20 rock and metal songs to welcome in winter
From Woods Of Ypres to Weezer, we present the perfect soundtrack for the darkest evenings of the year...
Symphonic metal existed before Nightwish – pioneered by outfits like Sweden’s Therion and Italy’s Rhapsody – but no band has made it bigger, better or more bombastic than the great Finnish collective. When keyboardist and bandleader Tuomas Holopainen first envisioned the band while sitting around a campfire with friends, the idea was that it’d be a vehicle for the experimental acoustic music he’d written during time in the Finnish army, perfect for settings just like that. Joining forces with guitarist Erno 'Emppu' Vuorinen and the classical vocalist Tarja Turunen, who had shared the same music teacher, Plamen Dimov, a few years earlier, preparations were set in motion for something far more grandiose. Bassist Sami Vänskä and drummer Jukka Nevalainen completed the initial line-up that’d make an unlikely assault on the metal mainstream, with the great Marko Hietala (also a vocalist who’d change the sonic dynamic) replacing Sami in 2001 as the final piece of a world-beating puzzle.
There have been a host of line-up changes over the years – most notably the arrival of new singers Anette Olzon and Floor Jansen in 2007 and 2012 respectively – but with Tuomas at the helm, the band’s purpose has remained constant. Hell, just when we thought they’d mined every ounce of inspiration with 2011’s excess-all-areas classic Imaginaerum, they one-upped themselves with 2015’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful: a sprawling treatise on the nature of existence itself that features actual contributions from Richard bloody Dawkins. 2020’s Human. :||: Nature. might’ve subsequently jumped the shark somewhat, but even it makes for a wild ride.
Now an arena-metal fixture around the world, there’s some real fun in trying to deduce the ultimate Nightwish setlist. Looking over our Top 20, it’s clear that these storytellers have a hell of a story to tell themselves, from daring to dream to seeing those dreams come true with more finesse and magniloquence than they’d ever dared imagine…
Following the career-best showing of 2015’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Nightwish returned with an unwieldy double-album (the second disc of which is almost wholly instrumental) that offered little by way of standalone bangers. There are a couple of great cuts in there, of course. Pan is an ode to the human imagination that crashes and crescendos with apt creativity. Shoemaker, meanwhile, is a heartfelt tribute to American geologist and founder in the field of planetary science Eugene Shoemaker, who co-discovered Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 with his wife Carolyn S. Shoemaker and David H. Levy. (Trust us, it was a very big deal.) Rejecting traditional song structures, in favour of a twisty-turny construction that challenges listeners to keep up, it is apparently a bit of a nightmare for Floor to perform, but proves more than worth it for the near-religious wonder of the finished product. Tuomas’ wife Johanna Kurkela even crops up for a memorable spoken-word contribution.
‘Ever felt away with me / Just once that all I need / Entwined in finding you one day / Ever felt away without me / My love, it lies so deep / Ever dream of me.’ Before 2002, Nightwish had a tendency to sound overstuffed to the point of occasional incoherence, with so many individual elements rammed into the mix that listeners were often so bewildered by the sheer scale of musical vision that they struggled to connect with it emotionally. Ever Dream, the lead single from Century Child, saw them wrangle that wealth of influence into a sound that tugged on the heartstrings every bit as forcefully as it blew the mind.
While Tuomas originally viewed Nightwish as an acoustic project, it had already transformed beyond recognition by 1997’s debut LP Angels Fall First – though we were still some way off the densely structured symphonic grandeur with which they would make their name. The Carpenter, for instance, saw him ill-advisedly experimenting with vocals himself, while the incredibly-named Nymphomaniac Fantasia, for better or worse, simply does what it says on the tin. Opening track Elvenpath, though, feels like a ramshackle preview of the extravagance to come, from J. R. R. Tolkien extracts to wave after wave of OTT orchestral grandeur.
