Nightwish – Once
07/05/2004 § Leave a comment
Believe it or not, there’s actually been some semblance of progression in Nightwish’s sound since Century Child. This is amazing for a band who have rarely changed their musical blueprint and frequently churn out albums that are formulaically mirror images of their predecessors. However, Nightwish have really gone to town this time and have managed to put together an album that the Gothic Metal genre has not seen the likes of before. Notice, also, the use of the ‘Gothic Metal’ tag here, since in the past, Nightwish were keen on making a kind of cheesy crowd-pleasing fantasy metal that had the tendency to slip over into the chasm of naffness. Now, whether the intention is to move the genre forward or to appeal to the mainstream more, Once is a pretty damn good piece of work. Sure, the sound is undoubtedly more commercial and those of you who were waiting for Nightwish to well and truly rise above the underground and be brought out into the glimmering, glowing light of day so you could go back to listening to non-profit making experimental metal and say that you never really liked Nightwish anyway, now’s your chance. And for those of you who couldn’t really give a hoot about whether an album sells 100 copies or 100,000 copies, you’re in for a real treat too.
The first thing that strikes you on listening to this album is the fact that Nightwish have obviously been given some kind of massive cash injection to make this. Spinefarm have apparently got it into their heads that Nightwish are to become one of their hallmark bands, so that when the label collapses in umpteen years time we can look on Nightwish as their epitaph and say what fantastic things they gave to the metal scene. As unconvincing as that may be, the money that’s been flung at this has [mostly] been put to good use, and it’s noticeable in the first few bars. Tuomas has somehow got hold of an orchestra, and not a piddly little seven-piece jobbie either, but a no-holds-barred, full-on philharmonic with strings, woodwind, percussion, the lot. Either that or Korg are making better keyboards than I had given them credit for. The sound is very impressive and nothing like anything I have heard on a metal album before. But then again, that’s partly the point – to make things sound as intense and impressive as possible, and Once certainly delivers on this account. Certain cadences really sound special with the crescendos of the strings, the trilling of flutes or the thundering echoes of timpanis. Maybe in places it’s a little over the top, but Nightwish have never done things by halves, and they’re proving that if you give them the right tools to work with, then the sky really is the limit. Not only have they acquired an orchestra, but a proper choir, and certain parts even reminded me of Tristania. This is very unusual for Nightwish, but a welcome change, and one that they seem to have pulled off well.
The other thing that’s slightly different about this album is that the songs are not too typically Nightwish. OK, some of the song structures are unmistakeable, but now that Tuomas has an entire orchestra at his disposal, he’s really laid off the keyboards quite a bit, presumably because in the past he was making do for the fact that he didn’t have the sections that he wanted. How often with bands the keyboards are used to fill in the spaces left by the absence of fuller, grander-sounding instruments. Now, no longer is there that tiresome arpeggiating or the doggerel drumming of a synthesiser-simulated orchestral hit. Now that there’s the real thing, the keyboards fade into the background. Anything else would just sound wrong.
The songs themselves are of an unfailingly good quality. Dark Chest of Wonders, although it has a slightly silly name, is a fantastic opener, and sometimes the numbers are heavier than usual Nightwish, as exemplified in Romanticide and Dead Gardens. Nightwish really let rip with some deeply powerful guitars along the lines of Slaying The Dreamer on Century Child, and whether it’s the orchestration or the power chords, Once really is an album that’s not afraid to speak up for itself. This is shown nowhere as effectively as in the wonderful opus Ghost Love Score, which is ten minutes-worth of the best stuff that Nightwish have come up with.
It’s not all footloose and fancy-free wonderment in the Nightwish halls, though. The orchestration that makes Once stand out so much and makes it such an impressive and expressive album does not do a world of favours for Tarja. One of the things that people love more than anything about a Nightwish album is Tarja’s operatic vocals, however, this album is weak vocally on two points. Firstly, Tarja has gone less operatic. This is doubtless part of Nightwish’s scheme to be more commercial and appeal to the wider audience, and this is not only the seasoned Gothic Metallers [by which I mean people who have been listening to the genre for more than a year] but also the baggy-trousered, spiky-haired Evanescence kids who slouch round HMV like little gothic slugs, hoovering up commercial albums like they were going out of fashion. The ‘cleaner’ singing kind of works as well, but it can be a little flat in places. Secondly, Tarja has always been part of the driving force behind the band’s sound and one of the things that stands out the most, however, this time round she has been outdone by the intensity of the orchestration, which is at times so overbearing that her voice gets swamped and she sometimes even sounds out of breath and drowning beneath the current of strings and wind instruments.
In spite of all the astonishingly good elements that have gone into Once, I’m not convinced that it will be the main Nightwish album that it sets out to be, the great seal on Tuomas’s life’s work. In fact, it comes across as more of an experiment to see just what could be done with Gothic Metal, to see how the genre could be brought forward, or pushed, kicking and screaming like some petulant mini-mosher to somewhere it really doesn’t want to be. To all intents and purposes it works, but seeing as it’s the first time that anytime has attempted anything like this, there’s certainly room for improvements. Yes, I know it’s Nightwish, but still, the orchestration could be a little less lavish, Tarja could be fuller and some of the songs could be shortened just to cut out the musical ballast that weighs them down. I see where Nightwish were going with this one, and if this is their new sound and this is the way things are to go from now on, it’s the first step in an exciting journey. Some definite compromises have to be made, but if they are, next time round Nightwish could produce the album of their musical careers.