I’m not going to apologize for liking Nightwish. I might be only a small handful of Decibel writers willing to endorse the garish symphonic strains of the Finnish band (hi, Jeff Treppel), but I remain steadfast. Besides, for all the emphasis on extreme metal, isn’t Nightwish’s use of operatic melodies extreme? I’d even say that Wishmaster took metal into territories of bombast that nobody had ever dared to try before, and if that isn’t extreme, I don’t know what is. I know, I know, extreme metal is an umbrella term for the “harsher”, “darker” strains of heavy metal. But still, hopefully you see my point. For all Nightwish’s merits – yes, merits – they’ve developed quite a reputation as a severely dysfunctional band, thanks to a pair of very ugly public spats with singers. They brutally fired longtime frontwoman Tarja Turunen via open letter in 2005, and after a pair of albums, including 2011’s superb Imaginaerum, parted ways with her replacement Anette Olzon seven years later. Both singers brought unique dimensions to the band, Turunen with her powerful soprano voice, Olzon with her more personable pop-oriented style, but neither singer did very well when trying to cross over. Turunen sounded stiff when going for more rock-style singing, while Olzon absolutely bombed when attempting to replicate Turunen’s towring “Wishmaster”. As much success as Nightwish had, they could never have the best of both worlds, musically speaking.
That is, until they took on Floor Jansen. Hired as an emergency replacement for Olzon last year when the band was in the middle of a North American tour, the former After Forever singer not only proved to be a total team player – keyboardist and songwriter Tuomas Holopainen clearly has no patience for divas – but once she settled into her role, she has brought a level of flair to both sides of Nightwish’s music that audiences have never heard before. And what she brings to this band is on full display on Showtime, Storytime (Nuclear Blast), an unfortunately titled yet absolutely scintillating performance at Wacken Open Air this past August.
Jansen already built a stellar reputation for herself with After Forever, but she never had songs this good to work with before, and she throws herself into them with gusto, giving them new life in the process. Holopainen has a masterful ear for symphonic metal hooks, but is an unforgiving songwriter, demanding challenging range and enunciation skills from his singers, but Jansen rises to the occasion time and again. She tackles the operatic side of Nightwish on the epic “Ghost Love Score”, pulls off the insane modulation of “Ever Dream” and “She’s My Sin” with skill, and delivers the logorrheic lyrics for “Storytime” with charm. The ease with which she shifts from rock to operatic with Nightwish is stunning, and I’d even go as far as saying the band has never sounded better as a result.
For all its strengths, there are a couple minor gripes. Surely the producer could have muted the annoying smoke machine that whooshes intrusively on “Amaranthe”. And the documentary of the 2012 drama on the DVD, while fascinating, is very sloppily put together, and hilariously has zero mention nor video footage of Olzon (referred to as “the former singer”) at her request. Still, that’s hardly enough to ruin an otherwise sterling live document. We’ll see how this current incarnation of Nightwish works out, but as it looks right now, they have a real keeper in Jansen.
Also out this week:
Caïna, Earth Inferno (Church Of Fuck): A longtime admirer of Andrew Curtis-Brignell’s project Caïna, I was disappointed when he announced in 2011 that he was quitting making music under that moniker. Well, in this business you never say never, and sure enough, two years later the project is back up and running. The album Litanies of Abjection came out earlier this year, but this new five-track is much more interesting, as Curtis-Brignell ditches the experimentation for the most part and focuses strictly on raw black metal. Expertly written – despite the lo-fi feel the dynamics here are tremendous – with a keen ear for both melody and atonality, it’s an effectively savage return to early form. If his forthcoming 2014 album is as exceptional as “Death Posture”, look out. Stream and purchase via Bandcamp.
Derogatory, Above All Else (FDA Rekotz): This California foursome wears its 1990s Florida death metal influence on its sleeve. Almost slavishly so, as it could benefit from more of a Swedish groove, but that sound is replicated capably enough, right down to the bone-dry tone. It’s not until “To Escape What is Now”, however, that the band steps outside the box a little, as that song’s more progressive direction is by far the most interesting thing on the album. Hopefully that’ll be a stepping stone towards more adventurous things than mimicking Morbid Angel.
Groan, Ride The Snake (Superhot): The press release bills this English band as “doom ‘n’ roll”, which I suppose is true to an extent, but what I hear most on this EP is Anvil. Heavy, oddly catchy, and relentlessly goofy, where part of you cringes and another part of you gets a kick out of it.
Kimi Kärki, The Bone Of My Bones (Svart): What a strange album. The Finnish singer-songwriter goes from painfully obvious Leonard Cohen worship to a Johnny Cash homage, and then lifts the vocal melody from Zeppelin’s “No Quarter”, all the while singing lyrics that veer from metal bombast to dream-inspired surrealism. It’s not bad by any stretch, but any metal fan wanting to get into acoustic music is better off listening to actual Leonard Cohen albums instead. I suggest Songs From a Room.
Mastodon, Live At Brixton (Warner Brothers): Live recordings of Mastodon shows can be dodgy affairs. The more melodic and streamlined their albums get, it seems the less able they are to fully replicate the cleanly sung vocals live. However, this digital-only release, recorded in early 2012, is fairly solid. Sure, the singing still struggles at times to keep up with the foursome’s impeccable musicianship, but it’s not distractingly bad. That’s something. And besides, these 24 songs otherwise scorch.
Selim Lemouchi & His Enemies, Earth Air Spirit Water Fire (Van): With apologies to Greil Marcus, what is this shit? It’s nice to see Selim Lemouchi quickly shed The Devil’s Blood, which split up in ugly fashion early this year, and focus on making new music, but oh my, is this new album ever an ungodly mess of sloppy, meandering psychedelic rock. While Lemouchi’s a talented guy – “The Deep Dark Waters” is the one keeper on this five-track album – his lack of focus is severe, his self-indulgence unbearable. Coupled with the disastrously bad final Devil’s Blood album earlier this year, it feels like he’s losing the plot, and quickly.
Slaughterday, Nightmare Vortex (FDA Rekotz): Contrary to Derogatory’s record, this one is straight-ahead Swedish death metal worship, and this German band does it very well: thick, thick grooves, simple thrashy tempos and slow funereal churning, and plenty of room for melodies to rise to the surface amidst all the brute force. Explosive, catchy, and very fun.