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There are few albums out there which have garnered such mixed attention as Nightwish's fifth release, Once. Is it mallcore or symphonic perfection? Is it filler or masterpiece? Is it weak or heavy? Commercial or sincere? Good or bad?
In truth, Once is a typical Nightwish release that shines in certain places and falls short in others. It's a good album with countable flaws. The ideas were all there; it had all the workings to become one of their best albums, but some of the more experimental changes fell flat. For example, 'Creek Mary's Blood' is a unique track drawing influence from the native people of America. The melodies are memorable, beautiful, and distinct. The guitar solo is heartfelt and the vocal lines are perfect. But then there is the 2 minute long narrative at the end that kills the track entirely. Is there anyone who doesn't skip through that part? Anyone at all? This song is so overstuffed that it becomes a bit unbearable. And there are tracks like Nemo, which is a good two minutes shorter than it should have been. In interviews, songwriter Tuomas Holopainen said that he had to force himself to write all the songs short (for radio play, presumably, to sell the tracks), though naturally he would have them a good deal longer.
So did Nightwish 'sell out'? Possibly; Once is quite a departure from the early releases. All traces of power metal are long gone. Even compared to Century Child, which was a mere 2 years prior to Once, it's an entirely different listening experience. The distortion on the guitars has become less clean, lower, and they now sound buzzy and almost like an afterthought, "mallcore-style" even. I believe they have almost no spotlight in the album, aside from perhaps a short solo on the two longer tracks. This is almost unprecedented from a band like Nightwish, who, although never really allowing Emppu's guitar-work to take the forefront, always seemed to have a few good riffs throughout most of their work. Also present on Once are some more experimental ideas, like the heavily themed Creek Mary's Blood, the industrial-esque Wish I Had An Angel, the assertive yet wistful The Siren, and of course the first all Finnish track, Kuolema Tekee Taiteilijan. Regardless of whether or not such experiments were successful (which I feel most were, aside from the joke of a track, Wish I Had An Angel [and that's coming from someone who can appreciate a little of the industrial style]), they are undoubtedly worthy of a bit of recognition.
Or perhaps did Nightwish find their true niche in Once? Though I am one of the majority who assert that Oceanborn is their untouchable best, I've found that Once has the best replay value of all of Nightwish's releases. Its light, catchy nature is pleasant to listen to, but doesn't distract you into deeper thought. Beneath the scattered filler, there are jewels of ideas. Sure, it is not their best, not even close. But it is a good album and regardless of the obvious changes, it is a good NIGHTWISH album. We all knew their downfall album was imminent, but it didn't hit until 2007.
Highlights: Dark Chest of Wonders, Ghost Love Score, Kuolema Tekee Taitelijan