Nightwish has changed since Once. But it's not as shocking a transition as you might think. The sudden departure of Tarja Turunen in 2005 was nothing short of traumatic for the fans – as well as the band, from the sound of the first two tracks of Dark Passion Play.
One signature element of a Nightwish album is an epic ballad, usually right near the end. Not this time. “The Poet and the Pendulum” opens the album with nearly fourteen minutes of exceptional, ruthless metal. Imagine "Planet Hell," but more. In the lyrics, we see the dark in Dark Passion Play. There are some disturbing moments in this song. It's noteworthy that Tuomas Holopanien, songwriter and keyboardist for the band, hauntingly describes his own death in “the year of our Lord 2005.” This is a song about uncertainty and suffering. Some of the imagery the lyricist invokes leaves me feeling uneasy. Undoubtedly, that was the aim. The song drives and pounds, swells, and releases with a slow, melodic outro.
Perhaps appropriately, new singer Anette Olzon is not the first voice we hear on the track, but she is the last. Let's get the inevitable comparisons out of the way. Right away, we notice Anette has more grit in her voice than Tarja ever did. She's definitely not an opera singer, nor does she attempt to be. She's different. But she's fantastic. She's versatile. Her voice is a crystal laser. She will destroy you if she must. She's not Tarja, and I'm okay with that. One track in, and I like where this is going.
But the last word on Tarja has not been spoken until track two, “Bye Bye Beautiful.” If the metal movements of the first track were driving, the beat of this track is just brutal. Pounding guitars give way to Anette's melodic verse, invoking Nightwish's old trick: lure 'em in with a siren song, then blast 'em with the chorus. By the time the drums hit, it's too late. Marco Hietala's in your face, killing you. It took a live concert and a Megadeth cover for me to learn to appreciate the bassist's vocals, but now, he's in rare form. His angry viking voice is only appropriate for the lyrics it hurls: "did you ever read what I wrote you / did you ever hear what I told you..." and so on. Don't worry. The song is actually more hopeful than it initally sounds. But at its end, the matter, for the moment is closed. Catharsis done. On to business, with "Amaranth."
We saw shades of Nighwish using pop elements in "Romanticide" and "Wish I Had an Angel." "Amaranth" is the logical conclusion. The orchestra is still in the background, but it's in a major key. The vocals still soar, but Anette actually vamps a little in there. Really, some of the little vocal touches she throws in make the song for me. Listen for that moment of gravel in the bridge, and the hint of a scream at the end. Mmm. The first two tracks speak to the past, and this one runs headlong into the new.
And then they throw "Cadence of Her Last Breath" in there, just to show us what Evanescence should have been. Honestly. It's like they sat Amy Lee down in the studio and said, "No no no, honey. Like this." Again, the orchestra is there, and hints of the choir. This is fully Nightwish. But in all reality, it's a really hard alternative song. I honestly think this song is on the CD just to prove they could do it.
Speaking of proving something, the next track is "Master Passion Greed." Question: has Marco ever had a song to himself and the choir? Hmm. If he did before this point, would it have worked as well? Turns out he's pretty versatile, too. Screaming, growling, generally menacing the audience, all the while thumping away on the bass. The tempo changes and expert, sparing use of the orchestra get me fired up. The song is rough overall, though, and the use of synth at the beginning is borderline awkward. Get past it, however, and you'll find an angry metal anthem worth listening to.
Eva: slow song. Pretty.
Sahara. Oh, my goodness. If at this point, you're wondering, "what happened to the Nightwish I knew and loved?" ...here they are. I don't care if the Arabian Nights took place nowhere near the Sahara. This may be my new favorite Nightwish song.
The album has more surprises in store, not least of which are a Celtic-style ballad and a gospel choir. No, that wasn't a typo. For the moment, I'll leave you to wonder, or listen for yourself.