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Now bear in mind on this review I do not own all of Nightwish's albums so my comparisons to their other work may be lacking but I will compare at times anyhow. With my Nightwish collection so far this is my favourite studio album. Almost every song displays fantastic instrumentation, lyrics, and vocals.
The opening track called "Stargazers" was a smart choice. The song is fast-paced and shows all the members' strengths; Tarja's operatic vocals, Tuomas' intricate piano/keyboard work, strong riffs from Emppu, a thundering bass from Sami, and booming drums by Jukka. All of these elements form a band which in this album shows they're confident in the Symphonic genre and have the songs to not only show their confidence but make them deserving of it. The album's second song "Gethsemane" has a strong folk element that I find very catchy and appropriate. From the opening lines "Toll no bell for me Father..." you know it's going to be an interesting and engaging song. Clocking in at over 5 minutes the song never gets too big for itself nor does it leave one feeling underwhelmed. It is one of the best on the album.
"Devil and the Deep Dark Ocean" is one I feel needs a little spotlight as well. I think for me this will always be one of the strangest in the Nightwish catalog. The reason being that if you were first introduced to Nightwish through a greatest hits like "Highest Hopes" you'll be quite familiar with a song called "The Kinslayer" which basically features a re-cycled intro and main riff from the song on this album. So it's a bit off-setting no matter which you listen to first. I will say though that this song definitely holds as much right to keep the intro/riff as the latter song. It's a very good example of the epic and expansive sound Nightwish tries to go for on many songs. My only big complaint would be some of the "cheese" quality I get from this song. There are some female screams (not Tarja's as far as I know) placed that when mixed with Tuomas' keyboards sound all too reminiscent of a b-movie horror flick. It may have been the intention of the band to go that route but I didn't find it necessary.
There are a few other note-worthy tracks on this album. Going in order of the track listing the next would be "Swanheart" it's a fantastic ballad which mainly features Tarja's voice and Tuomas' piano work. There are some guitars and drums but they're used sparingly until the last third of the song and only used when necessary. Delicate but memorable. The lyrics are a interesting as it's the only metal song I know that seems to be based off the children's tale of the Ugly Duckling. The song immediately after it is by far the best instrumental they've done. (It's also the only instrumental on the album) It runs the whole "field" from it's beginning with a slow version of it's main piano tune to a fast paced, high energy "jig" (the best way I can describe it) that once again slows for but a moment before racing off to the same speed it had before. It may sound a bit too "all over" but it works. Two tracks later the album hits another high point with Nightwish's interpretation the classic "Walking In the Air". Another ballad which displays Tarja's vocal talents quite well. The lyrics are simple yet powerful, though the band can't take credit for that I do give them credit for picking this song. There are many songs they could've chosen to cover but this was a great choice that I don't think many (myself included) would have expected.
Deserving of the most praise however is the last track on the album (depending on which version you have) "Sleeping Sun". This is not only the best the album has to offer but it is my favourite song by the band in general. It's another track that is mainly performed by Tarja and Tuomas as was done with the aforementioned "Swanheart" but where that was a very good track this is what all their tracks strive to be, EPIC. I'm told the lyrics were inspired by a Solar Eclipse that was happening at the time. It makes the lyrics interesting but also shows one how much this event must have affected Tuomas (who penned all the lyrics for this album). They are some of the most beautiful he's written and Tarja wipes away any talk of a cold exterior by pouring emotion into each verse. The biggest highlight for me is in the middle the listener is bombarded by a huge cascade of Tarja's voice that's been treated to sound like to sound like many copies of herself singing in unison with a strange "echo" effect which gives the voices a under-water quality. It's a truly amazing piece which I would encourage all metal fans to listen to, even if it's the only Nightwish song you will agree to try out.
I can safely say none of the songs are bad. But there are a few which I don't find up to the level of the others. Those would be "Sacrament of the Wilderness" and "The Pharaoh Sails to Orion". Both are decent tracks but I find myself skipping them where as I never skip the others. I think the major flaw with "Sacrament..." would be that I find Tarja's vocals a bit hard to understand. Yes, this happens more readily whenever she's using her more operatic vocals but on this track I find them especially difficult to decipher. With "Pharaoh..." I think it's the length. Being a Nightwish fan I'm no stranger to long songs and I like quite a few. But I feel this song suffers from unnecessary length. They probably could've shaved 30 seconds off this song and it'd still be far from being labeled "unfinished" or "lacking".
To sum it up this album is without a doubt their finest work. I would love to be hopeful and think it could get better than this but I'm a realist. This album is something they will never top. Succeeding albums have shown that. They're good but they've not scratched the surface of what this album is. A part of me hopes they never will.