Album Review: Nightwish, Dark Passion Play

[from Metal Heavy, November 6, 2007]

You might not know it, but Nightwish are huge in Europe. Most-expensive-album-in-Finnish-history huge. Fifty-thousand-fans-a-night huge. Platinum-in-a-day huge. Website-published-in-five-languages huge. Top-10-in-12-countries-at-once huge. Two-thousand-applicants-to-be-the-new-singer huge.

Dark Passion PlayYou also might be only acutely aware of it, but Nightwish are also one of the most over-the-top and bombastic in a long line of over-the-top, bombastic symphonic metal bands. A 79-piece Dark Passion Play orchestra. A 42-piece Metro Voice choir. Another 11-piece gospel choir. Sessions at Abbey Road Studios. Trading off lead vocalists between song segments – sometimes between lines. Overtures, multi-part epics, songs about books: Nightwish are a big band making a big sound in a big way, and Dark Passion Play continues full-speed with the endeavors and ambitions of their previous work. The choirs ring, the symphony rains drama, the drums channel the fury, the solos are huge, the arrangements bring the harmony, tension and resolution against the alternately haunting, flowing and soaring vocals of new frontwoman Anette Olzon.

In fact, in a bizarrely brilliant nod to the fuss and discussion about this album around the soap opera departure of founding singer Tarja Turunen and hiring of the relatively (it’s all relative when your band plays to 50,000 a night) anonymous Olzon, the band also released a special edition of DPP with a bonus disc containing vox-free mixes of every one of the album’s 13 tracks. Purists and Nightwish devotees alike may argue that this dilutes the band and their songs, but when you stack how the music of Dark Passion Play resonates against how the words of Dark Passion Play read, it becomes pretty obvious that chief songwriter Thomas Holopainen’s strengths play out through his piano and his ear immeasurably more than through his pen. For the hardcore, the first disc is always there; for everyone who ever said they can’t take the singing of this type of music, or the singing of Nightwish songs by anyone besides Turunen, the second disc stands alone in all its high-volume and long-winded glory. Whether this is a stroke of genius or the biggest sell-out ever remains to be seen.

Nightwish may not have created their masterpiece this time around – most will point to 2002’s Century Child for that – but you can’t say they didn’t pull out all the stops trying. True, they can be a bit much to take at once. True, some of the lyrics are just a bit too pretentious even for a genre heralded and embraced for its pretentiousness. True, the English-via-Finnish phrasing can be awkward at times. The temptation exists to write them off as another Scandinavian metal band that takes themselves a bit too seriously, but having already ridden their songs about Edgar Allen Poe and Ernest Hemingway to the top of the mountain, chances are they don’t really need anyone’s approval to keep doing what they’re doing anymore.

Nightwish aren’t for everyone. They know this. Still, it’s hard not to give them a shot when they’re willing to bend their album to appease people who not only the people haven’t heard them before, but also the people who have already sworn themselves off of a singer they haven’t heard yet.

And besides, you know, they’re huge in Europe.