After five long years, Finland’s premiere symphonic power metal act Nightwish have at last returned with the first part of their album/film magnum opus Imaginaerum. The project’s genesis stretches back many years, but after the wild success of their previous release Dark Passion Play, band founder/leading man Tuopmas Holopainen finally had to drive and the resources to make his vision a reality. Billed as a dark children’s fairy tale, the film, as yet to be released, is intended as a companion piece to the album reviewed herein. If this release is any indication of the quality of the forthcoming movie, then Nightwish and film lovers are in for a real treat. This is by and large the best material the band has put out since the much beloved Century Child.
Fans of epic, in this case literally orchestral heavy metal, prepare to be overwhelmed. After a somewhat underwhelming, all Finnish language introductory track, we are treated to the pop-rock “Storytime,” a meticulously crafted, radio friendly single song that just oozes sickly sweet melodies and ear worm inducing vocals that, once heard, are impossible to forget. It is of some significance to note that still new vocalist Annette Olzon, who took some heat with her debut with the band given her drastically different style than her predecessor, sounds utterly stunning throughout the proceedings, and has grown immensely as both a singer and composer. “Ghost River” finds the band utilizing bass player/vocalist Marco Hietala extensively throughout a stylistically dark chorus, where he at times nearly growls some of the heavier segments, contrasting interestingly with both Olzon and a choir of children. Overall, a decent but comparably weak track in the context of the album. “Slow, Love, Slow” begins with a moody piano melody and a walking jazz bass line, and proceeds to defy all expectations the listener has. This is one weird song, sounding more like a gothic 20′s lounge song than a rock track, that somehow manages to sound absolutely natural in the midst of a symphonic metal album. It is this kind of experimentation that makes my day as a listener. “I Want My Tears Back” brings back some of the folky elements of Angels Fall First era Nightwish and blends it with the modern, hard rocking sound cultivated in later albums. The fusion is effective and leads to one of the most recognizable and overall best songs on the release, with particular props to Marco for some simply stunning vocal work.
“Scaretale” begins with an ominously dissonant segment that follows with an immense track that is one of the heaviest on display, with pummeling double bass work and crunching guitars. It is also one of the thematically darker songs, with Olzon lending an edginess to her performance that really meshes well with the overall heaviness. After the gorgeously powerful instrumental piece “Arabesque” comes the soft ballad “Turn Loose the Mermaids” where Olzon’s improvement as a vocalist is really allowed to shine. There are some staggeringly beautiful orchestrations that are backed by, as odd as it sounds, both bombastic and subdued percussive elements and brass work that both lead and compliment the vocals. “Rest Calm” is another decent, yet overall unremarkable track that sports some head bobbing synth/guitar duets, pleasing interplay between Marco and Olzon, and surprising acoustic interludes. As if to make up for it, we have the staggeringly beautiful duet “The Crow, the Owl, and the Dove,” a remarkably catchy little piece that sports what is hands down the best performance of the two singers on the entire album. There were times where I literally wanted to pick up a guitar just so I could be a part of this truly majestic track.
“The Last Ride of the Day” is yet another head bobbing, groovy track where Olzon is allowed to really stretch her abilities and showcase a side of herself that was previously unheard, and in this case, totally inconceivable. I am beginning to see what the band saw in her despite my mixed feelings of her performance on her debut with the band. Lots of good old fashioned Oceanborn era Nightwish rock and roll here. “Song of Myself” is the album’s token behemoth, clocking in at just under 14 minutes. And what an epic it is. This is hands down the most immense, intricate, awe inspiring song the band has ever created. A good comparison would most certainly be “Ghost Love Score,” only taken up to previously unheard of levels. There are massive orchestral peaks, soft piano interludes, and at the half way point, an extended narration using the voices of many different types of people. It is this half way point that literally gave me goosebumps and may well be one of the most emotional, gripping, incredibly beautiful pieces of theatrical music I have ever heard.
The album closes with the instrumental title track, a seamless compilation of all of the musical themes touched on throughout every song on the album. To these ears it is generally risky business ending an album on an instrumental, but if there is a way to do it right, this is it. Simply gorgeous, this is a song that elevates Holopainen’s vision to the status of John Williams, Danny Elfman and the like. Nightwish have really done something special here; they have returned me to the realm of the believers. This is a truly incredible feat of musical magic, and I can only hope and dream that they will release albums half as good as this going forward.
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