'The Songs Speak for Themselves'
By Shane Brannagh
Decades, the seventh compilation album by Finnish symphonic metal band “Nightwish” was effectively my introduction to the outfit, and thus what is effectively a Greatest Hits album, compiled of material from their first eight studio albums undoubtedly garnered my attention. The band plan to release the album on March the 9th, to coincide with the first date of their tour of North America. Symphonic Metal first and foremost, would not be my bread and butter, when it comes to heavy metal. The formula is difficult to perfect, with even some of the heavy hitters, i.e. Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, on occasion running the concept of the slow burner epic into the ground with overlong and overworked songs that overstay their welcome. From the twenty one tracks present on this release it’s apparent that Nightwish are equally ambitious songwriters, technically brilliant musicians and have absolute conviction in their own particular brand of power metal.
This is none the more apparent in the somewhat formulaic but musically spectacular track, “The Greatest Show on Earth”. The bands distinctive sound, orchestral backing, powerful female vocals and theatrically are at their most evident in this twenty two minute opus. Even with a half dozen tempo changes the track never loses focus and left me excited to hear more.
“Élan” the second track of the album is a straightforward piano driven track with an effective hook that sounds rooted in traditional Irish music. A personal favourite from the compilation album, for its strong vocal work and high production values. “My Walden” follows this archetype albeit to less success, though features strong guitar work and an excellent acoustic guitar breakdown.
“Storytime” I would state as the first track that’s steps out into classic heavy metal territory, with a driving distorted guitar riff and a brilliant ominous piano hook. One of the better entries, that warrants repeated listens. “I Want My Tears Back” is bred from the same stock as the former entry, but failed to make the same impression, despite featuring an excellent “Uileann pipe/ guitar solo trade off that elevated the track to a higher tier. “Amaranth” was another admirable entry, though without the same level of panache for which I had come to expect of the metal band. Perhaps to review the album…and all its trappings it’s difficult to be impartial and not to judge the songs on their merit but as a collection.
If Decades was to serve as an introduction to the outfit, perhaps even songs rather than twenty two would have had twice the impact. As a compilation, it’s easy to imagine how difficult it is to marry the elements of challenging orchestral driven compositions and hook driven power metal anthems. “The Poet and the Pendulum” in that respect slows the momentum of the album, lacking the same almost ethereal quality that was present for much of the earlier tracks. The musicianship remains consistently impressive for the remainder of the album, and whilst the quality staggers somewhat for the second half, “Nemo” features a solid guitar solo and simple but effective piano and brass arrangements. “Wish I had an Angel” is a bass and guitar driven rocker that’s short, sweet and ticks all the boxes.
The second half of the album was much the same, a handful of hard hitting, hook driven rockers with traditional instrumentation, following the bombastic, sprawling, brass driven “Ghost Love Score.” The track is followed by three, what I would now define as “Classic Nightwish” tracks, “Slaying the Dreamer”, “End of all Hope” and “10th Man Down”. Whilst I can’t fault these compositions I would them lacking the same energy and traditional instrumentation that elevated the first half of the album above standard power metal fare.
“Kingslayer” is one of the stronger tracks on the album, with a solid guitar riff that for once stands out in front of the orchestral elements. “Dead Boys Poem” for me was something of a filler track, despite some simple but effective guitar work it’s without a hook and fails to justify its run time. “Getheseme” the following track, hits harder and gets its musical claws in deep with some wonderful piano guitar trade-offs. It’s one of the catchier songs on the album and a highlight of the second half.
“Devil & the Deep Dark Ocean” features, what I now assume to be an anomaly amongst Nightwish’s studio tracks and that is archetypal metal vocals. Whilst the operatic vocals are befitting the majority of the songs present on this release, after sixteen or seventeen tracks the stylistic flair began to grate on me. A trademark can often become a crutch, as overuse of the wah peddle has to Kirk Hamett or songs featuring the prefix “Rock and Roll…followed by any numbers of nouns have to AC/DC. In this case, I found it diluted the effectiveness of their sound…expecting every track to feature the same operatic vocals and more often than not, being proven right. Whilst technically brilliant, I can state that from this collection of songs…Nightwish haven’t displayed an aptitude from straying from home base, so to speak.
“Sacrament of Wilderness” is marred by the same almost indistinguishable vocal contribution, yet remains a strong track, propped up by a fantastic synth riff that distinguishes the track from some of its more forgettable brethren. “Sleeping Sun” as a ballad is a worthy placeholder, as the trademark vocals here are deliberately sparse, the music supporting the melody rather than the contrasting stylistic approach taken by the band with some of their earlier entries. “Elvenpath” once again fails to make an impact on me personally without a memorable chorus or hook. I found it lacking when contrasting against the considerably more effective metal present on the release, and served
to illustrate the somewhat bloated atmosphere this greatest hits album of sorts suggests.
The final studio track “Carpenter” is perhaps one of the most straightforward metal tracks on the album, which works for the better. It features some interesting snake charmer guitar work and the traditional instrumentation that was somewhat lacking on the second half of the album. Strangely the band decided to close the compilation with the self-titled track “Nightwish”. The stripped back production works in favour of the acoustic track as the simple melody stands well on its own and works well as a coda to this assorted sampling of symphonic metal.
In conclusion, whilst the band are undoubtedly technically proficient and sometimes sonically brilliant I grew somewhat fatigued by the formula, and found the compilation lacking in the musical diversity and energy present in the more mainstream Greatest Hits collections such as Iron Maiden’s “From Here to Eternity”. Of course it’s simply down to personal taste, but I would imagine for a band that’s been active for over two decades as the title suggests, greater diversity of songs should be apparent as ultimately any fan could not object to the musical evolution of the Finnish band to be present and accounted for on this future release.
Personally I’ve always felt two disk compilation albums were something of a music enthusiast’s paradox. A handful of tracks should always work to indoctrinate a would-be fan to the ranks of said rock or metal bands followers and thus without the arbitrary bonus track, for fans that already possess their extended discography…I see little reason why newcomers shouldn’t start with their critically acclaimed albums “Oceanborn” or “Wishmaster”. Nevertheless the songs speak for themselves, but in my personal opinion, for a band that have undoubtedly found their niche in the realm of symphonic metal, the classic studio album is how their music should be listened to and more importantly enjoyed.
Nightwish, soon to embark on their 2018 North American Tour. This release will be accompanied by a nine-month tour across the globe. After kicking off with 34 concerts in North America in March-April, the journey will continue with dozens of European festival and headline shows.
Nightwish Decades tracklist
The Greatest Show On Earth
I Want My Tears Back
The Poet And The Pendulum
Wish I Had An Angel
Ghost Love Score
Slaying The Dreamer
End Of All Hope
10th Man Down
Dead Boy’s Poem
Devil & The Deep Dark Ocean
Sacrament Of Wilderness