The Endless Forms of Nightwish

Few bands in metal have inspired the unrestrained devotion and adoration of it’s fanbase the way Nightwish have. Such a fiery bond is subject to various temperaments, as the band themselves found out through the course of two vocalist changes. That they are widely (if erroneously) recognized as the first female vocal led power/symphonic metal band only serves as fuel for this burning intensity. Their success in the late 90’s and early 00’s spawned countless imitators, other newly formed bands that wanted to put their own spin on what really did feel like a fresh style of metal, with inspired females keen to try their hand at singing over heavy guitars and sweeping orchestras. Ushered along by a signing craze from metal labels all over, female fronted metal bands went from a mere handful to a plethora in the blink of an eye. But few, if any of them have ever managed to attain the near mythic status and storied history of the mother of them all.

Nightwish fans today fall into two basic camps, those that are aficionados of a particular era or vocalist past, and those who see the band as something greater than its constituent parts, including vocalists. This latter group is far more inclined to acknowledge the very apparent reality that Nightwish largely exists as a vehicle for the songwriting of its keyboardist, songwriter, founder, and guiding force Tuomas Holopainen. I myself fall into this latter camp, for despite being introduced to the band during the Tarja Turunen era shortly after the release of Wishmaster, I found myself becoming a bigger fan of the band after her departure. It didn’t take me long to realize after listening to their 2007 first post-Tarja Turunen release Dark Passion Play that I had always been more of a fan of Holopainen. Their 2011 follow-up Imaginaerum hit the nail on the head for me, a thirteen-track treatise of perfection that backed up my argument that Holopainen’s songwriting was able to blossom and flourish without Turunen’s limiting (albeit powerful) vocal style.

Nightwish and their fans share a relationship that is at once devotional and divisive, and also detached and myopic. The band’s most personal works (such as the entirety of the Century Child album) are the kinds of rare records that forge molten emotional bonds with fans. Holopainen’s autobiographical lyrics inspired this devotion, and with it came the kind of rabid fandom that became a hyper protective community, for better and worse. The band learned firsthand of the latter during the media and fan firestorm that resulted from their 2005 open letter dismissal of original vocalist Tarja Turunen. In an attempt to get ahead of the inevitable media war-of-words and fallout between the two parties, the band erred in underestimating just how exposed its own fans’ nerve endings were. Holopainen was himself skittish around the media and private by nature, and as the band leader he found the fallout particularly torturous. For many fans even nearly ten years later, that damage has yet to be undone —- click on any YouTube clip of the band’s Turunen era and scroll down to the comments section for the most surface of glimpses.

Since that cataclysmic event Nightwish have conducted most of their inner workings with an eye towards privacy and security. Unmoved by the pleas of fans lamenting the loss of Turunen, the band circled the wagons around their organization and approached future decisions with a touch of tunnel vision. The band wouldn’t shut their fans out completely, offering up some behind the scenes looks in the form of photo galleries, social media updates, video blogs —- but their content was carefully controlled. It was a gamble, but the commercial success of the Anette Olzon era justified Nightwish’s new approach in the face of a semi-divided fanbase that consisted of very vocal fans sympathetic to Turunen. And in demonstrating their commitment to not repeating the errors of the past, Nightwish handled the October 2012 falling out with Olzon with single press statement that offered no details. The timing of their announcement in declaring fill-in vocalist Floor Jansen as an official permanent member was also interesting to note —- occurring long after the Imaginaerum tour was over, in between album cycles where the requests and expectations for media availability would be relatively low.