The opening title-track to 2015’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful feels like the pacy counterpoint to epic closer The Greatest Show On Earth. Inspired by the evolutionary biology of the great naturalist Charles Darwin, the title is lifted from Darwin’s The Origin Of Species (“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”) and the tone is one of artists in awe of the beautiful chaos and possibility of the universe. The song was also an apt showcase for Floor on her first recorded output with the band, spanning playful vulnerability and strident power.
After what the band had termed their “accidental” debut Angels Fall First, there was apparently a greater focus on pulling together a more coherent symphonic metal bombast on 1998 follow-up Oceanborn. Even still, that record’s six-and-a-half-minute standout The Pharaoh Sails To Orion feels like its bursting at the seams with 1,000 ideas pulling in as many different directions. Veering from jazzy flute to thundering drums to joyous strings, and on to victorious vocal flourishes over the space of seconds, there is such incredible exuberance that it’s impossible not to be swept along. “We were all such amateurs when it came to recording,” Tuomas reflected to K! back in 2008. “We didn't really know what we were doing, so we were just experimenting with a lot of different things. It's a pretty stuffed album, but I also think it's one of our best because you can hear the excitement of trying all these new things.” Indeed.
The second single from 2002’s Century Child felt swollen by the confidence of a band ready to write their own mythos. Ostensibly the tale of a chosen child reckoning on the benefits and detriments of their “blessing”, it packs deep analysis of the nature of humanity, religion and existence itself. There is a thrilling disconnect between Tarja Turunen’s glassy vocals and the diesel-powered chug of the band in the early stages, but the elements pull together for a rousing final charge as the track reaches its life-affirming spoken-word conclusion: ‘Remember, my child / Without innocence the cross is only iron / Hope is only an illusion / And the ocean soul's / Nothing but a name.’
Sam Hardwick, son of British-born Finnish theatre and TV director Neil, was 11 years old when he was asked to recite on near-seven-minute Wishmaster standout Dead Boy’s Poem. The mature-beyond-his-years performance added real depth to the tale of a misunderstood young man who lives for music, but feels like he’s misunderstood by his peers and a disappointment to his parents. A recurrent theme over the records that followed, it’s easy to imagine that Tuomas’ own experiences growing up are reflected heavily here, with its layered melancholia the result of lengthy soul-searching rather than intricate planning out. Sam would appear again on two tracks from 2002’s Century Child, but this is indisputably his most affecting appearance with Nightwish.
Originally released as a bonus track on the Japanese edition of Dark Passion Play, Escapist came to the attention of international audiences when it was released as the B-side to the (frankly inferior) Bye Bye Beautiful in 2008. Stylistically, its playful symphonic metal structure – all stabbing synths and stepping riffs – perfectly suits Anette Olzon’s fleet-footed vocal delivery, weaving a dreamlike atmosphere of runaway defiance. There’s some serious meaning in Tuomas’ lyrics, too, with the outstanding chorus – ‘Nightingale in a golden cage / That's me locked inside reality's maze / Come someone, make my heavy heart light / Come on, come bring me back to life’ – being very much autobiographical in origin.
The fourth and final single from Once is light on lyricism but exceptionally deep in narrative texture, with many fans speculating that it is a retelling of the Ancient Greek tale of The Odyssey, where legendary maritime leader Odysseyus had his men put wax in their ears and himself tied to the ship’s wheel so that they would not be tempted by The Sirens: half-bird, half-human creatures whose songs were so wonderful they would lure men overboard to their death. Recorded with the London Session Orchestra and featuring instrumentation as exotic and varied as the electric violin and sitar, it is a song that perfectly evokes that sense of strange temptation.
