Time for another album by that band, with the operatic female singer, with the mythological imagery, with the symphonic arrangements and the heavy-metal guitars! Evanescence! Okay, it’s Nightwish, but you get the joke – a band has to work real hard to make a case for itself in female-led symphonic metal these days. When it comes to bands like the two above, the similarities are multitude (though Evanescence technically beat Nightwish to the table by a year): female vocalist, heavy orchestra, operatic vocals, mystical imagery, and a penchant for power chords. The defining make-or-break difference, of course, is ambition: Nightwish is Finland’s most profitable musical export, they were a foundational influence to bands like Epica, they’re charged with crystallizing the female-led symphonic metal genre – in a real sense they helped open symphonic metal to a female audience (and girl vocalists!) without letting it suck. For their last two albums they’ve recruited Pip Williams – the noted orchestral director whom at this point might as well be a band-member – and while doing so mysteriously and ceremoniously dumped vocal powerhouse Tarja Turunen for Anette Olzon (at 40, six years her senior), to the chagrin of many a longtime fan. Imaginaerum is Olzon’s second album with the band, after 2007’s just-okay Dark Passion Play – which included one of the most epic female-led symphonic roller-coasters out there – but here on Imaginaerum she really hits her groove; to hear Metal Hammer tell it, this is Metal Album of the Year. To hear the sales figures tell it, Imaginaerum went double-platinum in Finland on the day of its release. High praise, indeed – so is Imaginaerum Nightwish’s finest hour, and symphonic metal album of the year? If you know what you’re getting into, and you don’t mind the odd timpani-drum or song about mermaids, it just might be.
For many, as on Dark Passion Play, Olzon’s inclusion is going to be the major sticking point of this album: Tarja was a vocal juggernaut, her super-operatic voice overflowing from tracks and helping to make Nightwish one of the most idiosyncratic symphonic metal bands out there (even while unbalancing a large part of their efforts). Some of that idiosyncrasy is indeed lost with Olzon, and at times her considerably more-conventional vocals do tend to take backseat on these tracks, at times lost in the bombastic choral and orchestral arrangements (when she isn’t thoroughly over-dubbed) – and this would be a huge problem if she didn’t recognize her weaknesses and tune her presentation accordingly. When Olzon connects, the results are absolutely some of Nightwish’s coolest moments yet: “Slow, Love, Slow”, of all things, was inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and emerges as a slithering bluesy romantic meditation (written by Audrey, we can only assume). “Storytime” is almost an homage to their old ways, stomping out of the gate accompanied by Nightwish’s trademark power-metal riffage and an orchestral arrangement that vaults Olzon’s multi-tracked love-letter to Literature into Imaginaerum’s obligatory Finnish chart-topping single, and features a poppy chorus the likes of which Tarja could never have brought us (with a video that begs us not to take them seriously). “Taikatalvi” gives us exclusively male vocals in Finnish, a rarity and a lullabye (and a Moomin tribute) whose orchestrations are subtle and beautiful. When Imaginaerum falls into place, as it often does, it reveals itself as Nightwish’s most thematically and instrumentally confident work yet.
Speaking of cohesion, would this be a Transylvanilla review if Imaginaerum weren’t a concept-album? Of course not: loosely (or tightly, if you ask the band), Imaginaerum is the story of a dying composer imaginatively reliving key moments of his life, which was apparently a Tim Burton film. That isn’t a dig or a joke either: Imaginaerum really is an upcoming film (by “The Islander” director Stobe Harju), and the band has expressed its heavy reliance on a trifecta of influences including Tim Burton, Neil Gaiman and Salvador Dáli (let’s call this The Holy Gothic Trinity, eh?). These influences do emerge as well, with Pip Williams’ Elfman-tinged orchestrations doing an fantastic job of bringing life to the otherwise now-generic Nightwish formula of blasting horns and choral refrains – in fact, the bonus disc contains nothing but his orchestrations. It stands handily on its own, too – for Tarja devotees, the bonus disc may prove a far superior album. Good luck actually following the storyline (they swear its in there!): lyrically this is very much a Nightwish album, all magic and fantasy and imagination, and I can’t say that even after several listens any track is jumping out at me lyrically the way “The Islander” did back on Dark Passion Play, though their dabbling in intertext certainly appeals to me. Despite this, some tracks still jump the shark entirely – the 13-minute “Song of Myself” is, as my significant other described it, “an abomination and an insult to Walt Whitman,” and while I might not completely agree, it certainly positions itself as an homage (to the point that some are confusing it for a read-through of the famous poem itself). Sadly, if you know Whitman, it entirely fails to stand up under close lyrical inspection. Mind, if you don’t know Whitman (or ignore the reference) at thirteen choir-filled moments it certainly positions itself as the album’s apex, and is at this point prototypical of their style (which means good). Like all Nightwish releases, Imaginaerum stands up for itself most effectively when it’s shoving power-chords under its enormous orchestral, folk, and mythological influences, which thankfully it does on every single track.
