Style: Symphonic Metal
Release Date: 10 Apr 2020
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This ninth album from Nightwish may be one of the more interesting releases of the year but not everyone sees that as a good thing.
Many long term fans, who bought this on day one, apparently hate this with a passion. They're vocally pining for the good old days when Tarja Turunen was the singer for Nightwish and Floor Jansen sang for After Forever. Jansen has been in the band for most of a decade now and has become a legend in YouTube reaction circles, with the live version of Ghost Love Score from Wacken in 2013 quite possibly the most reacted to metal on the planet. "Floorgasm" is a word known by a lot more people than have bought Nightwish albums.
The thing is that this Nightwish aren't that Nightwish from Wacken. The move is away from guitars, drums and, frankly, the whole symphonic metal approach to something as yet not entirely defined but which is clearly more based in the keyboards of Tuomas Holopainen and, I'd say, musical theatre. This album is mostly sold in a two disc edition, the second of which is for a 31 minute symphonic instrumental, in eight parts, called All the Works of Nature Which Adorn the World. The third disc in some editions contains the regular album sans vocals.
I'm labelling this symphonic metal because it's Nightwish but it's hardly a fair description for at least half of these songs. Noise, the first single, is surely the closest to traditional Nightwish, even if it experiments with electronica and layering, which makes it odd to me that the diehards hate it as a pointer to where the band are going nowadays. It would have been fairer for them to rail against the second single, Harvest, which is folk music not symphonic metal.
All this said, while this album isn't too close to the Nightwish I remember from the Tarja days, my job is always to review what something is not what it isn't and this is still a fascinating album. For all that it doesn't do a lot of what we expect from symphonic metal, it's musically adventurous with side journeys in a lot of different directions.
One that I wasn't expecting is ambient. For a minute and a half, Music, the opening song, sounds like an orchestra warming up in a building three blocks away that we can only just hear over the wind and the Rainforest Cafe that's in between us. Then it gets folky, hinting at what we'll hear more of later in Tribal. It's three minutes before it finds structure and vocals, and two more before anything recognisably rock arrives. This is apparently a history of music, which makes the whole song highly ambitious and there's an irony in the most overt word being "silence".
One that I was, given that Troy Donockley became a full member of Nightwish in 2013 after six years of collaboration, is folk. Harvest is like something I might expect from a solo folk album from him rather than Nightwish, but a folk element runs through many of these songs. Some are folk, some folk rock and some folk metal. Tribal points out that the band's interest isn't just in British or Celtic folk. Both male and female vocals play along with the drums here. It isn't all Floor behind the mike here.
That leaves one that I kinda sorta expected, which is a strong vein of what we might call musical theatre. I've seen some Floor in that sort of setting before and she's very good indeed at it. Just check out her sing Phantom of the Opera, from the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical, with Henk Poort on a Dutch show called Beste Zangers. That mindset of musicals is all over this album, often in the way that the vocals, or the keyboards, tell stories but also in the way that those heavier elements that we're used to are often sidelined.
It used to be that Nightwish songs were heavy because they were a metal band but they're heavy now only when the songs want them to be. Heavy guitars are a particular tone to sit behind the vocals rather than as a default setting. Perhaps my favourite song, Shoemaker, features quiet bits, operatic bits and heavy bits and the guitars only really have a place in the latter. Whey they aren't needed, they're gone, and that's surprisingly often.
I'm not so much a Tarja fanboy that I rail against this. Bands go where they go musically and I'm all for experimentation. I liked this album, and oddly the more theatrical songs more, like Shoemaker and Pan, but it feels rather transitional to me. It continues the band down a road they arguably started on Endless Forms Most Beautiful but it's not the end of that road. They have a lot further to go and, at some point, we really need to stop calling them symphonic metal. That doesn't, however, mean that we have stop liking them.