Nightwish - Oceanborn

Source: Rainbowflame's Metal Domain
Rating: 9.3
By: Torgeir Krokfjord

From the deepest core of the Finnish woods comes the quintet Nightwish who, after the releases of 1997s "Angel Fall First", this album, and last year's "Wishmaster" in addition to some heavy touring with Rage and Valley's Eve plus Sinergy and Eternal Tears of Sorrow, has jumped right to the top of the European Metal scene. This may very well be due to their ability to reach out to very many different sorts of fans - power metallers dig their crunchy riffing and catchy melodies, prog rockers dig their haunting synth layers, black- /dark-/goth metallers might dig their cryptic lyrics and dark moods, and Tarja Turunen's operatic vocals makes the casual music lovers stand the heaviness of the music. This has led to several appearances at the Finnish and German album/single charts and in shows at Finnish national TV, and a very successful gig at last year's Wacken Open Air festival. The press has also been raving quite a lot, especially about their latest opus, "Wishmaster", but to some extent I tend to this agree, as I personally find "Oceanborn" to be their best release. It is definitely the most technical of the three, and IMO it has a sense of spontaneity and joy for which there may be a lack of both in "Wishmaster", which I find to be less inventive/creative and in "Angels Fall First", which, although a nice album, suffers from the usual "debut album defect" - too experimental and nervous. My thoughts on these two albums will be published (oh yes, of course it is the publishing phase that delays my reviews, duh) in a very short (or very long) while. But in the meantime, don't get me wrong, all three Nightwish efforts are absolutely highly enjoyable albums. "Wishmaster" even made it into my top 10 list of last year - tatatatataaaaa!

Although they do not try to hide the fact that they have been sneak-peaking quite a lot of Stratovarius tablatures when composing guitar riffs, Nightwish has managed to create a quite original sound - massive use of keys, crunchy (Strato-like...) six-string riffs and the most heavenly vocals to top it (do not confuse with the vocals of Heavenly, which I find quite dull). Keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen, who composes all the music (and also makes for one fifth of the line-up, the rest being vocalist Tarja Turunen, guitarist Emppu Vuorinen, bassist Sami Vänskä and drummer Jukka Nevalainen does also possess an ability of finding "The Good Melody" that very many other songwriters in today's Metal scene lack. (For the theoretically oriented of you, our 47,31 daily viewers, this is often caused by, in for example G minor, incorporating also the G# major chord (thus making it G phrygian, but only for a bar) and moving to this when the vocals sing a C - the major third of the chord. This would be OK if featured during the entire song, or even the entire passage, but as a "passing chord" - in "Stargazers", for example, the rest of the intro/verse is in straight G minor, before modulating to C minor for the chorus) this would be considered "illegal" among theoreticians. Another example on how revolutionary, society-crushing and downright evil Heavy Metal is.)

But that's enough alphabetical widdling for now, let's put those dictionaries away (no, let's not put it away, why not duplicate them in about eight zillion copies and send them to the Italian government so they can hand them out to the country's Power Metal bands along with a Dostojevskij or Steinbeck novel to give them examples of good storylines...). And after that, it's time to move on to the musical contents of our object of analysis - the songs of Nightwish' "Oceanborn".
1. Stargazers -
This is the first Nightwish song I heard (as it is the opening track on my first-bought album of theirs that comes quite naturally, as I am not infected by a quite common fetish that is the "begin playing albums from the last track and forward - especially recommended when dealing with concept albums). It is also one of the best, as it captures everything I felt maybe was missing on the other albums - the mature freshness and enjoyment in playing. The melodylines are among Tuomas' most haunting, and the way the track excels - from the bombastic intro through the mystical verses (chord progression - Gm, G# (!!!), Gm, Eb, Bb, F), the brilliant chorus and ingeniously arranged solo-section, where the themes build up between guitar and keys in a way that most other bands can only dream of. The lyrics are very intricate and "difficult", but they are very well written nonetheless. "Floating upon the quiet hydrogen lakes/In this ambrosial merry-go-round they will gaze/Ephemeral life touched by a billion-year-show/Separating the poet from the woe"

2. Gethsemane -
During the first listens to the album I though this song was among the worst on the disc. This has now changed. Although the opening section is nothing special, a Malmsteen-bridge on a dull half-speed, the rest is much better. The verses are symphonic, mid-paced, and very beautiful, and the part beginning at about 0:54 is pure genius! Atmospheric dream-like vocals and simply gorgeous arrangements definitely makes for good music. The guitar-riff at about 2:18 is nothing special, but the galloping keys/guitar section before has more drive than my 1:18 scale Batmobile. The same goes for the solo-section at about 4:54, and the part beginning at about 4:20. Once again the poetry (I choose to call it that, Tuomas is more of a poet than a mere lyricist) is excellently written. "Forgive me, for I don't know what I gain/Alone in this garden of pain/Enchantment has but one truth/I weep to have what I fear to lose".