 

 

For Nightwish fans, the announcement of Jansen brought along expectations that the band would make use of her operatic vocal capability on the new studio album, as she had demonstrated on several older songs on the tour. I myself took note of the general tone and tenor of the reactions on the band’s Facebook page around that time, and most of them were from fans salivating at the thought of a Wishmaster or Century Child sequel. Its likely that many long sundered fans of the band’s Turunen era were eyeballing Jansen as the closest possible thing to their dream reunion. As a bigger fan of the pop-vocal infused Olzon era, I too wondered how the band was going to balance their expanded musicality with the undeniable fan craving for hearing something soprano-oriented being belted out by Jansen. As heard in the Showtime, Storytime concert video, Jansen was able to bounce from one style to another in varying moments, though she typically stuck to her rock-inflected delivery. A retrospective viewing of that concert makes me realize that it was far more foretelling of what the new album would bring than anyone realized.

Nightwish have responded to their fans’ expectations in rather typical fashion, by ignoring them altogether of course. Holopainen’s vision for Endless Forms Most Beautiful takes precedence over everything, its songs forming a loosely-stitched thematic album about spirituality through science and reason, inspired largely by the writings of biologists Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin. It’s songs didn’t require operatic vocals —- quite the contrary in fact, Jansen’s vocals on the album are far closer to the pop stylings of the Olzon era. This has confused some and upset many, the hope that Jansen would bring the band back to its classicist roots taking another massive blow. Certainly not everyone felt this way, but it does seem that Nightwish will yet again have to bear the brunt of their most vocal critics, their own diaspora of fans. That unfortunate truth about fans is that they can be rather myopic as well in their own regard.

So I’ll argue here that those fans affronted by the vocal decisions on Endless Forms are focusing on a singular aspect of the album to their own detriment. The very thing they are decrying is the mechanism that allows these songs to form yet another first-rate Nightwish album, and might I add —- an album that musically reaches back to touchstones of the past such as Oceanborn and Once. It might be that its coming off the heels of the wildly eccentric, diverse Imaginaerum album, but there is a musical unity present throughout the new album that reinforces its thematic concept and somehow bleeds the feel of old school Nightwish. Take the album opener “Shudder Before the Beautiful” where a sprinting orchestral arrangement slightly outpaces guitars, drums, and vocals —- a spectacular effect that ushers along what actually plays like a duel between Holopainen’s furious keyboard wizardry and Emppu Vuorinen’s wild guitar solos. Talk about old school, that’s the kind of Finnish power metal trademarks that you’re hard pressed to find anyone doing these days.

 

Perhaps its the largely uptempo feel of the album that’s responsible for the old-school resonance that I’m feeling. The band hasn’t done away with Dark Passion Play/Imaginaerum era live orchestras and cinematic arrangements, they’re still present and rather glorious in most moments, but they’re utilized this time more for amping up the energy of rollickingly speedy tracks like “Yours Is An Empty Hope”, “Weak Fantasy”, and the title track. This is a triumvirate of songs that underscore Holopainen’s gift as a songwriter, not in that he expertly juxtaposes soaring melodic ear candy over a frenetic rhythms but that he can do it in such diverse ways with varying degrees of heaviness and aggression. The vicious, snarling “Weak Fantasy” might be the best song on the album, with its tension building usage of solo string sections and a furious pummeling courtesy of pinch-hitting Wintersun drummer Kai Hahto. I get enthralled after the post-folk breakdown at 3:37 where the orchestra descends with a sweeping crescendo alongside Marco Hietala’s always wonderfully passionate vocals —- few others can pull off such riveting drama through the tenor of their voice alone.

Its Jansen who shines on the other two tracks, providing them vocals that veer between ethereal lightness and leather-lunged rock n’ roll grit. On “Yours Is An Empty Hope”, Jensen doesn’t play the beauty to Hietala’s beast, instead her Doro Pesch-esque vocals work with his to amp up the aggression of the song tenfold. I get a bit of a “Slaying the Dreamer”/”Master Passion Greed” vibe here, particularly the latter in regards to the stop-start nature of the doomy, violent orchestral booms. Shifting in tone, she plays the cheerful, charming narrator in “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”, her effortlessly bouncy vocals a stark contrast to a seriously aggressive rhythm section. Vuorinen and Hietala even share a rather nasty guitar/bass solo section here, unleashing a rumbling monster truck of a dual-riff that comes as a total surprise. Vuorinen gets some criticism in guitarist corners for playing what is largely the same riff-pattern in the same guitar tone throughout the entirety of the band’s catalog. I don’t personally feel the criticism is entirely warranted, because being the sole guitarist, he is largely responsible for the band’s metallic elements —- that being said he is far more reigned in on this album than on Imaginaerum, where he had room to experiment.

