Blood and Thunder: Song of Himself

This week in metal, Nightwish remains as grandiose as ever, and the album of the week features Norwegian teens playing surprisingly orthodox '80s thrash.

The longer that the Finnish symphonic metal act Nightwish goes on, the more apparent it becomes that this isn’t so much a band than a vehicle for keyboardist/composer Tuomas Holopainen’s massive ego. This project is far too dysfunctional to be called a “band”: when your last four albums feature three different lead singers, you have a chemistry problem. Bigger, though, is Holopainen’s inability to work with a singer who is strong-willed. This is ironic because this pioneering band, which has always built its music around an operatic diva of a lead singer, can’t handle it when said diva becomes more assertive and wants to have a bigger say in the creative process. Holopainen, always garishly performing with his comically lavish “look at me” keyboard set-up and wearing a top hat, wants an employee not a frontwoman, and heaven help any woman who dares to think she’s the focal point. Beloved, groundbreaking singer Tarja Turunen starts to think for herself? Fired publicly via open letter. Her successor Anette Olzon dared to inconvenience the musicians by becoming pregnant — those poor boys — and spoke her mind, and was unceremoniously fired in the middle of a North American tour. Basically, if you’re a strong-willed woman, life in Nightwish is guaranteed to be pure hell.

Still, what keeps thousands of fans coming back to this damned b(r)and time and again is that the music they create is so consistently good, no matter who is singing. After the 2004 breakthrough Once and the merciless ousting of Turunen the following year, Holopainen made a bold move in hiring the more pop-oriented Olzon. While Olzon struggled to perform Turunen’s challenging, operatic material, she excelled on record during her five-year tenure with the band. While 2007’s Dark Passion Play was an impressive debut, 2011’s extravagant Imaginaerum was an inspired effort by all parties involved, with Holopainen excelling at writing music that fit Olzon’s persona perfectly.

Back when Turunen was dumped, the first name on fans’ lips to replace her was After Forever singer Floor Jansen. Even ten years ago, it felt like adding her would be a slam dunk: not only is Jansen arguably the most versatile woman singer in all of heavy metal, able to switch from arias, to pop singing, to guttural growls on a dime, but her easygoing personality always seemed tailor-made for an outfit like Nightwish. So when she was quickly hired as Olzon’s replacement in the middle of that 2012 tour, it was no surprise at all just how perfectly she fit in. The proof was on 2013’s Showtime, Storytime live album, where she not only owned the Olzon-era material in sensational fashion, but performed such early classics as “She is My Sin” and “Everdream” beautifully and breathlessly, bringing her own personality to the songs in the process.

Best of all for her co-workers, Jansen knows her place. She’s an employee, a supporting player, dutifully singing what she’s given, and her presence has brought a sense of stability to such a persnickety group of musicians. You can feel that comfort within Nightwish on their eighth album Endless Forms Most Beautiful (Nuclear Blast), which came out this week. When Holopainen is on his game, he is one of, if not the best songwriters in symphonic metal, and the sheer quality of the hooks he has written for Jansen in turn brings out the very best in the Dutch singer. She consequently turns in her finest performance on record to date, breathing new life into Nightwish in the process.

It’s not without a slightly sketchy start, though. At first, longtime Nightwish fans are left wondering how much Holopainen will keep plagiarizing himself, with “Shudder Before the Beautiful” sounding eerily close to “Dark Chest of Wonders” and “Élan” feeling like a lightweight rehash of “Nemo”. Thankfully, the hooks of those songs, however familiar, are gigantic enough to be cautiously forgiven, and besides, the album quickly rights itself with a bevy of sterling compositions that combine heaviness, garishness, and catchiness like few other bands can equal. “Weak Fantasy” and “Yours is an Empty Hope” is a very welcome excursion into darker territory, the rhythm section of Marco Hietala and Kai Hahto sounding thunderous, complementing Jansen’s commanding presence.

The next five songs hold their own exceptionally well. “Our Decades in the Sun” is a refreshingly restrained ballad, while “My Walden” is one of the album’s more creative successes, built around a unique vocal hook and typically florid lyrics (“Weaving my wings from many-colored yarns, flying higher, higher, higher”). The album then comes to quite a rousing climax with the title track, “Edema Ruh”, and “Alpenglow”, which despite treading very familiar ground to fans, still execute that Nightwish sound impeccably.

