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Rank and File

Rank and File: Nightwish

I can’t think of a more influential symphonic metal band than Nightwish. Sure, this influence may be why most symphonic metal bands can’t change singers without igniting a shitload of drama, but you can’t deny the musical cues that groups like Xandria and Leaves’ Eyes took from them either. Singers have come and gone, and the recording setup has expanded dramatically over the years (to the point where they’ve been recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra for the better part of a decade), but keyboardist/bandleader Tuomas Holopainen’s vision of theatrical female-fronted metal has remained undeterred for over two decades.

In acknowledgement of Nightwish’s recently released Decades compilation and 2018 American tour, I’m looking at their eight studio albums to see how they stack up overall. I may personally prefer the more power metal-oriented sound of their early years over the orchestral pop metal that resulted in their internatonal breakthrough, but the writing and musicianship has been consistent enough to see the merits of both eras. I’ll also not be counting the Over the Hills and Far Away EP though I strongly recommend checking it out as it does feature some excellent tracks.

8) Angels Fall First
Nightwish likens Angels Fall First as nothing more than a glorified demo, and it’s easy to see why. Their first album is a very awkward one as campfire folk clashes with an embryotic version of the power metal to come. Tuomas was clearly trying to find his voice both metaphorically and literally, contributing self-admittedly cringeworthy vocals alongside lead singer Tarja Turunen’s still developing range. That said, the album is charming as “Beauty and the Beast” and “Tutankhamen” are legitimately strong numbers, while others like “The Carpenter” have some neat ideas despite their stumbling executions. It’s very much a fans-only affair, but it’s not awful by any means. We can all be glad that Tuomas never recorded himself near a microphone nor wrote anything like “Nymphomaniac Fantasia” ever again.
Final Grade: C+

7) Imaginaerum
Nightwish always runs the risk of sounding pretentious, and Imaginaerum is easily the band’s most self-indulgent outing. It is not only a concept album serving as the basis of a film that I still need to see, but filled to the brim with orchestras, choirs, and genre explorations with endless lamentations of lost innocence in between. But with that said, the band manages to be decent at it. “Storytime” and “I Want My Tears Back” are another batch of catchy singles, and “Slow Love Slow” is a surprisingly genuine take on jazz. In addition, Anette Olzon’s vocals have improved since Dark Passion Play, as she provides vibrato-laced wails, playful coos, and even hams it up on “Scaretale.” She really outdid herself on here and it almost broke my heart to see her go shortly after the album’s release. Almost.
Final Grade: B

6) Once
It wouldn’t surprise me if Once is what Nightwish ends up being remembered for. In addition to it being their first collaboration with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and their last with original singer Tarja Turunen, songs like “Wish I Had a Girl,” “Nemo,” and “Ghost Love Score” remain their biggest songs to date. Personally, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Once over the years; I was blown away by the massive scale when I first heard it, but get grumpy about how such scale came at the expense of sounding like an actual band. Regardless of my feelings on the frankly dumbed down guitar contributions, I can’t deny that it is well presented and features some excellent writing. And speaking from personal experience, this is a pretty good album to reference if you’re trying to get your girlfriend into heavy metal. It’s sure as hell better than Evanescence…
Final Grade: B

5) Dark Passion Play
Nightwish’s first album with second singer Anette Olzon is a pioneer of what I’m now calling tabloid metal. It’s impossible to talk about this album without bringing up the band’s falling out with Tarja, as songs like “Bye, Bye Beautiful” and “Master Passion Greed” cover it in lavish detail, while “The Poet and the Pendulum” documents Tuomas’ personal struggles in the aftermath. Such laundry airing can make this album a deal breaker, but I find it oddly compelling. It’s hilarious how such catty lyrics are set to such infectious earworms, and “The Poet and the Pendulum” is unambiguously the band’s crowning achievement despite the angst running rampant. In addition, songs like “The Islander” and “Last of the Wilds” deserve credit for successfully revitalizing the folk dabbling that defined their earliest efforts. There are a couple weaker songs and it is a somewhat acquired taste despite the accessibility, but I still have a soft spot for it.

4) Endless Forms Most Beautiful
Nightwish has never fallen so far as to require a “return to form,” but 2015’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful is something of a back to basics album. The orchestra is still hanging around and everything is as bombastic as ever, but the execution feels more grounded. It’d be easy to attribute this shift to symphonic vocal legend Floor Jansen’s recruitment, but the keyboards and guitars haven’t felt this involved in a decade and the band isn’t yielding to the orchestra as often as it had been. The lyrical fixation on childhood has also thankfully eroded, replaced with a wistful nature aesthetic influenced by Charles Darwin and special guest Richard Dawkins. There is an almost life affirming vibe felt throughout as songs like “Edema Ruh” and “Alpenglow” exude wonder and adventure that hasn’t been seen since the days of Wishmaster. It may still be derivative at times and runtime on “The Greatest Show on Earth” needed to be cut in half, but it’s a surprisingly refreshing listen overall. Seriously, I could listen to “Elan” all day.
Final Grade: A-

3) Wishmaster
Much like the relationship between Holy Diver and The Last in Line, Wishmaster is basically Oceanborn 2. The operatic elements are out in full force and songs like “The Kinslayer” and “Wanderlust” are packed with power metal theatrics and over the top speed runs. However, the tone isn’t as dark as its predecessor and the writing spends more time on direct hooks than esoteric structures, resulting in catchier songs. Wishmaster may not be as awe inspiring as Oceanborn, but it retains a sophisticated air and features some of the band’s best songs to date. It also set the stage for the more accessible outings to come, thus rendering any sellout accusations null and void. Century Child may be the sweet spot in Nightwish’s discography, but Wishmaster also makes for a comfortable listen.
Final Grade: A-

2) Century Child
Century Child is a happy medium in Nightwish’s discography both chronologically and musically. The band streamlined its song structures but had yet to incorporate the orchestra, resulting in a more accessible album that still preserves a natural band dynamic. Bringing in Tarot vocalist/bassist Marco Hietala helped give the band a backbone, thus allowing them to secure a sound to take them to the next level. “Ever Dream” remains a thrilling single, “End of all Hope” and “Slaying the Dreamer” are still among the band’s heaviest songs, and they even cover “The Phantom of the Opera” without sounding tacky. This isn’t the best Nightwish album, but I strongly encourage new fans to check it out first.
Final Grade: A

1) Oceanborn
Once was my first brush with Nightwish, but Oceanborn was what truly made me a fan. The sound is massive despite only featuring a few additional instruments and a smaller budget compared to future efforts. Songs like “Stargazers” immediately draw your attention with hard hitting rhythms and flamboyant melodies, but the album’s mysterious aura, acrobatic dynamics, and fantastic musicianship allow the music to maintain substance. Tarja’s vocals may be their least enunciated, but it is impossible to listen to a song like “Passion and the Opera” and not floored by her skills. Witnessing Emppu Vuorinen’s guitar mastery makes his diminished role on subsequent albums even more tragic.

The fact that the elegant but too slow “Swanheart” is the closest thing to a liability speaks volumes about Oceanborn’s quality. It’s also impressive that such a perfectly formed album was released just a year after such an adolescent debut. This is Nightwish’s magnum opus; they’ll never be able to top it but that’s not a bad albatross to have considering they’re still putting out quality material. There are more accessible ways to get into Nightwish’s discography, but once you’re in, this album will absolutely dazzle you.

Final Grade: A+

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