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The answer to the riddle before your eyes, Is in dead leaves and fleeting skies
If there is a polar opposite to SUNN O))) it might be these guys. Nightwish are a Symphonic Metal band from Finland. They have a sound that is distinctly Euro, combining classical, folk, pop, and cabaret. They are melodic, dynamic, and innovative musicians. They are also practised storytellers. They are a gateway drug to heavy metal. I love every Nightwish song. All of them. Soaring female vocals, folk infused classical lilting melodies, thrash metal inspired riffs, singalong choruses. Music fans who dislike the growls and roars of male fronted acts may find something to like in the music of Nightwish.
Tuomas Holopainen is one of the founding members of the band. He is the principal songwriter and composer of Nightwish. Other important band members include Marko Hietala (now departed) and a series of drummers, bass players and other instrumentalists through the years. However the Nightwish story is a tale of three very different lead singers.
I was intensely suspicious of Nightwish when they first appeared. I believed that they were a manufactured for MTV band as they were so polished. I suspected some record label consulted Ozzy & Sharon Osbourne and several Eurovision judges to assemble a music hybrid, in the same vein as the rap-metal outfits from a decade previous. What I didn’t realise is that they were already touring veterans of the Metal festivals in their home country and surrounding Nordic neighbours. What I was hearing was their fifth album.
They were not the first metal band to feature a woman as the lead vocalist. They weren’t even original for the late 90s or early 00s. Both Lacuna Coil and Evanescence had been charting well before them. The Gathering from Netherlands were even a little bit earlier than those two.
But I think they were probably the first Metal band ever to feature a female Operatic Soprano as their vocalist.
Nightwish and their record label had spent €1,000,000 producing their album Once. This was money well spent. It was a smash-hit, particularly in Europe, but their videos to future metal anthems ‘Nemo’ (above), and ‘Wish I Had an Angel’ ensured they had global success. With a five album back catalogue they were on heavy rotation on the music TV channels. Lead singer Tarja Turunen’s vocals were peerless in Metal and Hard Rock. She quickly became an icon. Nightwish went on a world tour and opened the 2005 World Athletics Championships in Helsinki. They were about to get Metallica big.
Then immediately after a recorded live performance, Tarja was publicly fired by the band.
I’m not going to get into details about her dismissal. But if you’re interested you can read Nightwish’s open letter to her here and her response here. In summary they claimed she acted like a guest musician and was more interested in a possible solo career. She disagreed.
The gig was called (ironically) the End of an Era and was made into a DVD which sold by the truckload. You can watch the whole thing here. You should, it’s brilliant - although a little cringey considering the male members of the band already knew they were going to fire Tarja afterwards.
So that was the end of Nightwish and Tarja right? Wrong! I’ll write more about Tarja Turunen in a later post for her contribution popularising an entire genre (Symphonic Metal) and for her stellar solo career since.
I’m going to pause here for a moment. Tarja and Nightwish recorded five albums together. Once is the most famous. It’s one of the best selling Metal albums of all time and their early stuff is also really good.
Changing the vocalist is a huge gamble in any genre. In some instances, it divides the fan base forever. Half stay with the band, the other half follow the vocalist. This is what happened with Brazilian Metallers Sepultura. In other cases it leads to a wider audience for the band, which is what happened when Bruce Dickinson joined Iron Maiden.
It’s hard to judge if Nightwish have released an album as successful as Once, as music streaming became more popular than shifting physical media around this time. On balance they’re probably more popular than ever albeit with a wider fanbase these days. This is partly down to YouTube and the talent of the next vocalist.
Tarja was replaced by Anette Olsen. Anette is a natural Pop-Rock singer. Where Tarja was cool and imperious, Anette is cheeky and playful. While not having anywhere near the same vocal range as her predecessor, she is a fantastic singer. The Anette era of Nightwish was the one I got into. Her two albums Dark Passion Play and Imaginaerum are absolute bangers and saw Nightwish move away from their Dark Gothic Symphonic Metal sound into a more Dark Cabaret Symphonic Metal one.
Nightwish fired Anette in 2012. Nightwish implied the split was somewhat due to artistic differences. Anette stated it was because she became pregnant and the band refused to change tour dates. I normally don’t read too much into musicians parting ways, as it is a business at the end of the day. But firing two vocalists? Hmmmmm.
Nightwish hired a new vocalist. I dare them to try and fire Floor Jansen.
Floor is a wonderful vocalist who was the front-woman for Dutch Symphonic metallers After Forever on five albums and was already a bit of a legend before she joined Nightwish. She can sing both the Tarja and Anette songs extremely well. She has recorded two studio albums with Nightwish.
There’s something joyful about Nightwish. They are a good example that Metal can have a welcoming, warm, and hopeful vibe, without losing the intensity that sets it apart from regular rock. Nightwish do not adorn their live sets with skulls and inverted crosses. Their schtick is more Owls and weeping Angels. Some of their softer tunes could work as background music in a Tarot and Incense shop. They are also heavy enough to headline Metal Festivals such as Wacken.
Nightwish did not invent symphonic metal. Like most offshoots of popular music, the genre grew by itself. Around the same time that Nightwish formed, Therion from Sweden and Within Temptation from Netherlands were experimenting with Orchestras and Choirs. Since then bands like Epica, Avantasia, Delain, Xandria, and many others have happily rode the coattails of Nightwish onto the stages of Metal festivals throughout the world.
The mark of a distinctive artist for me is the ABBA-AC/DC test. With both ABBA and AC/DC you instantly recognise the act by the first few bars of music played. Nightwish certainly fall into this category and for me, they are a must buy band with each new release. They are on my concert bucket-list. Only time will tell if they are finished firing vocalists.
Next week: Two nineties movie soundtracks fight to the death!