3. Devil & the Deep Dark Ocean -
This is maybe Nightwish' hardest moment, and on this track Tarja has to share the vocal duties with some guy called Wilska (who I'm quite sure sings in some semi-famous Finnish Dark/Death Metal band which name I do not remember) who adds a dark-pitched male voice to some parts. This is not in any way like the clean vocals Tuomas himself sang on "Angels Fall First", but a much darker style. It is not by any means "growling", though - give me Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth) or Chris Barnes (Six Feet Under) anytime and I'll show you Death Metal singing the way it should be. The song itself is quite complex, featuring quite aggressive riffing/drumming (both guitarist Emppu and drummer Jukka really get to strut their stuff here), at times kind of "morbid" sounding keys, calmer parts, the most amazing vocal melodies (sung by Tarja, of course) and a tempo and punch to die for. A very diverse song, and when everything's done in the same excellent way, this makes for a true gem. This is also the song on which the cover painting is based, by the way.

4. Sacrament of Wilderness -
After three marvellous songs you'd probably expect a lame one now, right? Well, then you'll have to look somewhere else. "Sacrament of Wilderness" (damned good title, eh?) follows excellently up in the same tradition as it predecessors, although it is maybe a tag more straight-ahead than for example "Devil...". Most of the riffs are pretty standard Heavy Metal rhythm-wise (but nice anyway, and have all of the typical crunchiness found in Mikko Karmila's productions), but some Stratos meets Children of Bodom keyboard parts spice up the soundscape a bit. The chorus-melody, for example, is magnificent, and the German PM-influences here are quite obvious. Lyrically, though, there's not much Gamma Ray in here (read: they do not mention someone who wants to be free), and quotes like: "Dulcet elvenharps from a dryad forest/Accompany all charming tunes/of a sacrament by a campfire/A promise between the tameless/and the one with a tool/Tonight the journey from the cave begins" is Nordic Metal (not the Danish distribution company) at it's best. The song ends with a modulating of the thrilling chorus, and the sparkling of another diamond is fading away.

5. Passion and the Opera... - I guess what Nightwish' music is all about, and it's all to be found in this beauty. Because a beauty it is, and in the ending section (the "bluesy" (kinda) riffing and mid-paced verses before it is not bad either) of this piece Mrs. Turunen really gets to show what she's worth. Accompanied by heavy guitars and drums this is namely nothing but an excerpt from one of the all-time music masterpieces - "The Magic Flute" by W. A. Mozart, which sound nothing but godly, other-worldly, heavenly (see above for disclaimer) etc. etc. (This excerpt is by the way from the aria "Queen of the Night" - which, I just have to make this clear, NOT is a track from the 44th version of the "Absolute Italian Power Metal"-compilation "The Mighty Battle between the f*cking Warriors of the Freezing North and the Bloody f*cking Dregons (note the accent) of the Desert of Immortal Bloodshed". Please note the new and fresh influence from 80s German Thrash Metal in the way the word "f*cking" is used.) "An Aphrodite for mortal souls/Playing hide and seek in lecherous roles/Their erotic hour, my tearless weep/Their satisfaction, my infinite sleep". Need I say more?

6. Swanheart -
This is a ballad, and once again, this is nothing but top-notch. Once again Tarja shines, the light in this twinkling star never seems to fade. The melodies are pure brilliance, and I sometimes catch myself thinking why Tuomas (and Nightwish) really are playing Metal at all. The ballads, no, not only the ballads but I guess all the melodies these/this guy(s) come(s) up with are so tremendously beautiful, that I'm sure they could have reached world stardom and beyond by turning pop. Who needs Celine Dion, Sarah Brightman, and Andrew Lloyd Webber when we have Tarja and Tuomas? But this is NOT a complaint, only a uttering of the outmost fear by a to-the-bone Metal fan who's brutally afraid that one of the genre's top voices shall disappear. If you not agree, why don't you listen to the part from 0:29 to 01:06 on "Swanheart". If you still don't agree after having done that, I'll send you to hell (I guess Piet Sielck from Iron Saviour can show me the way, he's been there, he says.)

