Finland's Nightwish are probably one of metal's best known artists and certainly are a name that new metalheads will come across sooner rather than later. They've always been a pretty divisive band as well though, having popularised the soprano voiced symphonic metal sound that was a far cry from metal's roots. With Tarja Turunen fronting the band they gained quite the loyal following though, so when Tarja was fired Nightwish became even more divisive than ever. There weren't just fans and detractors any longer, but divisions within the fans themselves. With Tarja's distinctive voice gone many fans understandably felt that the band had lost one of its key elements, which was only further enforced when they announced that instead of doing what was expected of them and finding someone who could handle the material of the Tarja era, that they were instead bringing in one Anette Olzon of the AOR group Alyson Avenue to be their new lead singer.
Now, I think Anette Olzon gets a lot of unfair criticism for her performance in Nightwish. She's certainly no Tarja Turunen but she was never supposed to be. For what it's worth I think she gave it her all for her two albums with the band before she too found herself going the way of Tarja and was also fired. The first of her Nightwish albums was Dark Passion Play (2007) and though I personally quite liked it at the time I can't say it's weathered too well since. I think that album feels like the band were still in the same gear as they were with the final Tarja voiced album Once (2004) which would have been all well and good if Tarja had still been around to sing on it. Fast-forward a few more years though to Olzon's second and final studio album with Nightwish, which may just be their most divisive release all told. Imaginaerum (2011) is not an album I recall fans reacting too positively about at the time of its release and I can say that I for one hated it right at the start. But then it started to grow on me. This is actually not my first review of it as I reviewed it way back when to the best of my ability once it had opened up into a more positive experience, leaving my readers with words along the lines of 'I'm very sure that there’s a masterpiece hidden in Imaginaerum somewhere, only I haven't found it yet'.
Well guess what? Many years later, I do believe that I have now found what I have expected has always been here. It's been a long journey to take to get to where I am at now with the album, listening to it only very occasionally to see if my perspective had changed at all as I got more experienced with different types of metal music (and more importantly, other symphonic metal acts) and every time I couldn't say that I felt any different about the album, until the day that it suddenly clicked. I'm not sure exactly what changed to make everything about Imaginaerum suddenly fall into place, but it happened. I've left it a good while (over a year even) since then before doing this review re-write just to make sure it wasn't just me being in a specific mood for this album, but lo and behold it seems this is the real deal.
I've had to have a good think about why this could be and I think it may be because I've listened to a lot more symphonic metal bands since I first heard Imaginaerum and noticed that most artists playing the genre are pretty generic. There are a few variances in sound such power metal and folk influences creeping in and sometimes there's some progressive stuff or even outright pop leanings, but those things have become so common that they are now part of the generic symphonic metal formula. It's actually more unusual I think to hear a new symphonic metal release that doesn't use any of these little cliches. Then there's Imaginaerum. It has the folk influences (both in a metal context and not), and it has a little bit of power metal, but it also has a whole lot more besides. Track by track Nightwish do different things on this album, refusing to uphold any formula. Although it has taken me a long time to hear and appreciate it I think it may be the case that Imaginaerum is not only the most creative Nightwish album but also a contender for the most creative symphonic metal album in general. The amount of atypical elements along with the familiar in this album should be applauded. There's Celtic folk music, folk metal, jazz, power metal, progressive and even avant-garde metal, poetry recital, pure orchestral music; you could probably even make a case for it being a form of cabaret. Now tell me, what other symphonic metal album does all of that?
I, at least, can't name another. Of course it's all very well being inventive with your influences but what really matters in any album is whether the songs themselves work. I think that maybe my initial disappointment in the album may have been to do with it possible feeling disjointed. As I previously stated, the band do flit about with their style a lot more than normal on Imaginaerum. This is ultimately to the album's credit though. It's a difficult album to really summarise how it sounds because there's rarely a second song on it that is quite in the same frame as a previous one.
Taikatalvi opens the album and it's basically an intro track lasting for just over two and a half minutes. Male vocalist Marco Hietala sings it solo, in the band's native Finnish. Afterwards they proceed to Storytime, the lead single of the album. This is a fairly standard symphonic metal track that probably would have fit well enough on Dark Passion Play and seems to promise that Imaginaerum is going to be more of the same as its predecessor but then comes Ghost River and things start to get a bit more different, adding in some semi-harsh vocals from Marco.
The real curveball's start though with track four and the album's first full non-metal song, Slow, Love, Slow, as from out of nowhere Nightwish turn into a jazz band. Picture a dimly lit nightclub in times gone by (1930's) and Anette Olzon singing it up on the stage and you won't be far off what the album just dealt you. The song really shows off how good a vocalist she really is actually, as the music is quite minimal (this isn't the most lively kind of jazz). Though it's almost as long itself it forms a pretty great intro for I Want My Tears Back, which is when the genre of the album switches to folk metal. This is one of the tracks I've always liked the most. Then there's Scaretale, which takes things into some just plain weird, circus-like avant-garde kind of territory that seems totally at odds with the more structured I Want My Tears Back. Arabesque then serves as a short interlude, which includes some oriental folk elements.
When the second half of the album gets going the band have entered ballad territory with Turn Loose the Mermaids. There are probably too many instances of non-metal/balladry on Imaginaerum for the more traditional metalhead to stomach, but for me they actually also show the strength of the band as unlike most ballads in symphonic and/or power metal bands they aren't completely bland fare, this one being folksy. It's really quite a beautiful song. The Crow, the Owl and the Dove, just two tracks on from this, is quite similar in style but features some guest vocals delivered by Troy Donockley (who'd later join the band full-time). It's the closest the album comes to having two songs that are very alike though, along with Last Ride of the Day and the aforementioned Storytime. Between the two ballads though is Rest Calm, which plays well with both heavy and light elements to create an effective song. The slower plays and drawn out guitar in the heavy parts is even a bit of a nod to doom metal.
In the final stages of the album we get what promises to be an epic, Song of Myself, since it lasts for over thirteen minutes. This one was always a big shock to me because instead of being something on the level of Dark Passion Play's The Poet and the Pendulum, it's actually sort of half a fairly standard song and then everything is given over to a poem recital, inspired by (but not actually being) the piece of the same name by Walt Whitman. For a long time this has been my least favourite part of the album but I've come to appreciate it more of the years. It's actually quite a nice, gentle way to close the experience that has been Imaginaerum. But of course, there's still one track to go, the title track itself. It's actually a medley of the main themes from most of the previous tracks and sort of feels like the end credits of the whole production, which of course makes sense as the band also worked on a film of Imaginaerum (which I still haven't seen).
Imaginaerum is not the easiest of albums to understand but it is an album that I've really come to regard very highly. While my personal favourite of the band will likely always remain Oceanborn (1998), I think that objectively it's hard to argue that Imaginaerum is Nightwish's most interesting and inventive album; one that also has good songs. I expect some fans still listen to the Anette Olzon fronted Nightwish albums and expect to hear Tarja Turunen's soprano style over symphonic power metal as per the band's classic period and come away with a lower opinion of Imaginaerum because of it, but approach the album from a point of view other than it being a work by the same artist who made Oceanborn and Wishmaster (2000) and you may just come away surprised by it. For me, it's a masterpiece that I have finally unearthed and can now enjoy to its full extent.