Yer Metal Is Olde: Nightwish – Oceanborn

I was seven years old for most of 1999—the year Nightwish’s breakout record Oceanborn saw its worldwide release. It would be seven more years before I would finally encounter what constitutes one of the most exhilarating listening experiences of my life. Since Oceanborn dropped, scores of symphonic metal bands have made countless attempts to imitate it, yet each clone of this record since has failed spectacularly to match either its significance or its quality.1 Hence this little entry of mine into the annals of Yer Metal Is Olde.

When Oceanborn was in its infancy, Nightwish found themselves at a critical point in their career. Their first album, Angels Fall First, spawned as a full-length debut almost by accident (according to founder, keyboardist, and main composer Tuomas Holopainen). But it got enough attention that they dedicated every effort to an unprecedented follow-up. At first glance, Oceanborn might appear to be typical symphonic metal. Guitars share a spotlight with the orchestra and piano, with flutes used mainly during softer passages or bouncier folk pieces (“Swanheart” and “Moondance”). And like many symphonic metal records, operatic vocals delivered fantasy-based lyrics to their audience. But the formula succeeds here because Nightwish nimbly nestles neoclassical noodling into nearly every nook and cranny they could nab. Moreover, guitars and keys often play counterpart to each other, which serves only to enhance their performances and elevate songs like opening duo “Stargazers” and “Gethsemane.”

Perhaps the greatest triumphs of Oceanborn’s fluid choreography of sound can be found in cuts like “Devil and the Deep Dark Ocean,” “Moondance,” “The Riddler,” and “The Pharaoh Sails to Orion.” Evil and majestic at once, “Devil and the Deep Dark Ocean” is a classic; tight and direct in its delivery with some of the best riff-work on the record. The same rings true for “The Pharaoh Sails for Orion,” which also exhibits a spine-tingling operatic climax that no other Nightwish track could dethrone. That Tapio Wilska (ex-Finntroll) features heavily with his subterranean utterances on those two examples is simply icing on the cake. “Moondance” and “The Riddler” get the nod for their bouncy tunes that grow more infectious with each replay. Even though “Moondance” contains no vocals, every instrument frolics with unbridled glee, and “The Riddler” holds one of the best choruses on the record.

And of course, there’s Tarja Turunen. She was passionate about her vocal development and still had plenty to prove. It shows in what I consider to be the best performance of her career in metal. Reaching incredible high notes in “Devil and the Deep Dark Ocean” and delivering powerhouse belts in tracks like “The Pharaoh Sails to Orion” and “Gethsemane,” Tarja lays waste to the rest of the symphonic metal field with her siren song. She capitalizes on myriad opportunities to shine, whether on the fast and free “Sacrament of Wilderness” or the sweet lullaby of “Sleeping Sun,”2 and not once does she falter.

In fact, the entire band pushes far beyond their expectations. Compositionally, Tuomas Holopainen showcases excellent instincts and finesse considering he hadn’t constructed something as ambitious as Oceanborn up to this point. Perhaps due to the freshness of the whole endeavor, the other members of the band exploit their freedom to explore their limits. Jukka Nevalainen, in particular, delivers a more energetic and varied performance behind the kit than on other Nightwish releases, and guitarist Emppu Vuorinen displays immense versatility switching between power chords, chugging riffs and glorious solos. Even bassist Sami Vänskä makes a fine impression despite fighting tooth and nail for room in the mix.

When I considered this piece, I also considered why Yer Metal Is Olde exists in the first place. For me, it has always represented a celebration of records that changed the landscape of metal, or even just the author’s perspective on what metal meant to them. Oceanborn is one of those rare albums that I celebrate because to this day it embodies the intent for which symphonic metal exists. It is about pushing limits, exploring unchartered territory and taking risks that have no guarantees. Symphonic metal ought to be a magnificent adventure, and Oceanborn remains one of the greatest adventures upon which I have ever embarked.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Including Nightwish’s own somewhat disappointing third offering, Wishmaster.
  2. Technically, this was a separate single released in August of 1999, but every reissue of Oceanborn after that single’s release included the song, so there you go.
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