7. Moondance -
But every album (at least 99% - "Imaginations..." by BG and "Divine Wings..." by SyX may be the exceptions that determine the law) has it's bad(der) moments, and I'm afraid this also goes for "Oceanborn". This instrumental and it's follow-up "The Riddler" are namely far from as tremendous as the rest of the album. But let's take the first things first and don't be too pessimistic for the future of mankind, because there are definitely some good bits here too (in the end - "bad" for bands like Nightwish does not mean "bad" in terms of "Dawn of Victory" kinda "bad" or something). The intro, for example, is nice. Some gently synth opens the ball, playing a soft melody which is very "Northern" sounding. This theme is then repeated accompanied by guitars and drums, but in that way the gentle melody loses some of its magic. Another beautiful flute/keys part follows, and once again it sounds marvellous. But (without repeating myself), this nice melodywork is ruined when the band enters (no offense, please...). The very "German" sounding (think Bellmann meets Rhapsody meets too much beer) guitars and drums sounds quite out of place here. In tracks like "Black Dragon" of Luca Turilli's solo album it works well, but not after such gentle tones.

8. The Riddler -
This is the most simplistic song on the album, and also the dullest one, in my opinion (Tuomas doesn't like either). The entire piece dwells in a comfortable mid-tempo, with an exception of some quicker double-bass parts towards the end. There are some nice themes and motifs in here, the verses for example, are not bad. "Make me guess if the Earth is flat or round/Set a quessing if fantasies are unbound/If tales aren't just for children to see/That it's peace if sleep walks with me." The lyrics, though are excellent as usual, and they are the definite highlight of the track. "(...) I wish to be touched/Not by the hands of where's and why's/But by the Ocean's minds."

9. The Pharaoh Sails to Orion -
Yes he does, and he couldn't have found himself a better piece of music in which to do it. The diverse influences at display (classical and especially Arabian/Eastern music, for example), show why Nightwish is not your A4 power/speed band and the mystical atmospheres (where Mr. Wilska once again contributes darker vocals) adds even further to this impression. The godsend bombasticisms at 0:49 and brutally ingenious chorus (4:52 and onwards) are among 1999s biggest musical moments, and all in all this is another Nihilisticly (non-existing word, but great for the alliteration) Nightwish Number, and among their best compositions ever. It is this kinda compositions (this is more than a mere song) that makes me feel proud of being a Metalhead (the Word dictionary wanted to change "Metalhead" to "Meathead" but by the strength of the Sword I chose the right one of the two...).

10. Walking In the Air -
I'm not sure whether this is to count as a bonus-track or not (I believe it's not, because I've seen "Oceanborn" with another bonus-track - the unbelievably godlike ballad "Sleeping Sun" in addition to "Walking...") but it's definitely worth owning. What makes this track different from the others is that it's not originally composed by Tuomas. It is namely based on the soundtrack to the Finnish Christmas cartoon "The Snowman", and originally created by an Englishman called Howard Blake. He is obviously an excellent composer, as the theme is very beautiful. The arrangement (done by the entire band, I think) is also very good, as it does only strengthen the already existing melody. This is what I feel may be lacking in "Moondance". It is not instrumental, as one maybe could expect, but in Nightwish' case this is never a bad thing. Tarja's throat makes a sound as beautiful as any pan flute or kazoo (...) in this world, and although the lyrics to this one is not printed in my booklet (it may be in one of the other versions - as I said, I hate one record company licensing their records to a million - or two - other labels) but anyway I just lean back into a state of total pleasure. (This goes only until I realise that I forgot to hit the "repeat all"-button on my CD player...)

Now, this has been a very positive review. (By the way, the reason that almost all my reviews - or all, they're really way too few. I'm lazy. - are almost never negative is basically that I quite seldom buy crappy albums. (OK, I confess, I am the proud owner of one Axel Rudi Pell album.) This is namely a very positive album, too. The songs (maybe with one or two exceptions) are overall very, very strong. The musicians are highly skilled - although especially the guitars get even better on "Wishmaster". The production, courtesy of Mr. Mikko Karmila (suitably entitled "Sound God" in the Stratos' "Infinite Visions" video) is 100% flawless. In other words, this is Metal Heaven.

But to hell with that German drumming...

Ratings and Wrap Up: 9.3
Songs - 9.2,
Performance - 8.9,
Production - 9.8,
Lyrics - 9.4

Hot Spots: "Stargazers", "Swanheart"

"We shall come to set the dolphins free,
We shall wash the darkened bloodred sea
Our songs will echo over the mountains and seas
The eternity will begin once again in peace"


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