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Despite what some reviews claim, “Once” is a typical Nightwish album, and it’s not bad at all. There are not big musical changes to be found here; I’d say it’s the logical evolution after “Century Child”. The main elements on “Once” are the London Symphonic Orchestra, which plays a big role throughout this album, and the guitar sound, heavier than before. Imagine a mixture of the bombastic sound from “Wishmaster”, the heaviest moments from “Century Child” (think of the song “Slaying the Dreamer”) and some epic movie soundtrack such as “The Lord of the Rings” or “Gladiator”, and you’ll get a good picture of what you’ll find here.
Tarja sings in the same way she did in “Century Child”: a bridge between pop and opera. Marco Hietala’s vocals can be heard in several tracks as well. The bombastic choirs also play an important role in many songs, especially the epic “Ghost Love Score”. There’s not much space for instrumental parts, but this has never been the purpose of Nightwish. The guitar riffs are very heavy and powerful, but somewhat monotonous; anyway, as there’s a lot of melody played by the orchestra and vocals, it’s not a negative point. Actually, the contrast between the aggressive guitar sound and the melodic orchestral and vocal performance is one of the coolest things to be said about this album. Overall, “Once” can be simply described as massive and bombastic.
The highlights of “Once” are “The Siren” and “Ghost Love Score”. “The Siren” is probably one of the most magical and atmospheric songs of the entire Nightwish career. Tarja’s vocals sound really seductive and the chorus sung by Marco is simply wonderful. Best Nightwish chorus ever, if you ask me. The song contains lots of arabic melodies that add an extra charm to it. “Ghost Love Score” is a 10 minutes track with awesome orchestration and extremely emotional choirs. Very impressive!
The album contains a number of other good songs such as the opener “Dark Chest of Wonders” and “Planet Hell”, both heavy songs with bombastic orchestral arrangements, the melodic and emotional single “Nemo” and, of course, the epic “Creek Mary’s Blood”, featuring the guest appearance of musician John Two-Hawks, who sings, plays the flute and reads a poem in his native language. The song evokes images from and old Western. “Dead Gardens” and “Romanticide” are the heaviest songs ever created by this band, with some thrash/death guitar riffs and dark atmosphere.
The weakest songs are “Wish I Had an Angel”, which is pretty repetitive and commercial, though it contains some cool parts in the middle, and the two ballads that end the album. They’re not bad, but somewhat generic, especially compared to the great ballads Nightwish has created in the past.
“Once” is the heaviest and most bombastic Nightwish album so far, accessible but not too commercial, modern but still true to the band’s musical roots. It might not be their best release. However, it contains some of the best compositions of the band’s career. And, of course, it represents the end of an era for this Finnish band.