Over the Hills and Far Away
US release date: 30 November 2004
UK release date: Available as import
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Amy Lee should really go European. While her modest little goth metal outfit Evanescence continues to rake in the sales, her cadre of nu-metal hacks playing behind her show no creativity, and the proliferation of weepy piano ballads on Fallen is the wrong way to go. The music is simply too tame; a great voice like that requires much more bombastic arrangements in the songs, not to mention a lot more stylistic dexterity than her band provides. Female-fronted, gothic-tinged symphonic metal is huge worldwide right now, and listeners are starting to notice that veteran bands like Lacuna Coil and Nightwish are showing their American peers how to do the whole shtick properly. Following the lead of symphonic innovators Therion and the vastly underrated Dutch band The Gathering (led by the astonishing voice of Anneke van Giersbergen), both bands continue take melodic metal to a higher level.
While Italy's Lacuna Coil base their highly accessible sound around the male/female vocal interaction of singers Andreo Ferro and Cristina Scabbia, Finland's Nightwish is centered around the vocal feats of Tarja Turonen, and bolstered by some of the most devilishly over-the-top songwriting to come around this decade. A classically trained soprano, Turonen is a star in Scandinavia, and with the 2004 release of their fifth album, Once, Nightwish has become a smashing success, topping charts worldwide, achieving huge crossover success. North America remains the band's one big untapped market, but people over here are starting to catch on.
On past albums like 2000's Wishmaster and 2002's Century Child, Turonen's soaring vocals were nearly always piercingly operatic, coming close to overwhelming the rest of the band. However, on Once, she tones things down enough for all five members to be on the same level. The songs continuing to use plenty of classic "power metal" influences and they incorporate orchestral flourishes. Turonen's restraint is what makes this album work so well, as she opts for understated singing more often, instead of bludgeoning the listener with her vocal skills, and the result is the band's most accessible piece of work yet. In addition, the importance of keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen, the band's principal songwriter, cannot be overlooked. Possessing a remarkable ear for vocal hooks and melodies, his compositions differ greatly from those written by guitarists, as he places much more importance in sweeping choruses instead of monstrous riffs. This suits Turonen's singing style perfectly, and makes the band's sound so distinguishable.
Nightwish is in top form on much of the album, as epics like "Dark Chest of Wonders", "Planet Hell", and "Ghost Love Score" blend progressive qualities of contemporary Scandinavian metal with Holopainen's distinctive melodic sensibility. Meanwhile both the theatrical "The Siren" and the more immediate sounding single "Wish I Had an Angel" (the closest the band has ever come to mainstream rock) boast excellent duets between Turonen and bassist/singer Harco Hietala. However, it's the smash single "Nemo" that shows just how great Nightwish can be. Built around a simple keyboard hook, it sounds simple and majestic at the same time, as Turonen gives her most charming, restrained vocal performance to date, the song erupting in a beautiful, soaring choruses that most rock bands would kill for. The album's only weakness is the stumbling "Creek Mary's Blood", in which Holopainen's obvious obsession with Native American culture becomes to heavy-handed to bear. Aside from that one stumble, Once is a major step forward for the band, quite possibly their best album to date, and one of 2004's finest metal releases.
Originally released in Europe in 2001, Nightwish's Over the Hills and Far Away EP has obviously been released Stateside to cash in on the band's growing success, but it does offer new fans a glimpse of the band's early years, boasting a whopping 51 minutes of music, a rarity for a single. Older metal aficionados will be immediately drawn to the title track, a faithful cover of Gary Moore's Celtic-tinged song, a tragically overlooked gem from the late '80s. In fact, the song is a complete note-for-note rehash of the original, but it's performed with such joyful verve, any lack of originality is forgivable. The upbeat riffing of "10th Man Down" and the ballad "Away" are two quality B-sides, but especially enjoyable are the six live tracks that append the disc. Recorded in Finland in late 2000, the band roars through tracks from their first three albums, highlighted by Wishmaster's title track (lovably introduced by Turonen as, "Weesh-mass-ter!") and their show-stopping performance of the fan favorite "Walking in the Air".
Judging by the band's recent sold-out North American tour, the hunger for some well-crafted melodic heavy metal continues to be on the rise, and as Nightwish's cult following on this side of the Atlantic continues to grow, it will only be a matter of time before the band becomes even more of a dominant force in the genre than they already are. In the meantime, kids, toss aside those Evanescence albums, and try out the real deal instead.