The Guide to Getting into Nightwish
We give you four entry points into the Finnish power metal powerhouse's extensive, over-the-top catalog.
Photo by Ville Akseli Juurikkala
Spotify recently released a list of the top emerging genres from 2017, and wouldn’t you know it, “melodic power metal” was number one, ahead of “chaotic black metal,” “vintage swoon,” and “gamecore.” Naturally, any self-respecting music fan would want to get in on the ground floor with this before 2018 rolls around and they’re left clamoring to get aboard the melodic power metal train. So how does one avoid this? Well, they can start by getting into one of the best melodic power metal bands ever to rock the Earth: Nightwish.
Where to start with Nightwish can be a bit tricky, however. The band’s sound and history has always been defined, fairly or not, by their various frontwomen, as well as the highly contentious and public blowups that have marked their passages. Formed in Kitee, Finland in 1996 by keyboardist and primary composer Tuomas Holopainen, Nightwish are actually disliked or even despised by a vast swath of the underground metal population, who find their unique brand of hyper-melodic and symphonic pop metal actively repulsive. While all metal is cheesy and theatrical, Nightwish take their melodrama to another level with choirs, live orchestras, elves, fairies, odes to magic and nature…Holopainen even once wrote a whole album about Scrooge McDuck. On top of that the band looks like the cast of a choose-your-own-adventure RPG and all their merch looks like a sincere riff on Three Wolf Moon. It’s a lot to handle. But over the years they’ve found a fanbase more than willing to take it on.
Of course Nightwish haven’t been reasonably considered “underground” since maybe 2001, but those fans remain the band’s primary bellwether, if only by virtue of the fact that not many people on this side of the Atlantic even talk about them. Outside the US, the band are borderline superstars, blowing the roofs off of arenas and entrancing stadium-size crowds with their angelic beatdown. And yet despite being regular festival headliners in Europe and abroad they remain a mystery to many.
As for the aforementioned band drama, the short version of the story—though you should absolutely look up the long version because as band drama goes it is juicy as heck—goes like this: After the release and touring cycle for Once, the massive super album that made them the juggernaut they are today, and the band fired their original vocalist Tarja, whose distinct operatic vocal style many would have considered the group’s defining element. The split was among the more publicly contentious vocalist switches in metal history (the other members of the band cited the Rasputin-like influence of Tarja’s husband/manager, a Argentine business man), and was made more so by the hiring of her replacement Anette Olzon, whose prior experience included fronting a Swedish AOR band called Alyson Avenue. Naturally fans assumed it was a precursor to moving to more commercial waters, something which did sort of come to pass (More on that later.)
Anette was herself fired after two albums—again, in highly public fashion—and eventually replaced (in the middle of a world tour) by current vocalist Floor Jansen. It’s been quite a ride. Fans, of course, hold their own deeply entrenched opinions on the matter, and they are not afraid to get real with them. Go to any Nightwish video on YouTube and you’ll see a war unfolding in the comments over which storied vocalist sang that song best. Was it Tarja, the pop-inflected Anette, or the domineering Floor? Usually these debates end with someone being called a fake fan, a Tarja Dweeb, or something much worse (I mean, it’s still YouTube). It’s… tiring.
The truth is though that the different vocalists—while they each have distinct styles and merits— haven’t changed the band’s sound nearly as much as these internet debaters might think. All elements of their sound, from the pop hits to the 12-minute symphonies, have existed in some form or another, simply becoming more or less prominent over time, and just about all of it has can bring overwhelming joy to any enterprising listener. So let’s dive in, shall we?
NOTE: Before people start sending death threats, this is not meant to be a definitely list of their very best songs. All Nightwish songs are great, but this is a guide and these are merely starting points, so please sheath your decorative swords.
So you want to get into: Cheesy Power Metal Nightwish?