For Holopainen, however, an excellent 48-minute album is nowhere near good enough. A victim of self-indulgence just as often as a writer of fabulous songs, he’s a man whose ego constantly needs satisfying, and there clearly was no one at Nuclear Blast to call out his “bullshit” moments. Not content to let the album end on “Alpenglow”’s high note, he extends it by a full half hour, padding it out first with the maudlin “The Eyes of Sharbat Gula” followed by the spectacular failure “The Greatest Show on Earth”. Although he’s scored a couple gems in “Ghost Love Score” and “Song of Myself”, when it comes to epic compositions Holopainen fails far more often than not. However, the Charles Darwin-inspired “The Greatest Show on Earth” is a new nadir, a 25 mish-mash of song fragments and orchestral arrangements so over-the-top they rival the late Michael Kamen’s most mediocre moments. By the time you get to the sounds of elephants, whales, and monkeys, and Richard Dawkins’ mannered narration, you’ve had enough. It is a disaster of a song, turning an album from an instant year-end list contender to an inconsistent, frustrating piece of work. Holopainen might have found the perfect supporting player, but he is still very far from getting over himself.

(Listen to Nightwish’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful on Spotify.)


Album of the Week

Inculter, Persisting Devolution (Edged Circle)

This Norwegian band so deftly captures that filthy sound of early-‘80s thrash metal that you’d think they’re a bunch of old relics from back then, but nope, they’re all teenagers who happen to understand that unhinged, loose aesthetic that made bands like Razor and Destruction so unique 30 years ago. The drummer is 15 years old, for crying out loud. This debut full-length is nasty to the point where you can practically smell the filth, the trio showing impressive musical and technical ability but loosening up enough so that the whole thing wobbles and wavers, somehow never falling apart. Metal doesn’t always have to be tight; sometimes it’s best to go by feel instead of a damned click track, and this album captures that feel perfectly. What a discovery this is. (Listen on Spotify.)


Also out this week:

Katatonia, Sanctitude (K-Scope)

How does Katatonia, who is getting increasingly mellower with every release, follow up the understated, minimally rearranged Dethroned & Uncrowned? By stripping down their sound even more, of course. At this rate, Katatonia will wind up consisting of a one-string guitar and triangle before long, and after that just Jonas Renkse humming quietly. This “unplugged” performance recorded in London last year does indeed sound as lovely as you’d expect; new acoustic arrangements of older tracks like “Day”, “Gone”, “Teargas” and “Evidence” fit well alongside the band’s more recent work, with Renkse continuing to show tremendous emotional power on vocals. It’s all very nice, but my goodness, guys, it’s been years since you’ve turned up the volume. Part of Katatonia’s great appeal is the way the heaviness of the music offset the emotive melodies, and it’s high time the band returned to that. (Listen on Spotify.)

Prong, Songs From the Black Hole (eOne / SPV)

Covers albums are only a rung above the “re-recorded hits” gimmick, tossed-off, contractual obligation releases that are more “miss” than “hit”. This one by Tommy Victor and Prong, is largely in the latter category, thank goodness, a fun and eclectic mix of tunes that showcase the band’s wide array of influences. You get vintage hardcore (Bad Brains, Discharge), goth (Sisters of Mercy), post-punk (Killing Joke, Fugazi), as well as some nice surprises like a robust rendition of Hüsker Dü’s “Don’t Want to Know if You Are Lonely” and a faithful run-through of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer”. There’s nothing here to compel anyone who’s not a Prong fan to buy the album, but nor is it a waste of time either. (Listen on Spotify.)

Ufomammut, Ecate (Neurot)

The Italian band has long been one of the more interesting acts on the post-metal landscape, but more often than not they’ve been guilty of overplaying their hand, stretching album lengths too far beyond what would hold any sane person’s attention. Double albums, 44-minute single tracks, records that stretch well past an hour long: it’s the sort of thing that feels like overkill, especially when it comes to the slow, droning sounds that Ufomammut have made themselves known for. So it’s an absolute delight that the band’s seventh studio full-length is also their most concise and focused in a very long time, a crisp 45 minutes that showcase every one of their strengths, from the crushing, Neurosis-derived riffs, to the psychedelic/space rock influences that add atmosphere to the music, to those meditative moments amidst all that sonic destruction. They’ve never sounded better, and considering their reputation, that’s extremely high praise. (Listen on Spotify.)