A rapidly rising favorite of mine is “Alpenglow”, a song that boasts the album’s most snappy, ear-wormy chorus, along with a twisted vocal segment from Jansen that really, really reminds me of Olzon’s vocal theatrics on “Scaretale” off Imaginaerum. Multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley is present throughout the album, chiming in with uilleann pipes, bodhran, low whistles, and bouzouki —- but his standout track is “My Walden” where he dominates the soundscape with a flurry of Celtic-tinged melodies. The first two minutes of the song are fairly standard in approach, but its the latter half of the song where the band indulges in a folky-jam session that I almost wish encompassed the entire track. I suspect it would’ve made the song standout more as a result and also given Donockley a platform for longer running melodies and motifs. Much to my surprise he isn’t on every track here, at least not blatantly so, as was my fear when discussing the Élan single a few weeks ago. Even more surprising is my feeling that he’s being underutilized somehow… that might be one to chew on, I could change my mind on it. I’m all for his presence on Nightwish albums, but I’ve yet to suss out what his contributions are within on a more fundamental level as a permanent member.

 

The aforementioned “Élan” is effectively the same version as on the single, and within the context of the album it actually sounds better, though I’m less convinced of its effectiveness as the lead off single (“Alpenglow” would’ve been a better choice, a more daring yet similarly catchy cut). The thematic-bending “Edema Ruh” (something from a fantasy series I’ve never read) is an okay song with a relatively generic chorus (by Holopainen standards), but its slightly redeemed by some interesting guitar work by Vuorinen. And I’m torn about the sole ballad on offer, “Our Decades In the Sun”, because during the moments when its working it is as gorgeous and beautiful as anything the band has ever done. The problem might be that the song is too delicate for its own good, its sections often left without connecting musical glue, and the silky string arrangements unable to muster enough momentum to bind everything together. Its actually Vuorinen’s stormy guitar interjection at 2:07 that provides the song with its only dose of electrical current, a brilliant moment that ought to make you shiver. I enjoy listening to it overall, but its not in the ballpark of the band’s best ballads, and its a shame because it had the qualities to perhaps be their best.

And here comes the axe… look, I’m as enthusiastic as can be about the theme of the album, having read books by Dawkins myself and generally sharing the same perspective as Holopainen on science and reason and the grandeur they have shown us. That being said, the grand epic of the album, a twenty-four minute behemoth titled “The Greatest Show on Earth” absolutely falls flat for me. I don’t mind that Dawkins is a narrative voice here, because the words he’s speaking are poetic and beautiful, but perhaps he would’ve been more effective at the end of the track, serving as the non-musical coda for the album. Instead his speaking parts and the musical sections of the song are chopped up into relatively non-conforming parts that simply come across as choppy and cluttered in their sequencing. As for the musical sections themselves, there’s only one that truly shines, from the 12:00 to 13:47 minute mark where Jansen and Hietala trade off vocals in a staccato rhythm fueled speed run. The other sections seem to lack any sort of definition, let alone micro-hooks, which are essential for longer set pieces like this —- you need those ear candy moments to keep your attention and to make you want to come back. And I could entirely do away with “The Eyes of Sharbat Gula”, which is more mood piece than instrumental (it does little to match up to the power of the original photograph its in reference to).