Your like or dislike for Nightwish’s more pure power metal phase will hinge almost entirely on your tolerance for straight up cheese. The band’s early catalog followed a pretty simple formula: a traditional heavy metal foundation in the vein of fellow Finnish titans Stratovarius, a butt-load of keyboards, and Tarja’s soaring vocals. The debut, Angels Fall First (which just turned 20 this November) sounds like the soundtrack to a fantasy RPG video game. And yet but you can’t deny the fist-pumping quality of riffs like the opening of “Elvenpath” or “Tutankhamen.” Just think of it like Iron Maiden, but with more capes and candelabras, and fronted by a sky-shattering siren.
Of course, there’s plenty to cringe about here too. While they were definitely on to something, their reach frequently exceeded their grasp. Band founder Tuomas Holopainen for all his charming qualities (he played clarinet after being conscripted into the Finnish army so that he wouldn’t have to touch a gun), is not a gifted vocalist, and his early contributions in that role straight up torpedoed a number of otherwise bumpin’ tracks like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Astral Romance.”
On Oceanborn and follow-up Wishmaster the production got better and the band found a middle ground between their speedy power metal tendencies and pompous balladry. Tracks like “Gethsemane” and “Bare Grace Misery” are perfect mid-paced boppers that showcase the catchiness that would be brought to fruition in their later albums. Not that their more straightforward power metal didn’t slay (See: “Crownless”) but this is what newcomers will find the most appetizing.
Playlist: “Gethsemane” / “Bare Grace Misery” / “Elvenpath” / “Crownless” / “Wishmaster” / “The Pharaoh” / “Nymphomanic Fantasia” / “Sacrament of Wilderness”
So you want to get into: Big-Ass Cinematic Nightwish?
It seems strange that a band as theatrical as Nightwish could have gone even bigger, but they absolutely pulled it off, and they did it in two ways. First, they finally got a male vocalist (and awesome bassist) in Marco Hietala who could actually do justice to the material and provide a credible counterpart to Tarja (and later everyone else). Second, Holopainen subtly shifted gears, dropping the band’s more baroque orchestral trappings in favor of something more cinematic; less Phantom of the Opera and more more Lord of the Rings/final act of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie (Say what you will about the movies, the soundtrack had staying power).
Just listen to “Bless the Child,” the opening track on their 2002 breakout LP Century Child, or “Ever Dream,” and you can hear a band that’s learned to let their songs breathe, the riffs chunkier, the orchestral sections sounding even bigger. This is when Nightwish went from “pretty” good” to “shit-eating grin” good. But the real gem here is Once, and album that could justify having its own section entirely. Reportedly the most expensive Finnish recording ever made (almost €250,000), Once was a mega-level metal world event. Metal-Rules.com, then one of the more prominent online metal sites, posted SIX separate reviews of the album. It broke them to a global audience and cemented their status as perpetual festival headliners. For a niche heavy metal band it’s about as big as you can get.
Of course plenty of idiots accused them of selling out but all they really did is figure out how to make a bona fide hit single. A lot of Nightwish’s early material, solid as it was, could sometimes run together. But each of the first six tracks on Once is a distinct symphonic universe that tells a story all its own, and every one of them is an absolute monster. Want to gallop over a rainbow on horseback with a full complement of battle angels? “Dark Chest of Wonders” is your jam. Want to hit the club and go nuts to some power metal dance beats? “Wish I Had An Angel” is for you. Want to cry your eyes out? It’s “Nemo,” motherfuckerer. Each one is a journey unto itself, but the real crown jewel is the epic “Ghost Love Score,” which has more narrative in its 11 minutes than most modern blockbusters and an Oscar-worthy climax. Don’t tell the rest of the article but this is probably the only album you need.
There’s a weird misconception that Nightwish abandoned their symphonic sound after Tarja’s departure in favor of a stripped down, poppier approach. But while those elements grew in importance, both Dark Passion Play and Imaginaerum (featuring Anette), as well as the Floor Jansen-fronted Endless Forms Most Beautiful feature plenty of longer, more orchestrally-focused material, much of it on par, if not better, than anything on Once. “The Poet and the Pendulum” and “Shudder Before the Beautiful” are perfect spiritual successors to “Ghost Love Score” and “Dark Chest of Wonders,” respectively.
