Yes, it is! The 2004 release Once of Finnish metallers Nightwish really is … typical Nightwish fare after all. But with a real hard-edge Heavy Metal twist that I have not seen displayed yet by this band; before and after this record.
Because the ones that came before – for instance Oceanborn and to a lesser extent Century Child – ended up being some sort of a uniform amalgam of stuff. Power Metal and Gothic Metal – yes to an extent – but nothing really knocking the socks off my feet. And the albums following this here release are of a different style in a sense.
Once already exudes a certain transformational look and feel.
The band secured the use of a full orchestra for the first time – the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Ghost Love Score already features some characteristics that could be found much later, notably to a large extent in Imaginaerum. Much to the dislike of the purist addicts of this band’s former style of course, bemoaning a fate that got them cold.
Also, some experts opine that Nightwish finally met the mainstream. Nope! I beg to differ.
The band actually defined the mainstream, by which many other Symphonic Metal bands oriented themselves. They remained this lighthouse for a considerable amount of time and only now with their newest 2015 record Endless Forms Most Beautiful did they commercialize themselves a tad too much.
And I admit it: I am usually not a terribly big fan of Tarja Turunen and her operatic ways. But Once is an album seemingly made by Nightwish for her directly. She sounds absolutely stellar – less operatic (yes…), more varied, injecting different styles and tones into this here tune.
And this is a good thing!
The front chicks of Symphonic outfits sometimes forget they are not a fucking opera, but supposedly a metal outfit. So, this may not necessarily have been to her taste either. But you know what? This is exactly the boost that this band needed to move forward. And knowing that Tarja got ousted somewhat unceremoniously from the band shortly after the release of the album in 2005, her performance on Once is a really memorable occasion.
The next album – Dark Passion Play – some three years later was done with Anette Olzon. And she met a similar fate during the world tour of Imaginaerum. The separation letter the band (or more Tuomas) issued to Turunen is a piece of work in itself. It raises multiple accusations, putting Tarja’s husband Marcelo Cabuli, but also Tuomas Holopainen in a very special light. And I am not sure it is a favorable one for any of them.
Marko Hietala – on his second mission for Nightwish back then – really excels on Once. His distinctly grouchy style really delivers the right flavor of Beauty and the Beast to the audience without sounding cheesy. This is what a lot of Symphonic outfits don’t manage, but here we find the allegory perfectly executed.
And I really like the guitar performance of Emppu Vuorinen. Often present on the disc (when the orchestra does not take over, that is) and adding a friggin’ riff here and there. Actually one of the best performances of his career on the Nightwish trail. The only one being curiously absent seems to be Tuomas Holopainen and this gets us to the downsides of this record.
You thought there are no negatives on Once, didn’t ye?
Oh, there are. For starters, over-compression peeks around the corner numerous times, so much so that Tuomas Holopainen‘s keyboard work goes missing at times – actually many times. They for sure played too much on the mighty music machine without realizing that getting too many tracks going at once – just because they can – is not necessarily a good thing.
This is a fault the follow-on Dark Passion Play did not display so much anymore. And the use of the orchestra sometimes almost turns on them. Too much orchestra and you are going beyond Epica. And this is definitely a bad thing. They just about avoided that mighty rock in this tormented sea of wonders.
So, what have we got?
The positives of course largely outweigh the negatives. The success of Once is proof of the pudding in itself. Finland, Germany, Greece, Norway, all hit the first position on the charts. Once hit gold in a number of countries, and – as usual almost – multiple platinum in Finland.
Not only do the sales numbers speak for themselves, of course, but the track-list of catchy songs is also quite long on Once. Starting with Dark Chest of Wonders getting going strongly with very metal guitar contribution, Power Metal kind of along the way of their former contributions.
But then it will dawn on ye that things changed. Because this is much more mature than the former cookie-cutter tracks ever were. The record moves into Wish I Had an Angel. What can I say. This sounds a lot already like their future self, fronted by Anette Olzon. No offense, oh mighty fans of the Tarja era. By the way, this is a stellar contribution of Hietala on that one – just check out the video below. I love the ogre stance, rolling his eyes at the camera. Not quite as good as in later years, but hey, a good start.
Nemo gets the keyboards out for once. Apart from that this track is somewhat of a disappointment. Too much Disney in this one, not enough crunch. Clearly made for mainstream production and lyrics bordering on the cheese big time. This goes together with Creek Mary’s Blood a little further down the road, some of it presented in Lakotan attributed to a number of Sioux tribes. Tatanka Iyotake salutes you. Not sure what this one is catering to, but it is indeed original and I have taken a somewhat geeky liking to it.
From here on Once takes a much more progressive direction. Much to the dismay of many of the fans hailing to the early album as if it were their deity.
And mind you, this is progressive, skillfully mixed with the typical Nightwish style. The transformational element becomes ever more apparent this second half. Dead Gardens of the wrecked ending, Romanticide containing a stellar solo. And – last, but not least – the aforementioned Ghost Love Score. The latter really gets them out on a limb, exploring landscapes never heard before. Kind of softly symphonic with an oriental twist. Once ends with two slow-motion tracks, one in Finnish, the other Higher Than Hope a tribute to Marc Brueland.
And the verdict?
Once delivers a beginning of a new Nightwish brand and era. A direction that will become much more apparent three years later in Dark Passion Play. You will find no discernible fillers, the negatives being relatively insignificant when looking at the whole package. And you’ll get a more varied Tarja Turunen to boot. In this light, it is a pity that they let her go so abruptly a little while later.
The album in itself is however thoroughly enjoyable and I can only recommend it. Good one.