And now back to that non-operatic vocals thing —- simply listen to this album and you’ll understand that there was no room for it. That won’t appease anyone disappointed with the album as a result however, because the argument could always be “Well Tuomas should make an effort to write songs in that style”. But that’s the thing, he can’t —- if he tried and he wasn’t completely into it they would come off sounding half-baked and uninspired. The reason we’re all Nightwish fans is because of his songwriting, and his songs have always been for better or worse authentic portraits of his interests, feelings, or passions at that time. On Imaginaerum, the wide-open fantasy/imagination concept of the album influenced his songwriting towards a diverse array of styles and sounds. It might even be accurate to frame that album as more directed by the music rather than the lyrics. On Endless Forms, its the other way around because the lyrics are far more important to the crux of the thematic core, perhaps a reason why Holopainen endeavored to have them sung as clearly as possible. Maybe the next album will be thematic in a way that lends itself to soprano-styled vocals… its possible, but it shouldn’t define your enjoyment of a modern day Nightwish album. If the vocal style is that important to you, then you’re expecting the wrong things from the wrong band.

Anette Olzon: Turn Out the Lights… the Party’s Over

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtGxusvUT3k&w=560&h=315]

 

The legendary Monday Night Football color commentator “Dandy” Don Meredith was a wise man in his simple, inimitable manner, and his belting out of a few bars of the Willie Nelson classic during a lopsided game’s garbage time was a welcome light-hearted distraction from a laborious situation that really just needed to end. And while we can’t be spectators into the inner workings and decision making of a band like Nightwish the way we can during a football game, I suspect that the band’s fans who have kept abreast of the recent 72 hours worth of drama unfolding within the ranks of the symphonic metal giants are in need of some stupid, silly levity right now.

 

Everyone knows the story of Nightwish’s firing of original vocalist Tarja Turunen, and whether one agreed with the decision or not, it was undoubtedly one of the more brutal, ice-cold dismissals of a band member in rock and metal history (for those that forget, she got handed a pink slip type letter mere minutes after finishing a homecoming tour finale in Helsinki — a letter which was pointedly made public online for all to read). Now I felt that the band was justified in their aggressive action towards Turunen, as their reasons were sound and encompassed everything from attempted power grabs, threats of blackmail, interfering business manager/husband, canceling North American tours because the venues were small, and most egregiously, getting the band thrown off a tour with Iron Maiden. I’m thinking that kind of behavior would get you fired from most jobs, or in keeping with the spirit of the NFL football season, you don’t put yourself above or ahead of the team. That’s what Turunen did, and its what newly ex-vocalist Anette Olzon eventually did as well.

 

There’s a lot of misinformation and ignorant buffonery going on in the comments sections of places like Blabbermouth (surprised?), so here’s a factual breakdown of what happened:

 

– On September 28th in Denver, Nightwish was due to play at the Ogden Theater with supporting band Kamelot. The night before the show, Olzon became violently ill, and she went to the hospital the following morning. Doctors suspected it was a kidney stone and after five hours released Olzon with painkillers. At 7pm she began vomiting heavily along with a fever, and upon notifying the hospital she was told to go to the ER immediately. She did, and the band was now faced with the unenviable position of having to possibly cancel the show until it was agreed upon that Kamelot’s backing vocalists Alissa White-Gluz and Elize Ryd (of The Agonist and Amaranthe respectively) would attempt to fill in cooperatively, clutching lyric sheets in hand. The band went out on stage and explained the situation to the crowd, and asked the audience if they would be up to seeing this last-minute, unique performance attempted, as well as giving them the option of getting a full refund at the door. The word is that only seven people got a refund and judging from personal testimonies and the fan filmed YouTube videos of the show, a large audience stayed to watch and participate in the show.

