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Nightwish’s symphonic metal gives genre a different spin

Stephanie DePrez | Tuesday, October 16, 2007

To many people in America, metal music is a bit scary.

It’s loud, angry, relentless and depressing. It’s jarring and hard to listen to. The problem with the metal scene in America is that it is limited. It began with Led Zeppelin, ran through Metallica, and has emerged today as a formulaic genre as adventurous as modern pop.

But there is hope. All you have to do is look across the ocean.

Symphonic Metal is a genre of music that uses the metal sound to relay grand stories and tragic romances, while often backed by a full orchestra and choir. The vocalists are not your average chest-voiced, five-note singers, but are trained professionals.

In northern Europe, metal is taken seriously. The music is meaningful, and the impact is great. It’s seen as a critical contributor to culture, as opposed to our own country, which sees metal as the underbelly of the disenchanted teen scene.

One of the great pioneers of the genre has been Nightwish, a Finnish group that has consistently served up top-10 hits and platinum albums in Europe. Yet few Americans have heard of them.

For years Nightwish has sold out the largest venues in Helsinki, and next week it will play the Chicago House of Blues during its first tour of America. The band had refused to play in the United States because a former lead singer refused to tour in countries where no one had heard of her band.

She’s been replaced, and the new Nightwish has decided to abandon its conquered turf and strike up a fan base in the States.

The grand leap is accompanied by a new album, “Dark Passion Play,” featuring Nightwish’s new vocalist. It flew straight to No. 1 on the charts in Finland, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary and Croatia, but it’s No. 84 in America. In the last 10 years, Nightwish has moved past grandiose songs of epic length that were too self-indulgent for a band that takes itself so seriously. The group is cleaner and more driven now.

Nightwish is still fully epic, with mind-blowing drums and thrashing guitars, but now it knows what it’s doing. Most of Nightwish’s songs have become more accessible. The all-encompassing sound and full choirs still exist, but it adds to the intensity of the songs.

The album opens with “The Poet and the Pendulum,” a classic 14-minute track from the masters of epic metal. It’s almost like listening to an opera written by Tim Burton and Danny Elfman.

The full orchestra explodes as frantic instruments begin to build, but then becomes calm as the vocalist begins to tell the story. If you can make it through the whole song, you will pass through every imaginable mood. The best track is “Amaranth,” which screams (literally) hit single. It’s hard not to get caught up in the melody.

Nightwish delivers an album that you can fall into, rock out to, or just listen to with wide eyes. It’s real music from a group that has defined its genre for a decade.

To the average college student, their stuff is different. It’s wild, and it’s hard to take seriously. But if you can suspend judgment for a track or two, you might realize that no matter who you are, how you dress or what you listen to, this is good music.

Contact Stephanie DePrez at sdeprez@nd.edu