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Nightwish were always hard to classify when it comes to genre. They are known as gothic, symphonic, power or operatic metal. I like to think of them as a power metal band with symphonic elements. The only gothic elements that their songs contain are the lyrics (particularly on their latest 2 albums). So, you cannot buy this expecting gothic metal because you'll end up disappointed. Despite of the gothic artwork, this isn't a gothic metal album.
Now, "Once" is a love it or hate it album. Even if you look at reviews around the net, you'll realize that not a lot of people have mixed feelings about this. Personally, I feel that it is one of those albums which are full of flaws, yet you cannot help enjoying. It's better than "Wishmaster", but doesn't surpass the other 3.
This album is very similar to "Century Child". Like CC, it lacks operatic vocals from Tarja. Personally, I see that as a slight downfall. Although I couldn't stand it when Tarja always sang operatically, this is the other extreme. However, when she sings normally, her voice still sounds amazing. It's just that it's a big change from "Oceanborn". As for Marco, he sounds a bit out of place in some tracks. The only track which I would've put him in is "The Siren". The rest could've all been sung greatly by Tarja alone.
Moving on to music. This is the part where most fans are disappointed (myself included). Drums are pushed too far back and are barely heard. Jukka's talent isn't as clear here as it was on CC, or any other Nightwish album for that matter. Also, guitars are downtuned, which makes this album a bit too mainstream. Having said that, I have to admit that keyboards and the orchestra are amazing. Just listen to "Creek Mary's Blood", where the orchestra is too perfect for words.
Now, I agree that some tracks are mediocre, at best, but some are probably among Nightwish's best tracks. The tracks that could be (actually, they must be) skipped are "Wish I Had An Angel", "Nemo", "Dead Gardens" and "Kuolema Tekee Taiteilijan". WIHAA is the worst song Nightwish has ever done. I was disgusted with the level of commerciality. "Nemo" also follows the same crappy pattern. Having said that, some songs are too good for words. "Dark Chest of Wonders", "The Siren", "Ghost Love Score" and my favorite; "Creek Mary's Blood" are all among Nighwish's best tracks. The ones I didn't mention at all are good, not great. Sometimes I skip them, sometimes I don't. I'd also like to point out that the two bonus tracks aren't worth it. They're both mediocre tracks which aren't worth the extra money.
Despite the few weak tracks, "Once" is one of those guilty pleasures. Not as mainstream as Lacuna Coil, yet every track has a bit of commerciality added to it. I know I spent more time complaining about it than I did praising it, but overall, I think it's another solid effort from Nightwish.