Sweeping power metal might be their bread and butter, but Nightwish have tended, on occasion, to veer off into more rugged, Celtic-influenced folk metal territory, as in 2004’s underrated Creek Mary’s Blood or 2015’s Weak Fantasy. The Islander, the outstanding 10th track and fourth single from 2007’s Dark Passion Play (alongside its surging instrumental sibling Last Of The Wilds) sees them dabbling with those sounds as effectively as anyone. Written and primarily sung by bassist Marko Hietala, its almost entirely acoustic composition with guest player Troy Donockley adding bodhran, uilleann pipes and tin whistle for a stirring departure from the norm and a powerful show of the band’s musical dexterity. Stobe Harju’s music video proved particularly memorable for its combination of the organic beauty of the Lapp wilderness and some surrealist steampunk motifs.
Combining the ethereal majesty of the Lord Of The Rings movies, which had so dominated pop culture in the years directly prior, with a route-one chug that could’ve been left over from the more tasteful end of the recently-deceased nu-metal movement, Nightwish’s breakthrough single was the perfect weapon to hook a global audience. Suppressing some of Tuomas’ more OTT classical composition, the sparingly-deployed piano and strings perfectly complemented Tarja’s incredible vocal force without distracting, while Emppu Vuorinen’s massive guitar solo heightened the drama and underlined the band’s stadium-seeking ambition. Although the song is a relatively open anthem to the misunderstood – “Nemo” is Latin for “Nobody” or “Unknown” – it now feels inextricably linked to Shania Twain, Celine Dion and Eminem promo director Antti Jokinen’s spectacularly snowbound music video.
The departure of Tarja left Tuomas and his bandmates with many feelings to process. They did so up front on the first track from Dark Passion Play: a five-part, 14-minute epic called The Poet And The Pendulum. Purposefully calling to mind Edgar Allan Poe’s legendary scary story The Pit And The Pendulum, Tuomas toyed with the idea of killing himself off in song, reckoning on life, legacy and what might be still to come across those aforementioned chapters: White Lands Of Emphatica, Home, Pacific, Dark Passion Play, Mother And Father. Rather than a dirgy eulogy for times passed, though, this packed the unstoppable momentum and cathartic cutting edge Nightwish needed to make the most of their enforced rebirth.
Big on bombast, attitude and pseudo-religious imagery, the second single from breakthrough album Once felt like proof that Nightwish were perfectly capable of mixing it up at the heavier end of the metal spectrum. Tarja’s delicate vocals (‘Deep into a dying day / I took a step outside an innocent heart / Prepare to hate me fall when I may / This night will hurt you like never before’) feel suitably angelic, while the band around her tear it up with lusty, demonic ravenousness. The rough romanticism on show has led many fans to question whether the song might be a rebuttal of traditional relationship expectations, but the thrusting momentum keeps up pace regardless of how deep the listener wants to dive. Uwe Boll’s music video – featuring footage from 2005 turkey Afraid Of The Dark – felt like an odd fit, but hugely boosted their exposure on the far side of the Atlantic.
Fantasy literature has always weighed heavy on the power metal tradition. The title-track to 2000’s Wishmaster saw Nightwish shift the emphasis, though, with Tuomas expressing his love for the genre as well as stressing the real-life lessons to be taken from it across an unbound four-and-a-half-minutes. “This is my personal tribute to fantasy, especially the closest to me; Tolkien and Dragonlance,” he explained in an official breakdown on the band’s website. “These worlds have become a sort of inverted reality for me... Moreover, I don't believe in this thing called ‘destiny’. We are the masters of our own wishes, beliefs and dreams. Whatever you desire enough, it can happen. Destiny is an excuse for those who don't have the strength to fulfil their wishes. Everything is possible. Even the impossible.”
Following the departure of Tarja and the recruitment of Swedish songstress Anette Olzon – who was greeted with doubt by fans after having been introduced in the press as an artist who’d cut her teeth in an ABBA tribute act – the first single from 2007’s Dark Passion Play had much to prove. Originally titled Reach, with bassist Marko Hietala on lead vocals, the track was re-worked for Anette and made for a superb showcase of her strengths, shifting away from Tarja’s grandstanding operatics in favour of more impish dexterity and the kind of soaring pop chorus that’d crush Eurovision: ‘Caress the one, the never-fading / Rain in your heart, the tears of snow-white sorrow / Caress the one, the hiding amaranth / In a land of the daybreak.’ Antti Jokinen’s big-budget music video – based on Finnish painting The Wounded Angel – confirmed Nightwish would not be slowing their pursuit of world domination.
