What Lies Beneath is Tarja’s third album, but only her second metal album. Released in 2010 this album easily gets the biggest surprise of the year award for me. Having bought her previous effort, 2007’s My Winter Storm around the time it first came out and finding myself on the Nightwish (Tarja’s former band, just in case you’re reading this unaware) side of the split. It’s about three years later at the time of writing this review for its follow up, and it’s take me this long to really appreciate the previous effort, which even now I’d still consider very far from a masterpiece. So when bits and pieces of this following started getting released I was quite surprised. The material here is of such a superior quality to My Winter Storm and when I say superior I really mean it, because with What Lies Beneath Tarja has delivered an album that is really up there with some of the best albums of the genre, including those of her former band Nightwish, and has singlehandedly managed to make me prefer Tarja’s solo career to post-Tarja Nightwish, when previously I was generally of the opinion that she’d never be part of another truly great album.
The music is much heavier than what was on My Winter Storm and it’s also more to the point, there are no intro or transition tracks on the album, not even as an opener. This is a good thing, all those intros that were practically musically joined to the next songs on the previous album were really annoying to me and What Lies Beneath is a much better and accessible album for doing away with this practice. The music is also generally much more focused on being metal than classical pieces. There’s also a bit of a progressive flair in some of these songs such as opener Anteroom of Death and Dark Star, which was pretty unexpected. Anteroom of Death could even be consider somewhat avant-garde, it has some general weirdness that could be associated with the style, especially in the bridge where a cappella metallers Van Canto pop up for a guest appearance. Dark Star also features a guest appearance, this time from All That Remains vocalist Phil Labonte, providing some guest vocals, including a few growls, though these aren’t exactly prominent in the performance. While less experimental than Anteroom of Death and featuring a chorus laden with lyrical hooks, this one nevertheless is leaning towards that sound.
This is not to say that Tarja hasn’t included some more commercially orientated songs, she has, but in their own way they’re just as good as those experimental pieces like Anteroom of Death. They’re not all classical ballads either, they’re still heavy even if they’re designed to show off Tarja’s vocal ability and when riffs are prominent they’re very good. Until My Last Breath is the first of these songs, and what’s most of note here as the second track is how different it is to Anteroom of Death. Tarja’s vocals here are excellent and a nice guitar solo is thrown in for good measure. Third track I feel Immortal is another song which fits into this sort of category but this one mixes a heavy chorus with some atmospheric piano for the verses. While it can be seen as commercially orientated metal there is a great and epic atmosphere to it which is what sets it apart from songs with a similar intent by other artists. Later track Underneath is a more balladry type song, but is every bit as good in its own way, and the same goes for Rivers of Lust. What’s most of note at these more standard songs is that they have a great atmosphere which wasn’t really evident on My Winter Storm.
In For a Kill is quite a frantic sounding song, very guitar driven. Some have described this song as like something that would be the theme to a James Bond theme, and right down to the delivery of it and the name I have to say they’re are right to say that. Again vocals are superb and the song has a different feel to what’s been offered already, so we know already that What Lies beneath is no one track pony as is proved yet again with Little Lies, which begins with this little rhythm pattern that sounds like the build up to a shark attack in a film or something, which then kicks into some of the heaviest riffs on the album. Despite the hooks in the chorus this song doesn’t actually come across as overly commercial. Some of the riffs here don’t sound that far off to some stuff I’ve heard from groove metal bands.
Falling Awake deserves a special mention of its own as the lead single from the album, and may end up being the song that gets checked out by new listeners the most due to the presence of famed guitarist Joe Satriani guesting on it to provide some of his trademark lead guitar work. While not the most experimental song on the album it is nevertheless a surprising choice for the lead single given that this is actually no commercially inclined ballad like I Feel Immortal, it’s very much a metal song and it is one that can really get you going, especially when Joe kicks in. His leads are epic and really add to the atmosphere of the song, especially in the drawn out outro section. Great stuff.
The Archive of Lost Dreams is another ballad, and is the only song on the album to be completely composed by Tarja and is one of the most classically orientated pieces on the album. I can’t say it’s a particular favourite of mine but it does fit very well in with what the rest of the album offers. After this we’re just left with the last and longest track – Crimson Deep. Starting off with some bass guitar it quickly moves into some heavy riffs which sound almost doom metal at times, and perhaps would be if played slightly slower. It then turns the tone down a notch for the verse which features some haunting piano work. The guitars come back in pretty quick though in the build up to the chorus. Yet again there’s something a different feel to this song. At about four and a half minutes in everything else pulls back for a piano/acoustic guitar section which gradually builds up with some symphonies and then it gets heavy again in such a way that it may make you think if this is really a Tarja album, because it’s so completely unlike anything she has put her name to before. It’s far from generic and its very far from what she was doing with Nightwish. No, it’s much better than that. No one saw this coming, but Tarja just put out one of the best of 2010.
There also exists a deluxe edition with three bonus songs, two originals and a cover. I’ll talk about the originals first. The first of these is We Are, which starts off with some light music which lasts through the first verse until kicking into some heavy guitar riffs for the chorus. I love the chorus is this one, its pretty additive. After the second of these the songs takes one of those unexpected turns and goes all weird on us to the point of leaning towards the avant-garde again. The second original bonus track is Naiad, which is a more of a classical piece yet as times, while not metal doesn’t strange classical at all, still experimental and just well, different is probably the best word to use here. It’s also the best such piece (as in light non-metal songs) out of the whole package. Like Crimson Deep it’s another long track (both clock in at over seven minutes). These two shouldn’t really be bonus tracks as they’re every bit as great as what Tarja’s put on the main album, better than some even, which is why I’d recommend picking up the deluxe edition of the album over the regular, it’s worth it just for these two songs.
The cover is Still of the Night, originally by Whitesnake. My Winter Storm has a cover of Alice Cooper’s Poison and this is What Lies Beneath’s equivalent to that, except this time the right thing has been done by putting the classic rock cover as a bonus track since this way it doesn’t sound out of place even if it does still sound slightly ridiculous to hear Tarja doing a song of this style, which is far from that of her usual style, even in this very varied release. Enjoyable nonetheless.
(Review originally written for Heavy Metal Haven)