's choirs glued into a morass of tense symphony and sneering vocals.
However, at times it seems like the more straightforward pop metal they've been flogging us realizes better than some of the other ambitious stuff. The easy-on the-ears material being? 'I Want My Tears Back' seems to pile just about everything the band is famous for on the radio - Troy Donockley's pipes, the Rammstein-ish guitars, the Marco-Anette double act, a huge chorus - into about the catchiest song this band has ever recorded. This sounds like it would be a massive hit even in the American and British mainstream. And I have to say, I absolutely love it. 'Last Ride of the Day' moves at breakneck speed through its blasting chorus and big guitar solo, providing a welcome breather from the ooze of new ideas.
Breather is the word. 'Last Ride of the Day' is at track 11, and the pacing of the album and its heavy conceptual bent weigh much of it down toward its latter half, to be honest. 'Turn Loose the Mermaids' and 'The Crow, the Owl and the Dove', despite aptly '70s vocals from Anette, ever-pleasant pipes and neat story ideas (manifested through the obligatorily cheesy lyrics), don't give me too much of a Nightwish-boner and the latter in particular is just a bit dull. Speaking of dull, 'Rest Calm' doesn't quite manage its job of plagiarising various Brits' and fellow Finns' more melancholy output, coming across as a bit exhaustive and dry throughout its seven minutes. With some death growls I might go for the atmospheric chugging parts, but even Marco doesn't pull these off somehow.
Not to mention that the outfit's usual live centrepiece and album crowner of an epic song falls flat for the first time. 'Song Of Myself' lets its pretty great, intense "Nightwish-go-even-more-epic-than-usual" first seven minutes (even with what sound like '90s techno-style belting vocals from Anette) or so with a dragging lead-out crammed with British actors reciting Walt Whitman. Why they did this instead of pooping out more 10-15 minute over-the-top goodness I don't know.
I believe Hietala should be reminded of these days at all available opportunities
See, I come to Nightwish more for the film-metal goings on than the vocals these days. That's more to do with the move away from operatic vocals and further into orchestral soundscapes than with anything else, mind - there's nothing wrong with Anette, while the band features one of my favourite Finnish vikings on male vocals. Marco singing in Suomi on the intro 'Taikatalvi' is a stroke of brilliance - the fellow sounds wonderful in his native tongue, as established in various live concerts and side projects in the past. However, the man seems to hold back more on Nightwish songs these days; despite some blazing, brawny vocals from him on 'Ghost River'. Anette Olzon's best moment is on 'Slow, Love, Slow', a jazzy Nightwish blues ballad that's as bizarre in concept as it is surprisingly cool in execution. But I must say throughout she does a really good job, far stronger chops than on Dark Passion Play. 'Last Ride of the Day' is a good showcase of her mixing up soft and full-pelt singing to great effect. Overall, Marco's least impressive performance for a Nightwish album, but Anette's best. Emppu Vuorinen is doing basically nothing by now however, save a couple of folky spins here and there, he basically chugs away behind Jukka Nevelainen's competent, Kai Hahto-mixed drums and Hietala's throaty bass, or throbs along invisibly with heavily distorted rock guitars.
I can't fault them too much with it. It's a mighty impressive concept album and has at least half an hour of stuff I'll be happy to return to on the iPod. Funnily enough, these high-budget Finns, with their kitsch soundtrack metal, Viking-versus-pop vocals and love of poetry miss a few points through ambition and scale rather than by commercialising themselves. Which is what they're usually criticized for. But hearing this album I don't hear them capitulating to mainstream interests, but rather going full-on into folky, musical, progressive, symphonic and conceptual metal. Less easy to digest and radio-ready than Dark Passion Play and Once, and maybe not as tasty at the end of the day, but worth your time if you stayed on board until now.