Monday, December 19, 2011
Nightwish - Imaginaerum
Symphonic power metal is like the hardcore rap of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Over there, bands of this particular strain routinely sell out amphitheaters and large-scale venues and comprise the majority of the auditory output of a given country. Among the demi-gods of this epic breed of heavy metal, a few artists do stand out. Chief among them is Finland's Nightwish - arguably one of the most influential symphonic power metal bands of all time. Since their inception in 1996, Nightwish has consistently released albums that beautifully marry the sophistication of orchestral arrangement with the high-energy chugging of power metal. Never a band to over-saturate, Nightwish usually leaves a few years interim between each new release - priming their fan bases' appetite for new material with increasingly satisfying releases. With Imaginaerum, the band's seventh full-length album, Nightwish continues pushing the boundaries of their own genre; blending ever-increasing levels of complexity and sophistication with the epic and sweeping sound they're known for. That's the synopsis; here are the details.
"Imaginaerum" was billed as one of the band's most ambitious projects to date, and it most definitely pays off in that department. Each successive Nightwish release claims to be the biggest and baddest since the one before it, a formula that risks reaching critical mass and fizzling all-too-soon. But they've managed to keep things fresh and alive, and it's largely due to their willingness to risk and sample new genres and styles.
"Imaginaerum" features some of the most divergent and versatile musical influences of any Nightwish release I've had the pleasure of listening to. There is, of course, the tried-and-true formula of palm-muted riffs for each verse and soaring melodies in the chorus. It's a bit of an overused formula - and admittedly they don't explore too much new territory in that particular vein. But had Nightwish abandoned it altogether the album would have definitely faltered. But mixed in with the familiar are a few songs and moments unlike anything Nightwish has yet attempted. For example, "Slow, Love, Slow" evokes imagery and motifs of film noir. The orchestration is light - drummer Jukka Nevalainen gently swishing brushes back and forth on the snare, the piano moody but restrained, echoes of wanton brass instruments in the distance - but the effect is profound. It's a definite departure from Nightwish's typical modus operandi, calling to mind pictures of lead vocalist Anette Olzon crooning into the microphone of a dimly-lit jazz club - tendrils of cigarette smoke curling up from the tables. It almost doesn't work, but the band jumps into the motifs so whole-heartedly and paints a musical image so vivid that it's impossible to deny the song's utter confidence and strength.
Elsewhere, "Scaretale" begins with decidedly familiar Nightwish motifs. The guitar cuts a dark and aggressive path through a song that vaguely calls to mind previous Nightwish excursions "Planet Hell" and "Master Passion Greed." The song is downright scary...and then halfway through yields to a completely different musical influence: Danny Elfman. Again I found myself bewildered at the dramatic shift into a darkly whimsical staccato accented by circus-music themes. And just as I begin to acclimate to recollections of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Beetlejuice in the middle of a Nightwish album, the themes transition back into the familiar territory the song opened with. It's a unique evolution - and one I wasn't entirely sure of at first. But again, the influences are so profoundly concrete and confident - leaving no room for the hedging of bets - that the song really does grow on you.
Likewise "Turn Loose the Mermaids" - this album's answer to "The Islander" from Dark Passion Play - reaches out to whistling and brass arrangement a la Ennio Morricone's work. I never would have considered the two genres compatible - acoustic Celtic music and strains of Sergio Leone - but somehow Nightwish manages to pull it off.
As for the less experimental songs, the lead single from the album - "Storytime" - is a perfect example of what to expect on this album as well. Too much experimentation probably would have killed Imaginaerum; but the lion's share of musical influence is most decidedly in familiar Nightwish territory. My favorite track is "I Want My Tears Back." It's a high-energy tune that's more anthemic than overly aggressive, and the addition of bagpipes on this particular track is an added bonus. The title track is enjoyable as well, something of an overture that reiterates all the major themes - almost as though credits are rolling up an invisible screen.
Upon the first listen-through of Imaginaerum, some of the more experimental moments on this album might throw you off. They certainly did me. Had I known they were coming I might not have been so initially put off by their presence, but giving them more than just a first impression definitely softened my opinion.
The longest track on the album (clocking in at just over 13 minutes), "Song of Myself," not only references Walt Whitman's poem of the same name but actually features a complete recitation of the poem as well. Now, I'm not one to deny Whitman's importance in American literature, and I've always thought he was an incredibly talented poet - but I've never particularly cared for the content of his work; it's just not my thing, for the most part. So while this is just a personal beef of mine, being subjected to an entire Whitman poem in the middle of an album I was already having to listen through a couple of times was a bit of a challenge. Some of the imagery in the poem is also somewhat explicit, and I didn't feel that it fit the themes of fantasy and child-like awe the rest of the album sought to evoke.
Imaginaerum is quite unlike any previous Nightwish album to date. Fortunately, in most ways that is a very good thing. Their expansion into new musical territory came as a bit of a shock at first, but their confidence and precision-handling of said experimentation ultimately won the day over my misgivings.
As a band, they've truly evolved. Anette Olzon's vocals are much stronger here than on Dark Passion Play, where they were already pretty solid. The same is true of Marco Hietala's vocals; he pulls off high-octave vibrato with the best of them, evoking Rob Halford or Bruce Dickinson in the process. And as always, Nightwish continues to prove that they're without peer when it comes to a perfect harmony between orchestral arrangement and power metal. With a film being produced alongside it, Imaginaerum is definitely an ambitious work. But there's no denying the rich and visual quality this album possesses; even without the context of the film. In the end this CD, fortunately, was very much worth waiting for.