[3 October 2007]
This has happened before.
Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest have all lost iconic vocalists in their time. And while it might seem like an exaggeration to mention Finland’s Nightwish in the same breath as those giants, try telling that to their thousands of fans in Europe, or the 50,000 ticket buyers who regularly pack their sold-out tours.
Formed by a bunch of heavy metal fanatics, led by keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen, and a classically trained opera singer, Tarja Turunen, the band has to be one of metal’s most unlikely success stories ever, making an unusual yet brilliant combination of epic, operatic glory and heavy metal’s dark, gothic underscore.
It was not to last, however; in late 2005, just as Nightwish seemed at the very height of its collective creativity, Turunen was unceremoniously fired via an open letter on the back end of a world tour, leaving the four men behind her with little to do but look for someone that could replace her. And search they have: through a year of extensive American Idol-style auditions and almost total silence on their part, until one Anette Olzon, from unknown Swedish band Alyson Avenue, was announced as the new singer.
Nightwish’s popularity never deserted them during that long wait, which Turunen’s husband rather appropriately tagged a ‘marketing campaign’, but whatever made them special certainly has. No matter if the new front woman was Janis Joplin risen from the grave; the mystery and hype that the band perpetuated on us leading up to the official announcement was doomed to end up as an anti-climax for the simple reason that there is no imitating Tarja and the incredible vivre she brought to their sound.
The brave Olzon knows this, and wisely adapts her own style in line with the music, but one that is without any distinct nuances, and is altogether too mainstream. Her wispy coo often wilts against the full-on sweeping tug of the orchestra, reminding us all too vividly where Tarja could easily have held her own. The album follows the same basic set as 2004’s Once, except with an even more bombastic and expensive backdrop. It just happens to be the most costly record made in Finnish history. Holopainen is a master composer, full of interesting compositional ideas and film score-like symphonic moments, but his skill alone isn’t enough to save the disc when such an essential ingredient is missing. Without Turunen, Nightwish are no longer glowing innovators. They just sound like any other female-fronted metal band.
Anyway, Dark Passion Play begins with “The Poet & the Pendulum”, a romantic 13-minute long sonnet. That Nightwish are able to open with a track of its sheer size and long-windedness says a lot about their ambition, (looking at you, Holopainen), and more than anything, how much clout they have in their market. And let’s not kid ourselves, it’s more like four separate songs woven loosely together, with a pace that starts excited and progresses to comatose, not as cohesive as Once’s triumphant “Ghost Love Score”.
What follows is the very poorly thought-out “Bye Bye Beautiful”, which is a bouncy synth/faux-industrial guitar romp that acts as the band’s chance to kiss off Turunen on record. Holopainen’s usually poetic lyrics pen an inexperienced new singer to dumbly chant “bye, bye beautiful”. Go back where you came from. Second single “Amaranth” is a sure highlight, its tinkling piano, soaring chorus and chugging bottom end managing to be very catchy like the band’s best material, and featuring some sly metaphorical twists that trump the previous number. But you can’t shake the feeling that it sounds awfully like a syncopated rewrite of Within Temptation’s “Hand of Sorrow”.
Where are the pained love songs? Dark Passion Play’s songwriting seems contrived, either whiney or blatantly fantastic, like Tuomas and Co. are trying to make grand statements to match the music but don’t know how. “Sahara” is about the most predictable song about the desert imaginable, and a lackluster vocal performance doesn’t bring any life to it.
“Cadence of Her Last Breath” and “For the Heart I Once Had” both succumb to Celine Dion pop choruses, and Olzon always suffers from the awkward chemistry between her voice and the growl of male vocalist Marco Hietala. He alone takes the mic on the Pantera influenced licks of “Master Passion Greed”, along with Tuomas, for the first time since the band’s debut. The result is the most monotonous drone of a track from an outfit of their kind in recent memory. All stunted thrash, toneless shouting and no substance, it becomes even more cumbersome when the choirs of the chorus swing in.
As soon as that’s over, Dark Passion Play goes for a complete change of pace in “Eva”, a shamelessly overwrought, reach-for-the-handkerchief brand of ballad that made a strong case upon its May release that the new incarnation of Nightwish could never hope to compete with the old one. Showcasing every weepy instrument in the London Session Orchestra, it also subscribes to the tearjerker’s most clichéd and boring structure: each rendition of the chorus timed to be more over-the-top than the last. Besides, it’s never even clear what the band is so sad about:
“Eva sails away/ Dreams the world far away/ In this cruel children’s game/ There’s no friend to call her name”.
It’s not all bad news, though: “The Islander” and “Last of the Wilds” make up a one-two punch of folk metal late in the album’s runtime that’s better than anything on the latest Turisas disc, packed full of rich vocal melodies, acoustic finger-picking, throbbing percussion and traditional Celtic instruments. What is amazing is that Nightwish sound oddly more relaxed delivering a sea shanty than the time they spend in their comfort zone.
After the cookie-cutter “Seven Days to the Wolves”, “Meadows of Heaven” is just as guilty as “Eva” of overproduction and repetition, but sonically it’s really quite easy on the ear. It stretches over some seven minutes as it is; even though Hietala appears to have a gender change in the last two minutes of the piece to return as a female gospel singer, battling it out with Olzon on the last few whimpers of the title.
Of course, whether the individual songs on Dark Passion Play stand up to scrutiny or not is largely irrelevant. The fact is, Nightwish now have a huge potential to develop out of the European markets where they’ve been longtime staples of and become a household name across the UK and America. The band has retained a fierce level of instrumental competence during their three-year studio hiatus that leaves already popular heavyweights like Paramore and Evanescence for dead.
Equally as important is what is missing from Dark Passion Play, and that is their ability to captivate their audience. Tuomas Holopainen has always referred to Nightwish as ‘his band’; a fair comment since he composed all the music and wrote all the lyrics. But the reason they were truly an extraordinary unit was not purely the lyrics but the way Tarja could draw us into the magic whilst belting them. Her absence leaves a gaping emotional hole larger than all the orchestral compensation in the world. Right from “The Poet & the Pendulum” onwards, Tuomas and the rest are playing from a pedestal on Dark Passion Play, defiantly carrying on despite the hardship that always surrounds losing a lead singer whose image is as important to the band as the band itself.
Even if it does eventually become the Finn’s best-selling album yet, which wouldn’t be a surprise, the true fan who can look beyond the impressive musicianship and radio-tailored melodies shouldn’t accept it, and rightfully so. Call that narrow-minded, but that’s what Dark Passion Play amounts to.