Playlist: Everything on Once, duh / “Bless the Child” / “Ever Dream” / “Poet and the Pendulum” / “Song of Myself” / “Shudder Before the Beautiful” / “Weak Fantasy”
So you want to get into: Big Ballad Nightwish?
You didn’t think we were gonna skip the ballads do you? Nightwish ooze so much kitsch it would be a waste if they didn’t crank out a few tear jerkers. The crown jewel is obviously “Sleeping Sun,” the weepy, gold-certified (in Finland anyway) hit single from 1999. Even with Tarja in full diva mode, the song’s winkling keys and gently flowing melodies never descend into schlock. It was never a great fit for Anette’s more soulful mid-range register, but in the hands of Floor Jansen “Sleeping Sun” has been restored to its former glory, at least in the live arena.
If you want to go a bit heavier there’s the guitar-heavy “Our Decades in the Sun” or “Creek Mary’s Blood,” a moving companion piece to the Dee Brown book of the same name and featuring Native American recording artist John Two-Hawks. Nightwish have always had a talent for orchestral crescendos but post-solo build up and subsequent horn section explosion here is on another level of grandeur. The age of the big rock/metal ballad may have ended decades ago but Nightwish proved there’s still a bit of life in the genre.
Playlist: “Sleeping Sun” / “Creek Mary’s Blood” / “Our Decades in the Sun” / “Feel For You” / “Forever Yours” / “Turn Loose the Mermaids”
So you want to get into: Pop Nightwish?
The Anette/Floor eras aren’t as commercially focused or accessible as the purists would have people believe. The truth is that Nightwish always had a strong pop strand in their DNA, but Tarja, for all her talents, was too one-dimensional as a vocalist (It’s true, sorry) to let it shine. With Anette at the helm the band was able to showcase their shorter, catchier side, with bigger, more traditional structures and more joyful melodies. It’s not even a stretch to say that “Amaranth,” one of the lead singles from Dark Passion Play, is closer to “Since You’ve Been Gone” than it is to “Elvenpath,” but there’s enough symphonic flair in place to make it pure Nightwish.
On follow-up Imaginaerum, the band scaled back their orchestral elements even further (though they hardly disappeared) and delivered what can be described as a demented pop fairy tale, complete with children’s choirs (“Ghost River”), circus music (“Scaretale”), and even Old West themes (“Turn Loose the Mermaids”). It’s an ode to the art of storytelling, and Anette was versatile enough to pull it all off. Of course, in typical Nightwish fashion, Anette had an especially ugly split from the band in the middle of the Imaginaerum tour cycle (this time with the other members of the band looking particularly bad) and was replaced by Floor Jansen, an addition that turned out to be something of a boon for the band.
While Anette struggled with the band’s more operatic elements (especially live), Floor could effortlessly play both parts (If you need proof, just check out the fabulous/wonderful/epic/mind blowing/worth-watching-once-a-day live DVD, Showtime/Storytime, and watch her absolutely annihilate the old material). Her tenure produced the well-balanced, nature-focused Endless Forms Most Beautiful, which, while featuring plenty of throwback material, also resulted in some of their most sugary material. The band had finally added touring member, frequent guest, and renowned Celtic/folk musician Troy Donockley as a full-time member, and his influence is really felt on songs like “My Walden” and the lead single “Elan.” They may be cheesy as hell but you have to have a heart made of black ice not to feel at least a little bit of the pure joy emanating throughout. That’s pretty much Nightwish in a nutshell.
Playlist: “Amaranth” / “Bye Bye Beautiful” / “Storytime” / “I Want My Tears Back” / “Elan” / “My Walden” / “Alpenglow”