So, is Imaginaerum Nightwish’s greatest work? Does it deserve Metal Album of the Year in a world where bands like Agalloch and Amebix exist to make music? Well, not necessarily. Make no mistake, Imaginaerum is Nightwish’s most musically diverse entry yet, to the extent that Pip Williams was given free license to craft this for the album’s closer and came up with a practically Disney orchestral sing-along of every track on the album (beautiful, silly). Speaking of Disney, like much fantasy and mythologically-entrenched work, it can be very hard to take Nightwish seriously, especially during their more heady narrative moments or when you find out they inked an endorsement deal with a Disney Comics Magazine to promote the album’s most potentially pretentious and boring, poppy track, “The Crow, The Owl and The Dove”. The extensively fantastic lyrics (in the fictional sense) can be exhaustive and occasionally threaten to fall flat on their mystical faces, as on the power-metal “Last Ride of the Day”. If you’re a big Walt Whitman fan (or a scholar), you’ll need to acquire the orchestral mix of “Song of Myself” and swap it into the album’s playlist to retain your sanity. As with all Nightwish work, Imaginaerum is over-the-top, bombastic and carries very little of what might pass for subtlety. Then again it’s Nightwish, dammit, and whether or not this is a problem for you will depend almost entirely on whether or not you wish Evanescence would be more fantasy-oriented, more sensory-overloading with their instrumentals, and whether or not you can stomach anyone but Tarja (the-vocal-Atom-Bomb) on the mic.
If, as a listener, you don’t approach Nightwish just so, you’re going to laugh it off as poppy faux-literature – which is fine, as the entire symphonic metal genre seems to labour under that yoke. Yes, they’re a new band now, and that turn is going to be a bit jarring to anyone that disliked or flat-out avoided Dark Passion Play; Nightwish isn’t Tarja’s house any more, and hasn’t been for six years. If, however, you’re prepared to listen to what might be Nightwish’s most ambitious, thematically cohesive and orchestrally exciting work yet, then yes, there’s a very good chance you’re going to love it. You’ll probably even give it Symphonic Metal Album of the Year. Take Imaginaerum at face value, remember it’s alright to have fun with your fantasy tropes and your fantasy music. There’s nothing wrong with re-reading The Golden Compass or Bay Wolf while you’re at it. Pretend you’re a wide-eyed kid again, that things like snow-covered crows’ wings and a number called “Turn Loose the Mermaids” don’t have to be condescending or hokey. Christmas is coming, and fantasy just seems to fit the mood: if you aren’t religiously inclined (or are symphonic metal inclined), let Nightwish dethrone Trans-Siberian Orchestra as your twinkling Festivus music this year. They’ve worked hard, they’ve earned it.
Editorial note: Yes they’re a guilty pleasure. No, it isn’t my favourite Nightwish album. “Oceanborn” is, duh. This doesn’t come out in North America until January 10th, 2012, so don’t go looking for it on store shelves. How did I get ahold of it, you ask? Haahaha Vancouver is in Finland, silly. Hyvää joulua!
PS. You and me? We’re seeing this movie when it comes out.
Originally published right here, December 2011.