Full disclosure. I enjoy Nightwish, particularly post-Tarja Turunen era Nightwish. They’re a welcome break in my admittedly male vocal dominated listening habits and they offer something that is genuinely unique and refreshing. Wait a second, did he say unique? Surely I jest right? There are dozens upon dozens of metal bands that have realized that their climb to the top of festival bills and European album charts will be made easier by acquiring the talents of a relatively attractive front woman delivering lily-tongued serenades over the top of their scaled back rock riffs disguised as metal. Granted, and yes, most of them unfortunately fall short in the one area where it counts (no, not bust size dammit), namely in the songwriting.
This is where Nightwish presses its advantage and far outdistances its peers. Without exaggeration, I’ve become convinced that band leader/keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen is a songwriting prodigy; one of those rare talents that understands what it takes to craft beautiful melodies that shimmer; inventive hooks that seem to appear out of nowhere yet feel as if they were always there, waiting for someone to discover them. He understands his songwriting strengths lay in pop foundations and plays to that, yet has been able through change and chance to continually refresh his music so that it hardly ever becomes stale. Not every song is a winner, but more often than not he has base hits and a handful of home runs. He has at last count, seven albums worth.
The biggest change of course has been the dismissal of previous vocalist Tarja Turunen, whose powerful operatic vocals often overshadowed the musical talent underneath. I was never a huge Tarja fan despite jumping on the Nightwish bandwagon with 2000’s Wishmaster. No denying, they made great records with Tarja at the helm, Century Child in particular is a classic, but I could only handle her vocals in small doses. A few songs here or there. She has a unique and awesome voice but its not without its flaws – glaring, annoying flaws. It was like trying to enjoy a piece of cake loaded with too much goddamn frosting – after awhile you’d feel your enamel stripping away. I’d keep coming back for seconds of course. The songs were so good, I couldn’t resist. Yet after they released Once in 2005, I’d often find myself wishing they had a different vocalist. By then she was grating on my nerves. I was a Tuomas Holopainen fan, he was writing the songs that had me hooked, and it was his perspective that informed the lyrics, something that he was unafraid to hide. Go back and listen to those old Tarja fronted records, if you even halfway pay attention to the lyrics you’ll realize that those songs were all personal snapshots of Holopainen’s wishful, dreamlike, Disney-fueled perspective. Tarja was merely acting as an interpreter, yet it was her vocal personality that was most closely associated with the band.
Enter Anette Olzon. She has a few loud internet detractors, she always will, as Tarja cast a pretty wide net to snare some permanent fanboys/girls upon her exit. Thats fine, she makes solo records now – enjoy them if you can. I’m glad they chose Anette, for a few simple reasons. She is not an operatic vocalist, nor does she make any overtures to attempt to emulate one. She’s a pop singer through and through and her simple, clear, ABBA-esque voice has allowed Holopainen to stretch his talents to new styles of song craft. ABBA-esque should not be confused as an insult. The Swedes were the masters of the shimmering melody and ultra catchy chorus, and whats more telling is that ABBA was able to translate their formula to so many different styles (Fernando, or Waterloo anyone?) and it is this ability that has now been granted to Nightwish via their new singer.
Olzon delivers excellent, convincing performances, and with her malleability as a vocalist Holopainen has begun to diversify his songwriting outside of the symphonic power metal style he was forced to remain in with Tarja. This started tentatively with 2007’s Dark Passion Play; and now with Imaginaerum he has extended his range from jazzy lounge, to folky Loreena McKennitt styled balladry, Tim Burton inspired theatricality, to pure bombastic orchestra infused metal. Olzon fits in everywhere, and she even shows a few new vocal tricks on Imaginaerum‘s more adventurous tracks such as “Scaretale” where she shows some grittiness in her delivery as a performer in a bizarre, nightmarish circus. Her abilities to bring light and shade to her voice, seen on the new album in the distinctions between its heavier, darker tracks and its lush, folkly ballads have greatly improved from Dark Passion Play – she is now able to sound completely different from one song to another.
Cutting to the core here, with Olzon at the vocal helm, Nightwish is simply more interesting musically. They are more adventurous, veer far out of metal territory with greater ease, and have truly developed into something that is remarkably original in spirit and intent. Honestly I think it took Tarja leaving for me to realize just how vital the other band members’ contributions were to Nightwish’s sound; she was just that much of an overwhelming presence. Things fall into place better now, every contributor is able to be heard and their importance understood. I’ve read a few early reviews of the new album that comment upon the introduction of more organic instrumentation woven into the band’s trademarked keyboard driven sounds. I would argue that this is merely a continuation of what they started on Dark Passion Play, only this time Holopainen knew the voice he was writing for, and felt far more comfortable to take more musical risks, knowing that his vocalist would be able to adapt accordingly. Thrown aside are the keyboard driven power metal crutches that marred much of the Once album. I’ve written a lot here, and while I have only been able to listen to Imaginaerum repeatedly for little over a week now, I’m certain it will find a place on next week’s Best of 2011 feature.