source: BeyondEarCandy.com 2004
author: Ann Marie Reilly
A silky whisper teases, “Once, I had a dream…And this is it!”. With a snarl, a predatory guitar leaps from it’s lair prowling through the first measures like a stalking beast. A feral growl from bass player, Marco Hietala goads the guitars into greater frenzy flushing out a chorus of moans flanked by swiftly running orchestral movements. The choir of voices rise to shouts as the orchestra swells to majestic proportions; a signature sound of the new album, Once, by Nightwish.
The opening song, “Dark Chest of Wonders,” displays all the elements of this richly complex and daringly experimental album composed by song writer and keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen. Growling, heavy metal guitar riffs spar with the melodic and often monstrous orchestra parts that set a stage of fantasy and intrigue as well as any movie score. The stunningly, powerful voice of the band’s female vocalist, Tarja Turunen is tuned in such a wide array of applications throughout the album, the listener is not always sure it’s the same singer. Turunen’s debut on Once is her trademark soaring vocals, but she enters only after the guitars, orchestra and choral voices have herded the listener into a canyon of tension and mystery.
The nearly shouted lament, “I wish I had an angel!” breathes desperation into the very first lines of the album’s second track. A techno-drum beat, considered blasphemous in most metal music, is bolstered in this application by the heavy, grinding guitars of Hietala and lead, Emppu Vuorinen. Together they set a scene of strobe lights, writhing bodies and furtive glances. The angelic crooning of Turunen brings a vision of vulnerability wandering among the damned while Hietala plays the role of hunter as his petulant expressions of longing quickly turn into an angry demand. Sighing moans in the break end with a sly, teasing laughter that only increases the tension. “Wish I Had an Angel” is reminiscent of a futile nightclub crawl that epitomizes an unfulfilled quest for love. The point is driven home as the song ends abruptly with Hietala screaming once more his insatiate desire.
Pure, simple piano notes trickle cleanly through the intro of “Nemo” the album’s earlier released single. One of the most uncomplicated tune of the production, the song nevertheless does not disappoint in it’s ability to inspire melancholy yearning for truth and identity. The vocals of Turunen return to the pure and lilting style of the band’s earlier ballads while evoking fresh, bittersweet emotions. Crashing waves and soul-stealing zephyrs seem to swirl through the melody enhanced by the hypnotic calling of the chorus as the piano continuously emphasizing the musical theme in clear, staccato notes. The name “Nemo” has more than one interpretation, but the Latin root of nothingness seems clearly defined in the lyrics and melody of this addictive song that leads the listener on a quest for validation and purpose.
Danger and despair radiate instantly from “Planet Hell” as a choral chant creates a harbinger of doom in the opening measures. Teasing strains from violins point an accusing finger as they sneak slyly through the growing presence of the orchestra. The terrifying sound rises to a crescendo of flame and fear, exploding suddenly with the pounding drums of Jukka Nevalainen stoked by blazing guitars and Hietala roaring an angry rebuke. Painfully, sweet vocals of Turunen interrupt the verdict not to offer a reprieve but to project an image of life ending in torment as the price of evil deeds. The refrain admonishes the listener to, “Save yourself a penny for the ferryman,” but provides little hope of redemption. Hietala’s sarcastic “Welcome down to my Planet Hell!” only seals the sentence. Quick, fleeing keyboards burst forth leading the orchestra on a frantic search for escape. There is no escape from the tension and excitement evoked by this masterpiece of choral voices and orchestral passages swirling in a fathomless cauldron of sound and sensation. A brief pause and a second the silence is snatched away by a rising shout from the choir that erupts into the refrain. A final piercing note from the choir echoes away leaving the listener breathless and anxious to begin this frantic race through Hell again. Hit replay!
A ripple of notes cascades like a trickling stream. A steady drumbeat and the plaintive call of a flute accompany the chanting of Lakota Indian, John Two-Hawks to introduce the haunting ballad, “Creek Mary’s Blood,” a lament to the losses suffered by the North American Indians. Holopainen’s desire to honor the tragedy of these native people has been fulfilled through this stirring collaboration with Two-Hawks, an Arkansas native who provides vocals and flute as well as inspiration. The orchestra sweeps gracefully in the background like wind over the prairie, occasional providing reverberating emphasis to the drumbeat. The song is saved from becoming trite and predictable by the variety of elements utilized to create imagery and emotion. At one point the stomping beat of an Indian dance bursts forth accompanied by a haunting chant in a primal voice unrecognizable as Turunen. The voice breaks into a sorrowful wail of pride mixed with anguish as the orchestra launches into a rush of wind and pounding hooves racing across the plains. The song winds slowly to a climax with Two-Hawks chanting in his native language a testimony of heritage and spirit written by Holopainen. On the first spin, this spoken piece seems to wander a little too far, but when focus is shifted to the carefully collaborated elements of orchestra and flute, the rhythm of the poem leads to a gracefully, natural end. Take the time to read the translation and it will be difficult to remain untouched.
