NIGHTWISH – Imaginaerum

By Carl Begai

The long awaited Nightwish follow-up to Dark Passion Play from 2007, Imaginaerum, is a masterpiece. The greatest thing since the creation of fire. Grander the invention of the wheel. A tour de force that has pushed the power metal and classical music scenes to learn French and admit they have no clue what “bombastic” really means. A showcase of musical genius that has composer John Williams considering changing his last name to Holopainen. Better than half-drunk pre-marital sex. So awesome they had to make a movie about/for/with it. Blah blah fucking blah add nausea…

Yes indeed, the media hack hype machine has been puckering up and kissing ass ever since the album was made accessible to the press, likely upping the sales of Chapstick by 200%. Only thing is, Imaginaerum is a bloody masterpiece, particularly if you’re a Nightwish fan that’s been able to see beyond Tarja Turunen’s cleavage.

If not for potential accusations of plagiarism, Nightwish could have gotten away with calling the album Tuomas In Wonderland. Spawned and nurtured by keyboardist / songwriter / founder Tuomas Holopainen, Imaginaerum is his full blown journey into the depths of fairytales and fantasy, something that’s been a here-and-there part of the Nightwish formula from album to album since the band’s inception. It earns the title “epic” before things are even a third done, the majority of the songs being a clear cut and necessary step up and away from Dark Passion Play on almost every count. Just how far one is willing to be yanked down Holopainen’s personal rabbit hole depends on how much time you’re willing to invest in a new, insanely ambitious, and occasionally bizarre take on a traditional soundtrack.

For starters – literally – Nightwish and their record label had the good sense to release second track in, ‘Storytime’, as the first single. Unlike the moronic cheeseball kick-off for Dark Passion Play – the sickly sweet Disney-flavoured ballad ‘Eva’ – ‘Storytime’ pushes expectations into the stratosphere instead of the Kleenex aisle at the drugstore. It sets the tone for Imaginaerum as a whole, complete with trademark Nightwish keyboards and crunch guitars, orchestral accents, sharp melodic hooks, classical opera nuances, and like it or not, Anette Olzon’s non-operatic vocals. This isn’t a blueprint effort by any stretch, so although the original Nightwish foundation is intact, everything slapped around it makes for a much different rollercoaster ride.

With every dose of crowd-pleasing familiarity – ‘I Want My Tears Back’, ‘Rest Calm’, ‘Last Ride Of The Day’, ‘Storytime’ – there’s an unexpected bend in the road that leads to double-take territory. Third track in, ‘Ghost River’, starts as a light and melodic Nightwish anthem (circa ‘Amaranth’) before being stomped into a much more ominous shape by bassist / vocalist Marco Hietala, while ‘Turn Loose The Mermaids’ can easily pass for a Blackmore’s Night track. And the massive ‘Song Of Myself’ is Imaginaerum’s four-part cornerstone, a 14 minute showcase of all the elements that make Nightwish 2011 / 2012 the symphonic monster it is.

Two of the biggest and welcome surprises are the smokey jazz club track ‘Slow, Love, Slow’ (complete with brushes, trumpet and guitar solo), and ‘Scaretale’. Both songs show off very different sides of Olzon, with ‘Scaretale’ being her best recorded work to date. She delivers her lines with the tongue-in-cheek witchery of a starring role in Evil Dead: The Musical (“Squealing PIGS!” indeed), adding a ton of personality to an already twisted Willy Wonka’s day-at-the-circus song arrangement. It’s one of the go-to tracks each time the album shuffles around.

The Anette vs Tarja vocal war will continue to rage amongst the fans, of course, but Olzon should be given her due. With the exception of ‘I Want My Tears Back’ – which very well could have been another ‘Wish I Had An Angel’ with Turunen up front – there’s no pining from this seat for the band’s former singer. And even then, it’s more out of ‘What if?” curiosity than thinking Olzon doesn’t belong.

And for the record, Hietala’s voice is still gold every time he opens his mouth.

My only real complaint – other than the continued muzzling of guitarist Emppu Vuorinen as a shredhead soloist – is Imaginaerum’s overblown length. Folks will argue that the album needs to be as long as it is given Holopainen’s focus this time out, but it’s doubtful even the most loyal of diehards can keep their enthusiasm up from top to bottom for repeated listens (ie: spoken word passages in large earfulls have limited appeal). Give it a year and fans will be raving about select songs rather than the amount of awesome threaded through the entire package. They’ll still be raving, though, and rightly so.

Ultimately, Imaginaerum is a masterpiece in the Nightwish universe, and an impossibly high benchmark for other symphonic metal bands to reach much less surpass. That said, it would be nice to see the band return in a few years with a naked back-to-basics album of vocals / guitars / keys / bass / drums, just to prove they don’t need to rely on high budget bells & whistles to produce something noteworthy and thoroughly enjoyable.