“Sit back and enjoy the ride.” That’s what Nightwish keyboardist/songwriter/visionary Tuomas Holopainen said, in characteristically enigmatic fashion, when asked to introduce ‘Imaginaerum’ at the album listening session back in September last year.
There is really no better way to describe it: even without being fed all of the theme park imagery through the promotional artwork, the inspiration is clearly there. The songs are peppered with musical motifs reminiscent of haunted houses, abandoned ghost trains and creaking merry-go-rounds. There are moments of unadulterated sweetness and beauty, and there are moments that are much darker than anything Nightwish have done before. But it’s a different kind of darkness to what we heard on 2007’s ‘Dark Passion Play’: twisted and playful rather than sombre, and gleefully revelling in the gruesome and nightmarish.
The album begins not with a big epic instrumental (cue collective sigh of relief), but with a pretty little song, ‘Taikatalvi’ (‘magic winter’) sung in Finnish by bassist Marco Hietala. Then comes the symphonic and insanely catchy ‘Storytime’, the lead single and the first time we hear Anette Olzon on her second album as Nightwish singer.
Not only have her vocal talents improved a thousandfold, on ‘Imaginaerum’ Anette also showcases sides of herself that we haven’t seen before. On the jazzy and atmospheric ‘Slow, Love, Slow’, which could be a lullaby composed by Angelo Badalamenti, it’s as if she’s whispering in your ear, her voice low, sultry and hushed. On the chilling ‘Scaretale’, there’s another first: we hear Anette growling, shrieking and spitting out lyrics such as “Oh sweet poison, bite me, bite me!” in a style somewhere between speech and singing. Along with creepy children’s nursery rhymes, haunted-fairground noises and some serious riffage by guitarist Emppu Vuorinen, this could be the band’s darkest and heaviest song yet. It certainly proves the band’s metal credentials.
There’s also a lot more variation on this album. On songs such as ‘I Want My Tears Back’, ‘Turn Loose the Mermaids’ and ‘The Crow, The Owl and The Dove’, the symphonic elements are eschewed, and the violin and Uilleann pipes (played by Troy Donockley) are favoured as lead instruments, adding to the Celtic vibe which has been present in their music since ‘Dark Passion Play’.
It wouldn’t be a Nightwish record, though, without a full choir and orchestra. These are used to full bombastic effect on the exhilarating ‘Last Ride of the Day’, another standout track which could be Anette’s strongest vocal performance on the album, and on ‘Song of Myself’. The latter is a huge, sprawling epic which is Tuomas’ poetic homage to his hero Walt Whitman, divided into four parts ranging from Orff-like choral chants to chugging guitars to a lengthy narrative section. If, like me, you’ve an aversion to spoken-word passages in music, you’d be forgiven for wanting to skip over this part, but I recommend leaving your cynicism at the door and listening to it in full at least once. Lines like “Careless realism costs souls” will linger in your mind for days.
Tuomas’ lyrics are, as always, pure fantastical poetry, but as a means of urging us to open our eyes to see the beauty in everything, the ‘carnival of life’. He says that his concept of an ‘imaginarium’ (as the album was originally titled) is “a place to heal your imagination”. Take it a song at a time and you have a solidly brilliant and captivating metal album. Listen to it the whole way through and you find yourself on a journey that is emotionally rather draining, but one you won’t regret taking.