Review Summary: There's a lot of potential here, but it ultimately falls flat. Overall, I found it a frustrating album with as many ups and downs as the rollercoaster track in the artwork.
While not a concept album, Imaginaerum is meant to accompany the not-yet-released movie of the same name. The story is of an old composer who suffers dementia and is trying reclaim those memories of his life that are most important to him. While I can't speak for how exactly the music from the album is going to be used in the film, the album was designed to be complete in and of itself. That is made apparent, as the album has an intro piece and even a closing part that uses the melodies from all over the album. But how is it as a standalone musical work? I'll get into that after a short bit of history on my past experiences with the band.
I first discovered Nightwish in high school, stumbling upon their cover of Phantom of the Opera. Symphonic metal was new to me, and I quickly became a fan. As I got older, my musical taste began to shift towards more technical and progressive artists and Nightwish gradually cycled out of my daily playlist. However, the buzz of their new release (and its movie) encouraged me to dust off my old mp3s (?) and get my Finnish Symphonic Power Metal on. After re-familiarizing myself with their work I popped in Imaginaerum and let the magical journey into gothic fantasy begin.
First of all, let me get out of the way that Imaginaerum is one of the most frustrating albums I've listened to in quite a while. That's probably the strongest emotion I feel when listening to this record. There are a lot of amazing moments, but there are also so many missed opportunities. I actually found myself yelling at my car's tape player in disbelief at some point. It was as if my sense of enjoyment was actually the roller coaster track on the album artwork.
The album starts strong. The first track, Taikatalvi, is more of a poem, and while it struck me as odd at first, I think it sets the mood well. The track afterwards, Storytime, is their big single this time around, and one of the album's strongest songs. I wasn't too fond of the single version I saw prereleased on Youtube, but a few listens to the album version cured that. Ghost River comes next, and is another solid, if typical, Nightwish track, with a memorable chorus. Slow, Love, Slow seemed like an experimental voyage into new waters for Nightwish -- one I'm convinced didn't go so well. The instrumentals are fine, it's just the vocals... they don't work. Now before you all come after me with pitchforks, I am not a Tarja fanboy. I think Anette Olson does Nightwish well, and both singers have their strengths and weaknesses. However, that being said, Anette's accent and delivery didn't come out to well on this track or some of the others. I actually laughed out loud during Turn Loose The Mermaids (I can't type that name with straight face).
"Here, weary traveler rest your wand. Sleep the journey from your Aiyeeeeeeeeeeeeeeese"
Not all of its bad, though. She's a talented singer to say the least. I can't help but like what Anette does on Scaretale. It's probably my favorite track on the album. The strangeness just works for me, and the hilarious Disney-villain-esque singing part in the middle is great. The silliness in the voices is over the top but I think that's justified, considering the track was meant to be representative of a little boy's fears.
The more typical metal tracks on the record like I Want My Tears Back and Last Ride of the Day are almost formulaic at this point to me. They're more of the same Nightwish. I Want My Tears Back makes use of some neat flute playing, reminiscent of Dark Passion Play's Last Of The Wilds, but it feels held down by abrupt switches between the verses and the choruses. Even when the solo comes around, I feel like the awesome is cut short by a figurative Arnold yelling "GET BACK TO THE CHORUS". The same goes for Rest Calm. That songs builds up beautifully for the solo, which, while nothing complex, hits really well. Unfortunately, as soon as I get into it, it's over. This wouldn't bother me so much if Rest Calm didn't have the gall to almost algorithmically refrain the chorus over and over. They beat this dead horse with every part of the orchestra, switching between different sections/instruments. Tuomas Holopainen claims the end of the song gets "totally out of hand". Why couldn't they do that for the solo and cut the stupid ending chorus refrains?! -frustration-
I think my biggest beef with this record stems from Nightwish's tendency to focus more on mainstream sensibilities. I feel like there's some inexplicable pop rock force deep within their songwriting that keeps them away from me. Something about Symphonic Metal makes me want to believe that writing AABA songs is something below the genre. Unfortunately, that isn't the case. You can argue that tracks like Song of Myself are progressive or epic in their structure, but that simply isn't true. Sure, the song is long, but its just more of the same, and the spoken word part is nothing but a tacked-on bore. As for the instrumentals, I feel like the band members are using the orchestra as an excuse or compensation for their playing. I read on their site that the drummer is a big fan of Dream Theater and Mike Portnoy. You could never tell from his playing, though. It's very straightforward and not very inspiring.
This all being said, if you're already a fan of Nightwish's work you'll probably enjoy this album and maybe even consider a step up from Dark Passion Play. However, if Nightwish isn't your thing, don't expect this one to change things.
All in all, I give Imaginaerum 2.5 Gothic French Horns out of 5.