A brief pause and the steady rhythm of guitar returns as if picking up the trail of the previous song. But this number quickly takes a turn down a different path when the guitars change to a decidedly Asian Indian flavor. Heavy bass punches through like approaching doom only to be soothed away by the silky, sighing call of Turunen. “The Siren” is an intoxicating brew of cloyingly, sweet vocals, the eastern-sounding guitars and the ever-present orchestra swelling like the rolling sea. The mythological story of a sailor’s battle with the sea-bred seductresses is told more by the imagery of the music than the actual lyrics. The mood is especially enhanced by the eerie wail of a sitar, played by guest musician, Sami Yli-Sirniö. Turunen’s alluring call, enhanced by a moaning choir takes on the essence of the wind as Hietala’s voice rises desperately in an epic struggle of resistance. Luckily, listeners are free to immerse themselves in the enchantment facing only the danger of developing a desire to play this track repeatedly.
Electricity crackles igniting an mystical orchestral introduction that conjures a mood of magic and fantasy. This essence is evaporated by the return of pounding drums and strident guitars that create an edgy wariness as the song lapses into hard-driving rhythm. The tension is momentarily snapped by the return of Turunen’s vocals, tuned to an ethereal, wavering quality as she croons an vague message of frustration and despair. The lyrics of “Dead Gardens” are a classic case of the ambiguity frequently associated with Holopainen’s song writing. The stage is set but the script must be interpreted by the listener. Still, an image of a tortured artist can be discerned; a weary soul, empty of inspiration but chained to the responsibility of his creation though he has no more to give. Luckily, Holopainen does not personify this dilemma regardless of his motivations for penning the poetry. “Dead Gardens” is yet another startling mixture of enchanting vocals dueling with a formidable guitar and drum presence. The battle is won by the heavy hitters as the guitars leap onto a treadmill of grinding frustration that seems endless until the ride slams to an abrupt halt.
Hardly a pause and the possessive cadence of the guitars return. A haunting chant from the chorus begins another angry diatibe against corruption and betrayal veiled by the lilting beauty of Turunen’s vocals. This shroud is torn as her voice rises with the choir in a piercing cry that collapses into a gut-wrenching guitar phrase blistering across the mournfully wailing voices. A dark and sinister chorus develops with Turunen contributing a deep and angry demand for isolation. A simpering ode to lost love this in not, but the title, “Romanticide,” surely provided adequate warning. Saturated with some of the heaviest guitar riffs on the album, this veritable tirade against treachery contains enough dark elements, including a near death-vocal rant from Hietala, to entice fans loitering in the blacker end of the metal spectrum. Warning: avoid this wrist-slashing sonnet if you’re having a bad day.
Holopainen, an admitted fan of musical scores, indulges his passion in the 10-minute long epic, “Ghost Love Score.” He calls into play every element utilized in on the previous tracks to weave a mythical tale of love, loss and longing. The scene unfolds with a massive choreography of strings, horns and choral voices unveiling an endless horizon. The journey begins with thudding heartbeat of drums echoing through the expanding panorama of orchestral music that seems to swirl and rise to take shape like a ship cresting the swells of the ocean. Turunen’s voice enters, high and piercing only to lapse into a cry of unbearable sorrow that can’t help but elicit tears and inspire heartache. The trek continues with a poignant guitar solo that seems to condense all the emotion of the past measures into taunt ache of yearning. Throaty oboe notes, grumbling cello and sighing, wind-swept voices turn the tale into a Celtic-sounding ballad that opens a new vista of rolling hills and open plains. So many musical twists and turns wind through this symphonic adventure a traveler may fear getting lost. Finally, the path leads home with a return of Turunen’s heartbreaking wail from the opening scene, which once again evokes shivers and sorrow. In a project drenched in emotion and stunning musical experimentation, this epic is the epiphany of every magical moment that’s come before.
“Kuolema Tekee Taiteilijan” is a haunting ballad in the band members’ native Finnish language. The song melds beautiful flute with soaring vocals creating images of tranquil, glistening lakes, endless forests and the cry of a swan. The lyrics are not translated on the album booklet, but can be found with a quick internet search. The poetry of this song is another emotional sojourn but if you wish to avoid the tug on heartstrings, merely immerse yourself in the beauty of the melody and let the interpretation of the music take precedence over the lyrics.
The beginning acoustic guitar notes leads you to believe this most elaborate and complex album chooses to end in a simple ballad. “Higher Than Hope” is anything but simplistic as it evolves into a heartbreaking tribute to Nightwish fan, Marc Brueland, who passed away from a liver ailment only a couple of months after meeting the band in Atlanta, Georgia; a dying dream fulfilled. Marco Hietala has taken the song writing reins and, with the help of Holopainen, crafts a disturbing lament to unfilled dreams punctuated by Marc’s voice expressing his fear and confusion. Turunen alternates between sweetly, sorrowful verses to joining the choir in a harsh rail against death and the ominous sign of a “Red Sun rising.”
Once ends in yet another chorus of despair having evoked a maelstrom of emotion most often inspiring a longing, for love, identity, and a return of innocence. Hopefully, Tuomas Holopainen will find his solace in the success of this album. For me, I’m going to have to make an appointment with my therapist….or maybe I’ll just listen to Once again.
(5 out of 5)