Taking Their Passion Play to the Road: An Interview with Nightwish

Photo: Ville Juurikkala

If bassist Marco Hietala laughs easily, it's because his band's back where they want to be after a period of gloom and change.

You can tell when a band has reached the height of their creativity and success when everyone is either in love with or completely indifferent to their new work. Such is the case with Finland's Nightwish. In many ways, it's a little bewildering that the quintet has even made it to here. Comprised of four male heshers hailing from the tiny town of Kitee and a female lead singer from the neighboring country of Sweden, Anette Olzon, the band's high-octane mix of dramatic symphonies and craggy horn-raising metal has been brought to perfect unity for more than a decade now, taking first Europe, then the rest of the world, by storm.

The latest such addition to their catalog is Dark Passion Play, released last September. If there were only one word to describe the band's sixth album, it would be vast. Cramming more ambition into metal's age-old tritones than should ever be allowed, more poetic imagery in its verses than would ever be advisable for what is still, after all, rock 'n' roll at heart, Nightwish have somehow released their most artistically overflowing record yet, and managed to usher in a grand new era for the band, not least because they have a new singer behind the wheel.

Replacing long-time frontwoman - the classically trained, angelic Tarja Turunen – Anette Olzon finds herself piping alongside a full orchestra on every track, a choir on every second one. The reformed group, headed by keyboardist and songwriter Tuomas Holopainen, have made a commitment to supporting it that is equally as daunting: a two-year-long world tour, taking them across the US, to their homeland of Scandinavia, as well as Japan, Australia, Israel, and England, to mention a few. The night I talk to bassist and back-up vocalist Marco Hietala, though, when he and his bandmates are set to hit the stage at San Antonio, Texas, he maintains that there is a renewed sense of spirit running through them brought on by the welcome new blood within their ranks.

"I really can't complain," he quips. "The roads are long, so there's a lot of time to kill, but the shows are amazing. That's what keeps the whole thing going and they've been going really well." He laughs easily. "We're just doing what we can to survive ourselves." This would doubtless be especially true for Olzon; in the studio, her vocals were merely tacked on to a finished instrumental track, but onstage she is faced with a punishing live schedule, performing every night alongside the rest of the band. In response, however, Hietala insists in his thick Finnish accent, "She's been gaining confidence from every show ... As far as what she has brought to the band, now we have somebody who is interested in doing these things, who is enthusiastic. It's a lot better image right now".

With that last sentence, he is referring to former leading lady Turunen, whose acrimonious split from the group via an open letter in late 2005 caused rampant media speculation concerning the group's future. Dark Passion Play speaks about the break-up directly in two tracks, "Bye Bye Beautiful" and "Master Passion Greed", and I couldn't help quizzing Hietala about the motivation behind their recording.

"This is a matter of exercising your own personal demons," he considers hesitantly. "With the 'Bye Bye Beautiful', it's a way of saying goodbye. In a way, that song is not actually lyrically as aggressive as it sounds … the whole lyric, I think, is more regretful, it's sad.' As for "Master Passion Greed", Marco sighs heavily then continues, "I guess [it] really comes out of this sense of just hitting your head to a wall every time you try to arrange something, to work out something."

Though Nightwish are hardly the first band to lose a lead singer at the crown of their fame, one wonders how he looks back on the event now, and whether he still keeps in touch with Turunen, given that she has now kick-started a solo career to rival their own? "No, I haven't seen or talked to her since the split," he admits flatly. "We're just a little bit sad, of course, because at the time we were there and things were good, it was a good situation -- we were friends, no matter what who might say. But I think we really, really had a great respect for each other. It's just … one of the strangest mysteries of this life, how things slide so far. It's a lousy thing. I mean, I have no hard feelings about the album or anything, I just wish that she'll be successful". He pauses. "And yeah … I would like to be friends, one day again".

The bulk of it penned in the months after her infamous removal, when the band was without a lead singer, Dark Passion Play, as the title suggests, also reflects in more allusive ways the gloom in Holopainen's life at the time. The album runs with themes of the loss of a loved one, coping with misery, holding on to treasured memories, and ultimately emerging with hope, both personally and vicariously, through tracks like "The Poet & the Pendulum", a fourteen-minute sonnet, "Amaranth", first single "Eva", "For the Heart I Once Had", and "Meadows of Heaven". Hietala agrees. "I think it represents what the band is about big time," he says. "I mean, it's still [got] the epic side, with all the bigger-than-life things, with the orchestras and everything, but I guess it's just because of the lyrical side that Tuomas wrote that makes the whole album more intimate, more personal." Not very happy, though. "No, it's not. But then again", he muses, "I think the music has a way of turning these things over. When you do something which is basically bleak and dark and sad, how it affects people is that whenever it takes you quite off from this world, it turns the whole thing on top of itself. Which is, I think, one of the greatest things you can do with music."

Indeed, one has only to listen to the triumphant chorus and cryptic songwriting of "Amaranth" or the effortless folk leanings making up the one-two punch of "The Islander" and "Last of the Wilds" to know that Nightwish are still resolutely unique and quite unlike any other rock band. An excerpt from the former:

Caress the one, the never-fading, rain in

Your heart -- the tears of snow white sorrow,

Caress the one, the hiding Amaranth, in a land

Of the day break.

I can't help but to ask Hietala where his friend draws this brilliant inspiration from when writing lyrics. "I guess mainly from his own life", he replies, after thinking for a few seconds. "I mean ... I think we have pretty much the same view of writing things. You can get an inspiration from anywhere, from little things that happen to you or big. You start out from a point and you build up a story and sometimes the story is actual things of your life, sometimes it can be just ... a story. The main thing is: that man is clever." He chuckles. "He has his way with words."

Hietala rapidly becomes more guarded, though, when I ask him to decipher the lyrics above. "If the writer himself doesn't want to interpret his lyrics I don't know if I should," he cautions, "But I think that it's a very personal statement." Right. About what? "Oh man, you really should ask him. Like I said, it's a very personal statement, but I don't think the guy's as sad as he lets out in that one. I think I've seen him smiling quite a lot in the tour bus lately. I think we've had some pretty good moments here, because basically we're just ... a bunch of Finnish redneck boys riding a tour bus in the middle of America," he says, sounding amused.

As show-time for him and his other four bandmates fast approaches for that night, I ask him in closing what he's enjoying most right now about playing a part in the new era of Nightwish and the subsequent trek to all corners of the Earth. "The best thing of this is really that we are back on the road after two years of just ... sitting here and checking out all this bullshit the media has been writing about us, and the stories, and blah, blah, blah. All that, just, useless stuff. To get to the road and be touring again ... that's good," he responds, sounding genuinely enthused at the thought. I promise to try not to write bullshit. He laughs.

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