We Are Harlot, We Are Harlot (Roadrunner)

Singer Danny Worsnop had always flirted with ‘80s cock rock with Asking Alexandria, but the English kiddiecore band’s limitations left the whole thing feeling half-baked. Now that he’s out of the band and collaborating with guitarist Jeff George, though, he’s able to focus on the kind of energetic, melodic rock ‘n’ roll that he wanted to, and the pair do an admirable job on We Are Harlot’s debut. The best thing to compare it to would be Slash’s work with Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators; in other words, nothing that’ll set the world afire, but good, serviceable, at times surprisingly fun glam/sleaze rock that captures the essence of the late-’80s with a modern twist. At the very least it’s certainly better than anything Worsnop did with his former band. (Listen on Spotify.)

Where Evil Follows, Portable Darkness (Moribund)

Featuring guitarist Toby Knapp and multi-instrumentalist/singer Dean Sternberg, this new project will immediately appeal to fans of Iced Earth and Into Eternity, which considering Knapp’s work with Onward and Sternberg’s past work with Into Eternity and Ashes of Ares, isn’t much of a surprise. So in other words, what you’re getting is a terrific dose of heavy melody, robust enough to show some extremity but always bringing the vocal flamboyance as well. It’s the kind of back-to-basics heavy metal that always feels so timeless, and it’s impeccably done on such standouts as “They Came For Us”, “Reborn”, and “Lifting the Veil”. Also, bonus points for the inspired decision to cover Black Sabbath’s highly underrated “Disturbing the Priest”. It’s easy for little albums like this to get lost in the shuffle of new releases, but if you like melody in your metal — and who in their right mind doesn’t? — you do not want to miss out on this one. (Listen on Spotify.)


Head Above Ground

It’s a slow week for the heavy stuff on the US album chart, with Oceano’s tepid Ascendants scoring the best metal debut of the week at number 194 (1,650 sold). For all the hubbub about Liturgy’s excellent new album The Ark Work, the talk hasn’t translated to sales much at all, with a paltry 722 sold in its first week. Considering the handful of high-profile releases this week, next week’s numbers should be a lot more interesting. (Thanks to Metal Insider, as always.)


Shameless Nostalgia

Keel’s second album The Right to Rock turned 30 years old this past week. The band might be considered a hair metal obscurity today, but back then the LA band, led by former Steeler singer Ron Keel, had a very good thing going. Their new record was co-written and produced by Gene Simmons of KISS, the quaintly anti-authoritarian video for “The Right to Rock” was getting great airplay, and they were getting good coverage by the glossy magazines. While the songwriting tends to scrape the bottom of the Sunset Strip cliché barrel (“Your electric love shocks me through the night”), the album does hold up as one of the more aggressive-sounding pieces from the LA glam era. Simmons actually makes a big difference on the production end, giving the album a bite that was disappearing more and more as glam metal became glossier by the minute.

The Right to Rock would kick off a decent little run for Keel, yielding two more albums that would crack the top 100 in America, not to mention one of the better covers of Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” you’ll hear. The band would never quite score that one album that would put them over the top, ultimately imploding in 1989, but they were always better than the average hair band back in the day, and The Right to Rock will always be their one small, defining moment. (Listen on Spotify.)


Track of the Week

The second I heard KEN Mode a decade ago, my first thought was, Man, these guys love the Jesus Lizard. My second thought was, This band totally has to record with Steve Albini someday. On the Winnipeg band’s sixth album Success (out 16 June on Season of Mist), it’s finally happened: the man responsible for the legendary sounds of Songs About Fucking, Surfer Rosa, and In Utero steps in and gives KEN Mode’s music that extra dose of power and potency it always needed. Tracked live for the first time in the band’s history, the album is a marvel, the trio toning down the overt metal influences for something more derivative of bands like Drive Like Jehu and Cop Shoot Cop, leaning more and more towards the noise end of the band’s musical spectrum. “Blessed”, the album’s heaviest track, came out this week, and is a total must-hear. Play it loud.


Blabbermouth Headline of the Week

Horns Up: Cobalt, Slayer, Castrator.

Horns Down: Tidal, Vince Neil, egomaniacal Finns.

Follow Blood & Thunder’s rolling 2015 metal tracks playlist on Spotify.

Follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy.