To be frank with you, I wasn’t sure whether to look forward to this one or not. On the one hand, Nightwish has a hype about them that I’ve never really quite understood. While they’re a good band that has produced some good albums (this Angry Metal Guy, for example, really enjoyed Once quite a bit), the rabidity of their fanbase and the standard to which they are held has always been very surprising to me. I have literally met people who don’t listen to anything else. Apparently their songwriter and keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen (you know, the pirate from that horrible series of movies) has
stalkers fans that are so hardcore about him, that they send letters to his mother to tell her that they disapprove of whom he’s dating. But honestly, I’ve never thought of the band as anything other than a pretty good, female fronted symphonic power metal band. And, well, after Dark Passion Play, I wasn’t very excited anyway. Because let’s face it. That was not a good record. So when I heard that they were releasing a movie (especially given that Tuomas is already in the movies) and a soundtrack to it, I was not excited. But Imaginaerum managed to win me over.
Really, it starts out in a way that I don’t think I would have ever expected and started drawing me in slowly. “Taikatalvi” features Tarot vocalist Marco on a soft track that apparently translates into “Magical Winter” in English. This song, with no female vocals, some piano, a music box sound and an orchestra, sets the stage for the whole record perfectly by both building up the feeling and taking you by surprise. The surprise is important, because despite being a Nightwish record, it varies a lot more than you would expect. While it does launch into a standard record opener (in the first single from the record “Storytime”), it lets you know that this album will be a little on the unpredictable side. And surprisingly from this pop metal act, it is.
Though, don’t get me wrong. This is obviously a Nightwish record and if you’re not a fan of the style, you probably won’t like it. Though, what’s not to like? The songs are snappy, with sharpened hooks that have you singing them for days in spite of yourself. The arrangements are actually interesting and smart, the orchestrations are huuuuuge, bombastic and beautiful and the production is very good (but wow is this record LOUD, too loud, as it peaks in my speakers). And what’s good about it is that the band never settles into one thing really specifically. The songs don’t really fade into each other as can happen with certain types of records. Instead you’ve got title track pop rockers (like the aforementioned “Storytime” and “I Want My Tears Back”), followed by mid-paced creepers like “Ghost River” and “Scaretale.” You’ve got a musical number called “Arabesque” and a kind of noir, smooth jazz(esque) track in “Slow, Love, Slow” which Anette acquits in a way that La Prima Donna never could have. Hell, you even have Celtic folk bits that sound like they should be on a Loreena McKennitt record (while breaking into a Morricone/The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly sounding whistling at the end), not a Nightwish one.
Honestly, I only have a few complaints about this record. I guess, firstly, I think Anette is kind of a weak vocalist. This is not to ignite any kind of “they should have kept Tarja” debate, because frankly, they shouldn’t have. It just seems like she only really hits her stride in the poppy choruses of these songs and sometimes she brings down songs on the softer side (Tarja was the same). Her accent gets a tad cartoonish at times (“At the end of the reeever!”), but mostly I just think she doesn’t have the same grace as someone like Helena Haaparanta, who is just such a much more dynamic and powerful performer. But this is offset by the fact that Marco and choirs are used very wisely, and Anette feels more like a part of an ensemble than La Diva. My second complaint is that the last 12 minutes are completely wasted on citing lines from the movie and then recapping the whole album as an overture (the title track “Imaginaerum”). So a record that could have ended with a bang, makes me just want to shut it off before it’s done. That’s a shame. Finally, sometimes I feel like Tuomas is quoting himself a bit much. I actually twice went back to check older records to see if “Storytime” and “Last Ride of the Day” were using similar riffs or melodies from previous records. They never did it, as far as I can tell, but they got really, really close a couple of times.
Still, Imaginaerum is a huge step above the previous record and makes it feel like Nightwish really is on top of the world again. Hell, they even have a song on here that impressed me poetically (“The Crow, the Owl, and the Dove”), something I never thought possible. The lyrics on that track are actually bordering on really good and the performances are outstanding. On top of that, the record plays well like an original sound track and is everything you expect from Finland’s biggest pop sensation. It’s simultaneously beautiful, while introducing some heavier elements that work well and taking the orchestral presence to a new level. It’s good that these guys got the chance for a do over after the last one because it’s heads and shoulders above it.
Well played, pirate boy, well played.