When ice maiden Tarja Turunen left Finnish operatic dreamweavers Nightwish, many mourned the band's imminent demise. Who could possibly replace such a distinct and unique voice, such an obviously strong focal point for a band's image and output? When the same band recruited a - gasp - pop singer, these same naysayers nodded sagely and stroked their immaculately oiled goatees. Everything was proceeding as they had foreseen.
When the same band then released an album, 2007's 'Dark Passion Play', that had plenty of sweat on the brow but precious little of the shimmering beauty and gargantuan bombast of its predecessor (2004's lavishly epic 'Once'), they appeared to be fully vindicated in their doomsay. But they hadn't forecast what would come next.
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In simple terms, 'Imaginaerum' knocks most of Nightwish's previously recorded work into a cocked hat. They've never managed to record an album this sleek, this convincing, and this cohesive, whoever has been at the mic, yet you have to say that diminutive throatress Anette Olzon is the absolute star of the show here. Tarja who?
In all honesty, I was happy to accept the judgement already passed on this band. 'Amaranth' aside, there was nothing on the last album that grabbed me, and I listened to this purely out of courtesy to a record company that actually still bothers to send hard copies of albums out to writers instead of impersonal, info-poor download links.
I didn't expect much. And after opening scene-setter 'Taikatalvi' had come and gone, I still didn't. But then 'Storytime' erupts from the speakers, and it's on
for young and old. A completely convincing hit single, 'Storytime' weaves elements of Abba and Metallica together to devastating effect, leaving no stone unturned in its efforts to get the hairs on the back of your neck standing to attention. Its chorus, once heard, will stay in your ears forever, thanks to the first of Olzon's match-winning performances.
She does even better on the sultry blues of 'Slow, Love, Slow', a jazzy - yes JAZZY - cabaret-style number that, if a video is ever filmed for it, will surely feature Olzen singing in a deserted bar whilst the bartender sweeps the floor and sets chairs atop tables. Evocative, haunting, memorable, and completely surprising - this song has it all.
'I Want My Tears Back' is more standard Nightwish fare, a stridently catchy stomper that will settle the pulses of longtime fans shuffling nervously in the shadows, waiting for something familiar to get their teeth into. It's good, but not great.
'Scaretale' follows much the same path, but somehow it sounds bigger, looks shinier, and is made of better material. It's a sprawling, headbanging, entertaining tour de force forming the centerpiece of the album and delighting with its sheer dynamic force. This, indeed, is a dark passion play, featuring scary fairground organs, massed choirs, neck-snapping riffage, and that woman again playing a blinder in the vocal booth.
'Scaretale' morphs perfectly into the stirring instrumental 'Arabesque', which must surely end up somewhere down the line as the incidental music to a Circue Du Soleil-style acrobat routine. Again, it's a massively accomplished, evocative piece of music - if you've any sense of imagination, you won't fail to be transported by this magical music.
At this point, you have to pause for a moment and doff your cap to Tuomas Holopainen. Anette Olzon may be the star of 'Imaginaerum', but Holopainen is the master manipulator, the not-so-evil svengali pulling the strings behind the scenes. It is he who has given Olzon the chance to shine with this near-flawless set of songs, and he needs to be handsomely acclaimed for that. Most bands would be happy to wind down from the obvious peak of 'Scaretale'/'Arabesque', but not Holopainen.
Next up is the gobsmacking 'Turn Loose The Mermaids'. Again, on the face of it, a by-numbers Nightwish-meets-The-Corrs Celtic-tinged bagatelle, the sort of thing Turunen would have revelled in, but nothing special. But then the band throws in a sumptuous Spaghetti Western-styled mid-section that turns the song on its head, and leaves you gasping again at the splendid audacity on show here.
'Rest Calm' features some reassuringly muscular riffage to go with an excellent vocal from bassist Marco Hietala, the song again returning the album to more familiar surrounds for the band. Guitarist Emppu Vuorinen takes centre stage for a nice solo, but the band allows the song to die slowly when a dead stop might have prevented the slight loss of momentum suffered here. That said, the slow fade makes the gentle start of the haunting 'The Crow, The Owl And The Dove' seem much more natural, so what do I know? A beautiful acoustic ballad that sees the band again drifting into Eurovision territory before things get a bit more electric for the bridge, this is another song that will surely be a massive hit single - especially in Mainland Europe - if there's any justice.
'Last Ride Of The Day', whilst stirring, is pretty much 'Over The Hills And Far Away' rewritten with an Orffian chorus tacked on the top, but it'll set pulses racing in the live arena and is still enough to get the neck nodding and the fist clenching. Vuorinen comes up trumps again here with some niftily fleet-fingered soloing. Which leaves us with two tracks to go, one stunning, the other, well, filling...
First up is the band's epic interpretation of Walt Whitman's 'Song Of Myself'. Easily the most ambitious, cinematic event in the band's canon, the first half is given over to some traditional - some might say rather prosaic - bombast, whilst the latter half, given over to a minimally-scored reading of verses from the poem, is strangely moving, and always fascinating. It might not be completely successful, but the song is definitely worthy of congratulation, the band deserved of applause for having the guts to attempt something so fraught with possible pitfalls and opportunities for carpers to shout "pretention!". It's a massive achievement.
'Imaginaerum' ends with an orchestrally-scored reprise of themes from all that's gone before - it's unnecessary but inoffensive, and you can do without it.
Not perfect by any means then but, in this reviewer's eyes (and ears), this is the ultimate Nightwish album. Indispensable stuff.
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