Review Summary: Symphonical elements taken to the max, this disc features some of the best parts of the metal genre as a whole. Despite sometimes having too commercial overtones, Nightwish nevertheless prove that they are musical masters of their genre and this album hel8 of 9 thought this review was well written
A lot of people seem to enjoy daydreaming and far-off fantasy worlds where everything is comprised of adventures, suited to the dreamer's taste and emotions. No other place is a safe haven like a dream. Nowhere else is there a better feeling of security and love available than in the worlds you create yourself, from whence you can banish all evil and live in peace happily ever after.
Remember the first word with which such a tale begins....
Coincidentally (or maybe not!), Once also happens to be the title of a Nightwish album, who happen to make a lot of songs about, you guessed it right (if you didn't, why are you reading this review? Go listen to Nightwish!), fairytale stories and dreams and fantastic elements. Now, this is a stylistic trademark inherent to a genre of music also called Power Metal, to which the earlier works of Nightwish definitely belong, although the album Century Child began to have transitional tendencies towards the more symphonic elements that the mastermind behind this band, Tuomas Holopainen, tried to include in the music, and definitely was influenced by himself.
Once takes all this symphonic stuff right to the max. Our beloved ears are treated to a FULL ORCHESTRA, the same one that was used to record the Lord of the Rings soundtrack as I recall. That's some pretty impressive stuff Tuomas got lined up there, because we all know the success of the Lord of the Rings (again, an epic story in a fictional world encompassing creatures that could only come out of the wickedest and also most lovingly of minds). And on top of this, Tarja is on the mic for the last time, and we all know Tarja's voice: more divine singing than this woman has delivered in the past sounds rather impossible to me. I won't deny that I am a fan of Tarja's vocal stylings and believe that Tarja has been one of the key factors, if not the most important factor that has driven Nightwish to the success that it has. And indeed, commercially speaking, Once was a great success. Selling a ridiculous amount of copies all around the world, and going platinum a silly amount of times in the band's native country Finland, even topping the British charts: we look at a band and an album here of monstrous capacities.
Now, I will say here that I think that Once is an excellent disc and indeed, another worthy addition to what Nightwish has to offer. Tracks such as Ghost Love Score (the moment Tuomas penned this, he must have not realised what a work of majesty he laid down), Planet Hell (simply extraordinarily angry and evil, with excellent dual vocals) and Kuolema Tekee Taiteilijan (can you say tear-jerking ballad twenty times?) should stand as great testimonies to the world class musicianship this band has to offer. But to say that this disc is the best thing since sliced bread just goes one step too far.
In addition to the best tracks in the Nightwish archives, some of the worst tracks can also be found on here. I Wish I Had An Angel is too overtly commercial, an excellent song to choose as a single as it will boost sales and rake the money in from the fat goth teen chicks all over the world, but musically it is quite the letdown. The drums used here sound like or maybe even are a drum machine, which is really way below Jukka's capabilities; although his performance on Planet Hell and Dead Gardens is awesome, this is below his stature in my opinion. Jukka is not an average power metal drummer and I think he should try to incorporate that into every song on the album, and not lag. The angriness in this song sounds fake, Tarja just doesn't get the emotion across with her voice and although Marco sounds very grumpy and pissed off (he usually does when he sings, very nice recruiting there Tuomas), somehow his voice is too high-pitched. Not to mention the beat is more like techno than metal. Not that I dislike Techno as a genre, but it's way too crude for the delicate music Nightwish has set out to make.
Nemo suffers from the same disease of commercialisitis, probably the worst ballad Nightwish have ever done. I find this to be one of the worst and not the best songs Nightwish have ever done, it sounds too simple and made up, more like gothic metal than symphonic metal, and the orchestra should be used a lot more on this track, it would have benefitted a lot from the neoclassical additions that Tuomas has used to augment some of the other songs on this album to celestial heights. Again, Tarja fails to deliver the same emotion she really can put into her songs: Nightwish are being sloppy.
However, the opener Dark Chest Of Wonders set off the album on a very different note. The upbeat tempo, fantasy lyrics, orchestral additions and Tarja's convincing vocal performance make this to be not just a typical standout Nightwish track, it is also one of the best opening songs they have ever done (with the exception of perhaps Stargazers.) Great, kicks you right into an album. Nightwish haven't lost their magic touch; they are just using it too sparingly.
Planet Hell is an aural orgasm with lyrics about hell and the evil of mankind; this has to be one of my favourite tracks of all time. From the moment I heard this I was in love with it. Jukka's intro drumming, Marco's gruff vocal performance contrasted with Tarja, the symphony blaring behind; the keyboards deliver an awesome atmosphere, Emppu's deep and more distorted riffing; it is hard to not give anything to this but positive praise. I've thought long and hard, but nothing bad can really be said about this track: maybe the only way you could not like this if you hate this band or operatically trained singers, and then, well, you have no right to speak, because you aren't into this band at all.
