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If the early 90s were the era of metal’s alleged death to the world, then the late 90s were the era of its rather astounding rebirth, as a series of innovative yet traditionally grounded melodic acts came out to inject some passion and majesty into the dry music scene. Amongst the epic brand of power metal there were 3 signature releases that will live forever as timeless classics; namely Blind Guardian’s “Nightfall on Middle Earth”, Rhapsody’s “Symphony of Enchanted Lands” and this rather unique release. Where the first two sought to tell a conceptual tale based around Tolkein’s High Fantasy genre, (the first being a retelling of one of his tales, the second being an original homage to the style) “Oceanborn” is a collection of tales, mostly depicting tales of passion, nature and even astrology.
However, much as was the case with Rhapsody, the typical metal listener will likely find Tarja’s traditional operatic soprano voice a sizable hurdle to get past, as metal’s connection with classical music was more of a tonal/technical one rather than a vocal one. Likewise the lyrical style and predominance of the keyboards are something that probably wouldn’t sit well in many quarters. To put it plainly, in order to really be able to get into this music, you have to have an equally strong taste for speed metal and Sturm und Drang era classical opera and symphony in order for this to agree with you musically. And likewise, you might want to look elsewhere if you don’t care for lyrics delving into romantic themes and mystical tales.
Much as was the case with Stratovarius at the time, Nightwish balances out the keyboards and the guitars to equal proportions, resulting in a very light form of power metal when contrasted with Blind Guardian. “Stargazers”, “Gethsemane” and “The Riddler” are principle examples of this, as the intros and the overall of these songs are heavily keyboard drenched, but the guitar is still heavily present and unlike Timo Tolkki doesn’t meander during the leads. “Passion and the Opera” and “Moondance” are both stylistic anomalies for the metal genre, the former being almost more opera than metal (particularly the vocal inflections), while the latter is an instrumental that bounces back and forth between a piano ballad and a heavy metal dance fest. I’m not sure if you would sit like an opera audience or possibly be able to dance to these songs, but they are nonetheless amazing to listen to.
The ballads are highly varied as well, ranging from pleasant arias of longing to melancholy tales of love and childhood imagination. “Swanheart” is another classical number driven mostly by piano, reminding a bit of earlier classical nocturnes by the likes of Haydn and Mozart. “Walking in the Air” is a remake of a Christmas song with a rather sad story associated with it; the words and the music fit in well with Nightwish’s deep approach, signifying a sort of end to the childhood innocence through the loss of a magical friend. “Sleeping Sun” is probably the guiltiest of pleasures I’ve ever indulged in as a metal fan, it’s almost entirely keyboard and vocally driven, the lyrics are mushy as hell, but damned if I don’t love this song.
The three most metal tracks on here also reek of an untraditional approach to the genre, though hints of older styles are highly present. “Sacrament of Wilderness” is a catchy speed track with some solid guitar and keyboard work, the keyboard solo is the highlight of the song. “Devil and the Deep Dark Ocean” has it down in the riff department, and proves to be the most guitar driven song the band has ever put out, not to mention one of the most dramatic and heavy. “The Pharaoh sails to Orion” is a song that probably helped redefine the meaning of the term epic power metal. The sheer bulk of contrasting sections, themes, guitar sounds, keyboard work, and overall atmosphere are astounding. The spoken narrations and Tarja’s voice interplay perfectly, the piano themes are fast and passionate, and the drumming is as tight as it gets.
Up to this day Nightwish has never been able to repeat the magic that was present on this release, it is truly something that transcends the sub-genre it is lumped into. If you only get one Nightwish album, are predisposed to melodic speed/power metal, and don’t mind a female vocalist then this is it. It is obviously not for everyone, but then again, what defines a true classic has always been a point of contention in the metal scene.