 

– On the night of September 29th, Olzon played what is presumably her last show with the band at The Complex in Salt Lake City. The next day, September 30th, Olzon expressed on her official blog that she was unhappy with the band’s decision to go on with the show and that she was not asked for her opinion on the matter. She continued on to say, “And you know, this is just music. Like life, sometimes we get ill and shows do get cancelled. Rihanna wouldn’t ask Britney Spears to sing for her if she was ill“. This morning on October 1st, Nightwish and Olzon released what appears to be a joint statement explaining the decision to part ways and continue the tour with ex-After Forever vocalist Floor Jansen as their touring fill-in singer, promising that no shows would be cancelled.

 

 

Okay, so with the facts laid out, here’s two immediate things to take away from this: One — That getting a European based vocalist such as Floor Jansen to come in to rather suddenly be the Nightwish touring vocalist for the October 1st show in Seattle, WA is no mere twenty-four hour task. This must have been in the works for at the very least many days to possibly weeks now — because think on it, you’re counting on time for work visas, travel arrangements, travel time, and obviously, enough time for Jansen to be familiar with at sixteen to seventeen songs in the setlist. Things like that do not happen overnight. Olzon’s last show was on September 29th — so the fact that they’re apparently going to pull this off is either incredibly impressive or downright miraculous. Two — That after what they’ve been through with Turunen, Nightwish don’t play around — if you’re not a team player, you’re out. And you know what? I completely understand and support their mentality.

 

I have been, since her induction into the band, a strong Olzon supporter. I think that the pair of albums created with her on board have been the band’s finest, in particular Imaginaerum, and I felt that her lack of an operatic voice such as Turunen’s was what allowed the band to blossom musically and take on an equally prominent role alongside the vocals. The music got better, more interesting, the songwriting more diverse, and Olzon’s pop informed vocal approach was a less overwhelming presence, at least to my ears. That being said, it was easy to see that there were some cracks developing in her relationship with Nightwish.  For starters there was her durability on long tours, she was prone to illness, exhaustion, and the band had to deal with the consequences of those things. Then in 2009, she decided upon getting her own manager — an inexplicable move that was widely speculated upon, and one could guess made the rest of the band have a touch of deja vu. The band seemed to soldier on through all these things but lets fast forward to the present day, and the aftermath of Olzon airing dirty laundry on her blog and publicly questioning a decision that was in large part voted upon by fans of the band in attendance that night in Denver. Now Olzon not only comes across as placing herself before the band, but putting herself above the desires of the fans as well.

 

 

Nightwish’s parting with Turunen seemed to be a traumatic period for both parties involved, judging from interviews taken around that time, and in particular band leader Tuomas Holopainen took the brunt of abuse from disgruntled fans. The band’s greater success from that point onwards was an admirable triumph, and something not won easily. Its hard to discern how far in advance the decision to part ways with Olzon was made, but clearly her comments were regarded by the band as being out of turn and the final contrary straw to the unity they originally wanted with her. As a fan with a financial interest in their current tour (I’m seeing them live in Austin, Texas on October 10th), I feel solidarity with the fans in Denver who had to make the best of a bad situation, as well as the band who alongside the rather brave efforts of both Kamelot backing vocalists all stepped up and did the best they could for the fans. Olzon’s comparison to Rihanna being replaced by Britney Spears is a pretty huge red flag for, well everyone really — this is a metal show we’re talking about, not a pop concert, and when it comes to live metal shows its all about the fans.

 

I’m looking forward to seeing the guys live in Austin in nine days and really amped up about the excellent Floor Jansen being on board for the rest of the tour. Here’s hoping they keep her on as the permanent vocalist. And kudos to the band for their commitment to their fans by not canceling a single show in the midst of a tour where they part ways with their singer, its beyond admirable. I know I’m only one guy, but they’ve got my support in full. The party is over for Olzon, perhaps to her quiet relief, but for Nightwish, its game on starting in Seattle — don’t cue Don Meredith yet!

 

Nightwish – Imaginaerum: Random Thoughts/First Impressions

 

 

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.

 

Nightwish Mach 2.0

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.

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5g8ykQLYnX0&w=560&h=243]

 

 

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.

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