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Let me preface my criticism by saying that I respect Tuomas Holopainen as a songwriter. He doesn't write the same album over and over again. However, the danger in always changing your sound is that some fans will be disappointed. Luckily for Tuomas, the majority of reviews for Once have been overwhelmingly positive--Metal-Rules.com gave it five positive reviews, including three perfect fives--and from the comments I've read on message boards, it appears that fans have embraced the album. Therefore, I am in the minority when I say that I don't enjoy Once as much as the previous three Nightwish albums. However, to call this album the worst Nightwish release since Angels Fall First doesn't seem fair; the band has grown quite a bit since their 1997 debut.
So how is this album different from Century Child? Well, it's heavier, but not in a speedy, "Stargazers" type of way. It's more guitar-oriented, but as opposed to other guitar-oriented Nightwish songs like "She is My Sin," the guitars on Once are more downtuned and modern. It also seems that Nightwish overcompensated for Century Child's lack of heaviness, by including too many downtuned guitar numbers. The instruments are competently played, and the bass sound is full and thick, but I find that the album lacks replay value. And on Once, there is no middle ground: the tracks are either hard as a rock, or soft as a pillow.
I must give Tuomas credit for challenging me to like things I would normally hate, such as the workout video beat of "Wish I Had An Angel," and the whispered vocals of "Romanticide." "Ghost Love Score" is the band's most orchestral and film-like track to date, with the most powerful Nightwish chorus since "10th Man Down." Tarja's most inspired singing is found in "The Siren," where she slaloms over Marco's chorus with some beautiful ahhhhhhahhhhhhahhhhhhahhhhh's. She also experiments with some staccato Middle Eastern singing at 2:41. "The Siren" may not be the most ambitious track on the album, but I'd argue that it's the best written. It shows Tarja using her voice more like an instrument, and has Marco and Tarja singing together in a way that Tuomas should encourage more.
My major complaint about this album is Tarja's singing, which used to be the trademark of the band. I don't blame Tarja though. Tuomas has a strong vision of how he wants each album to sound and instructs Tarja to sing accordingly. And while her less-operatic style sounded fresh on Century Child, I don't think it provides the power that the heavier songs on Once need. Although Marco is used slightly more on this album, it's not enough to compensate for the fact that Tarja sings the heavy and mellow songs in the same style. Tuomas should have pushed Tarja to explore new vocal frontiers: the result would have been more great songs like "The Siren."
A dishonorable mention goes to the ending riff of "Dead Gardens," which is boring enough on its own... without the band repeating it for over one minute.
As far as the ballads go, "Creek Mary's Blood" is inspired, but also quite boring. I would have had the Indian sing more during the song, or perhaps sing the entire track. This track would have made me more sympathetic about the natives' plight if it were actually sung by a native and not some pasty Finnish girl. Continuing the tradition of "Forever Yours," "Two for Tragedy," "Swanheart" and half of Angels Fall First, "Kuolema Tekee Taiteilijan" is an incredibly boring ballad. It has nothing going for it except an interesting cello section, which could have been the basis for a great instrumental. "Higher Than Hope" is a little better, but I was expecting more from Marco's first major songwriting contribution to the band. They could have wrung more power out of the chorus by kicking up Marco's vocals.
I bought the album from metaldisc.com, because they were selling the South American import, which had the bonus track "White Night Fantasy." I found previous b-sides like "Nightquest" and "The Wayfarer" to be better than most of the material that made their respective albums. Expecting "White Night Fantasy" to be a hard-to-find gem, I went hunting for reviews of the Nemo single to learn more about the track. According to the typically generous metal-reviews.com:
"I don’t know what the hell White Night Fantasy is. Musically this is still very much Nightwish but the vocals are just horrendous! The verses are delivered in sharp punctuated syllables much like something Bjork would do. I do not know what possessed Tuomas to tell Tarja to sing this way because it does not work out for them at all! Thankfully this is a bonus track and is not going to be on Once."
Strike one. For a second opinion, I went to metal-archives.com where the first reviewer said:
"You have to hear several times to like it, and you probably will hate it the first time. But that is why it is featured as a single B-side, and not in the climax of the full-leght album."
Strike two. The second Metal-Archives review was even more negative.
"The third track ruins the whole CD. I choose to compare White Night Fantasy with a typical HIM-song too, the typical style is there. Nothing is good on this one. Sorry Tarja, but your vocals sucks on this track, I can't stand it."
After reading those comments, I expected the song to suck, but it was actually pretty good. Musically, the track is a typical Nightwish ballad, but Tarja's vocals are higher, more soothing. She uses her voice in a way that might not be metal, but at least makes for something different. So why does everyone hate this song? Perhaps the same reason they love Tarja's performance on Once: they aren't looking for variety. The bottom line: a little more experimentation in the vein of "White Night Fantasy" would have made Once a better album.
I was going to give the album a 75, but after going back and listening to "10th Man Down," I know how much better the band can do.