Creek Mary's Blood and Ghost Love Score are this album's twin epics. While the former will sometimes degenerate into wankery and overly dramatical overtones, with the absolutely boring Native American Chant at the end as the absolute lowpoint(yay, words spoken in a language nobody can understand!), the latter again is a work of majesty that will probably span a huge part of my (and many people with me) lifetime being played due to the grandiosity of its composition. I've never heard Tarja deliver a better vocal performance. The orchestra augments this track, creating a great atmosphere of sadness. Jukka once again shows that he really is just that bit better than the rest of power metal drummers, Emppu delivers some nice stuff on the guitar, Tuomas' keyboards are just out of the wazoo and well, Marco, I suppose you could say this isn't his track to stand out, but his bass parts fit the bill, so it's all good. Spanning ten minutes, with one of the most haunting choruses I have ever heard, this is where musicianship, knowledge, fantasy, emotion, and sadness meet in one ten-minute jewel of a track. As if Nightwish hadn't done enough compositions that could be labeled imposing, this one just tops it all off. The icing on the Nightwish cake.
The Siren is another standout track, lyrics about the famous Sirens that Odysseus tried to avoid on his journey back home to Ithaca (Nightwish know their classical mythology, and I happen to love Greek mythology), Marco shows his voice isn't just rough, he really has a nice and rounded edge to his voice, he can actually sing without sounding like a total wanker (unlike most power metal vocalists), and he has his balls left intact thanks to Tarja handling the high-pitched vocals. It also makes for a very harmonious combination with Tarja's crooning in the background (isn't that just the most sexy thing?).
What I also notice on this record is how Tuomas' playing is rarely noticable on this album (unlike on for example Oceanborn), but how every effect he uses fits the song to perfect extents usually; on every one of the standout tracks I've mentioned he never solos or goes into wankering territory, but everything completes each other like Yin and Yang which again clarifies for me why Nightwish deserve to be called THE symphonic metal band of the century.
Dead Gardens' sound is very similar to the Siren, I feel like it is trying to rip off the awesomeness that is expressed in that track, but the chorus redeems everything and the drum bit at the end is just... wow. Musical skill from Jukka. I wish that everyone who says that Power metal has no grain of musicality listens to this band, because in my opinion Nightwish are the total opposite of unskilled. Although the song doesn't really do anything for me, that is just once again testimony to the quality of this band.
Romanticide is a song in the vein of I Wish I Had An Angel, but its rough edges sound more credible than Wish I Had An Angel, and Marco and Tarja again deliver a good dual performance, something Nightwish seems to do a lot: using two totally different singing styles to combine into musical harmony and allowing for a lot of versatility in songwriting and lyrics. One of the good things about Nightwish is that on every album you can hear what album it is from, and what its roots are, but that you know that no single song is identical to the next: the band displays enough variety to never degenerate into boring wankery.
Kuolema Tekee Taiteilijan and Higher than Hope close the album off as twin ballads, the former is completely sung in Finnish and is just Tarja and the orchestra; sounds typically un-metal, but very artistically done and also reflected in the title, of which the translation reads: "Death of an Artist." It sounds really tear-jerking and has to be your cup of tea, but I find this to be an excellent track; just has to be your cup of tea.
Higher than Hope smells and reeks of filler though, I find that this song doesn't really add anything to the album that we already know, although the chorus is pretty awesome, it isn't better than typical Nightwish, and seems not to really benefit from many of the recording tools Tuomas has used to escalate this album to great heights sometimes. Not a bad track per se, but nothing really noteworthy either.
If you happen to have a special version of this album, you will also notice that you have been granted the opportunity to listen to two bonus tracks, the first of which is White Night Fantasy (another boring ballad, does absolutely nothing), and Live To Tell The Tale, which features a nice chorus, and Tuomas' opening keyboards really stand out for me. It's a good thing these two are bonus tracks, because they can't really live up to the high standard set by some songs on here.
Overall, this album is a great disc, contains some excellent songs that really showcase all the positive aspects of this band, really enjoyable, a highly recommended listen. And for all the people trying to get into metal who think that the genre is all about speed and grit and aggression: you're wrong. This band shows with its entire catalogue that you can also do it in a different way, metal music isn't just violence, it can be very delicate and well-crafted, Nightwish in my opinion show one of the ends of the Metal genre, which is just the most varied music genre there is; ranges from meaningless noise to extremely creative, to sad, to satanic to simply funny and upbeat, and Nightwish just represents a couple of these extremes with a very original sound and some very unique elements. A highly recommended band and disc.