After a tumultuous Wishmaster world tour that almost saw Nightwish call it a day, they made several changes for fourth album Century Child that saw them push onto bigger and better things. Key amongst them was the recruitment of brilliantly bearded bassist/co-vocalist Marko Hietala. Counterpointing Tarja’s drilled operatic technique, his contributions come to the fore on this mid-album banger. Against a backdrop of prickly, high-tempo keyboards and guitars it showcases a vulnerability in Tarja that had previously been understated – as well as spearheading a style of symphonic vocal interplay that Evanescence and Within Temptation would later utilise to world-beating effect. By the closing third, of course, it has gone wonderfully over the top.
Like the lost soundtrack to some big-screen gothic romance, the 10-minute Ghost Love Score is by some distance the most ambitious track on hit-studded fifth album Once. With incredibly cinematic orchestral instrumentation throughout, there are some initial similarities to the work of composer Michael Kamen on Metallica’s original S&M recordings here, but the song spirals off into daringly progressive territory, making space for some serious instrumental sprawl, choral vocals and Tarja’s most traditionally virtuoso performance with the band. Rather than getting lost in its frankly labyrinthine composition, though, listeners are dragged along on a sonic adventure, hanging on each hairpin twist and gasping for breath as they soar over mountains high and into valleys deep.
Touted by Tuomas as a “celebration of life”, Nightwish’s seventh album is an incredible exercise in chucking absolutely everything they could imagine into the mix and somehow making 99 per cent of it work. It’s a little light on standalone highlights, with tracks like haunted carnival chiller Scaretale and the jazzy Slow, Love, Slow working better within the overarching album. Lead single and second track Storytime, however, feels like a supercharged reinvention of the old Nightwish formula, from the tinkling piano and atmospheric build-out across several all-guns-blazing crescendos. ‘Imaginarium, a dream emporium!’ sings Anette Olzon. ‘Caress the tales / And they will dream you real / A storyteller's game / Lips that intoxicate / The core of all life / Is a limitless chest of tales.’ Quite.
‘Once I had a dream, and this is it…’ The opening track to Once was the moment that the picture really clicked for Nightwish, with Tuomas’ orchestral extravagance, his band’s munchy power metal bombast and Tarja’s peerless operatic talent combining for an impossibly singular sound that would make them European metal superstars. Thematically, Dark Chest Of Wonders fits the bill, too, with its imagery of handing oneself over into a dark, fantastical netherworld where anything is possible. ‘One night the clock struck twelve / The window open wide,’ Tarja sings. ‘The age I learned to fly / And took a step outside.’ Switching effortlessly between propulsive attack, gothic high drama and swashbuckling adventure, it remains a symphonic metal benchmark 17 years on. Never have we headbanged as hard to the sound of violins.
Three lead vocalists, seven albums and 19 years down the line, it felt like Nightwish surely couldn’t get any more gloriously overblown. With the final song of 2015’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful, however, they reached dizzying new heights (and breadths) across 24 minutes of head-spinning, heart-thudding sound. Named after the 2009 tome by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins – who would also contribute spoken segments for the song, and even joined the band for its live performance – The Greatest Show On Earth is a no-holds-barred celebration of the birth of the universe, the wonder of biological progression, and the brilliance of the shared human experience. Performed across five shapeshifting movements – Four Point Six, Life, The Toolmaker, The Understanding, Sea-Worn Driftwood – it will surely stand the test of time as a towering culmination of Nightwish’s spectacular journey.
From Woods Of Ypres to Weezer, we present the perfect soundtrack for the darkest evenings of the year...
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