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Maybe because this was my first Nightwish album, I'm a bit biased towards it. Still, looking at things objectively, I think that I can safely say that this is an awesome album that, while it doesn't surpass that of their earlier works, is pretty impressive in its own right.
One of the most notable aspects of the album is Tarja's vocals. They are still phenomenal as always, but for this work, she has considerably retracted from her traditional classical/opera voice. Rather, she opts for a more relaxed vocal style in the vein of Simone Simons of Epica or Christa Belle of Hungry Lucy. While this shift was also seen in Century Child, that album still had a good bit of opera, while this one has very little. Fans of the band's older material who haven't picked up Once yet might be put off by this change. The only songs where Tarja sings operatically are Planet Hell and Ghost Love Score. She actually pulls off this shift very well, and her voice on the album is still as beautiful and mesmerizing ever, just in a different fashion. In fact, because of this more subdued singing style, Once is a good album for a new Nightwish fan to start off with who may not be all that familiar with classical singing, or at least not used to hearing it in metal music.
A second notable aspect is the lack of many keyboard-heavy songs. In the past, Tuomas' skillful keyboard playing gave many Nightwish songs an organic, fluid feeling. The lack of keyboards is quite sad, as it removed a unique aspect of the band's music, and causes Nightwish to sound more like just another heavy metal band with a female singer. But in the place of the keyboards are magnificent orchestrations. While Century Child skillfully used the talents of a local Finnish orchestra, Once makes use of the prestigious London Philharmonic Orchestra. The orchestra plays a major role in songs like Dark Chest Of Wonders and Ghost Love Score, giving the album a far more sweeping and epic feel to it than in previous albums. The orchestra still plays backseat to the actual metal band, but its presence is made far more known than on Century Child.
Also like on Century Child, Marco provides his Dio-esque vocals to the album. Marco's sings a good bit more on Once than on Century Child, but Tarja still sings roughly 85% of the album's vocals. On Dark Passion Play, Marco uses the full range of his voice, from ear-shattering screams to soulful crooning. But on Once, he rarely deviates from his aggressive wailing, singing in a manner very reminiscient of Bruce Dickinson's classic style. While he does his job well and definitely adds to the album, his contributions are somewhat one-dimensional, acting as little more than a male aggressive counterpart to Tarja's feminine vocal style.
As to the songs themselves, they are a mix of things, both in terms of style and quality. The first four songs of the album are outstanding. Dark Chest Of Wonders kicks off the album nicely with an energetic, sweeping style that would fit perfectly in any Disney film. Wish I Had An Angel keeps up the energy with a heavy dance beat which has often been compared to Rammstein (if you listen to the demo of the song, the pseudo-industrial nature of it comes out even more prominently). Nemo is one of the band's best ballads, and Planet Hell deftly makes use of some great orchestration. Beyond those, the album is very much of a mixed bag. Dead Gardens, Romanticide, and Higher Than Hope aren't necessarily bad songs, but they seem to blend together too much and aren't too terribly memorable. It's because of these songs that I just can't give a higher score for this album, since they really slow down the overall pace. The Siren and Creek Mary's Blood are a bit better, especially Creek with it's authentic Native American chanting, but they too do not equal up to the quality of the songs at the beginning of the album. But there are some real gems towards the end in the forms of Ghost Love Score and Kuolema Tekee Taiteilijan. Clocking in at over ten minutes, Ghost Love Score is one of the band's longest songs, and despite its long length, it does not seem to drone on. Tarja pulls out her best classical vocals, and together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, they help to deliver a performance that is mindblowing. Kuolema is a soothing ballad sung by Tarja completely in Suomi (Finnish). There had been no Finnish-only songs fron Nightwish since Angels Fall First, and it's very refereshing to hear her occasionally singing in her native language. Finally, on the American release of the album, there are two bonus songs: White Night Fantasy and Live To Tell The Tale. Besides Tarja's interesting puntuated singing style at the beginning of White Night Fantasy, it's a largely forgettable song. Live To Tell The Tale, however, is quite good, and an excellent way to end the album.
In terms of the lyrics, it's generally the usual Nightwish fare, with some noted exceptions. Most of the songs alternate between fantasy themes (Dark Chest Of Wonders, Ghost Love Score), and personal/romance themes (Wish I Had An Angel, Higher Than Hope). Creek Mary's Blood introduces historical lyrical content, telling of the Cherokees' expulsion from Georgia in the 1830's, and Planet Hell has a distinct environmentalist message. The album has no circular themes as were seen in Century Child.
Overall, this is a very good album, with lots of strong features, but it is also burdened with a handful of lackluster songs. The album lacks much of Tuomas' fine keyboard playing skills, but has some of the band's most impressive orchestral material, at least until Dark Passion Play was released. In comparison with the band's earlier work, Once pales significantly; but taken by itself, it's a very impressive package that deserves most of the critical and commercial success that it has received.