Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Tears Of Snow White Sorrow

Nightwish - Dark Passion Play

Replacing the singer of a rock band is always a dangerous proposition for the remaining members. Even if said singer is not a primary songwriter they are still the public face of the band and without them the audience may well lose interest. At one end of the spectrum we have The Doors without Jim Morrison, an endeavour so unlikely to succeed that Ray Manzarek doesn't even acknowledge that they tried it. At the other you have bands that ditched legendary frontmen but still carried on to greater success, for example Black Sabbath without Ozzy or Pink Floyd without Syd Barrett. And of course there are numerous examples of the middle ground, such as Pink Floyd without Roger Waters. In 2005 Nightwish dismissed their singer Tarja Turunen (following a concert in which they, appropriately enough, covered Floyd's (post-Waters) 'High Hopes'). Dark Passion Play is their first album with their new singer Annette Olzon.

Even without the change of vocalist Nightwish would have trouble providing a worthy followup to the superb Once and coming on the heels of a lesser album Dark Passion Play and Olzon might have received a better reception, but unfortunately the new album is a bit of a step down from the achievement of Once.

The new singer is more of a rock singer (where Turunen's style was opera) and to her credit she's capable of a broader range of styles than Tarja was but she just can't measure up in terms of power. Olzon's a capable replacement but there's no denying that something has been lost with Tarja's departure.

Besides the lineup change the music has taken a rockier turn. While the heavy aspects of Once often reminded me of Rammstein the metal aspects of Dark Passion Play are thrashier in a more classic metal vein and give the guitarist and drummer opportunities to shine by showing off their ability to thunderously rock out.

The songwriting is as strong as ever. It's easy to overlook the sophistication behind the sleek, polished pop surface of things, but there's actually a lot to be impressed by in the interleaving of the different aspects of the music (metal guitars, pop rock vocals and the orchestra) and there's some genuinely impressive melodic development and harmonising that you don't see a lot of in popular music. Despite that there's definitely something missing, and I don't think it's just the change of singer. The songs simply don't seem to have the energy to match the high standards of the production and composition. Perhaps it's a little too overproduced for the rock and metal elements to have the strength they need and perhaps they just need more time to gel with their new vocalist.

Of course it would be misleading for me not to note that even though Dark Passion Play doesn't match the high standard of Once it's still a pretty good album. One of it's most notable attributes is the outstanding production of the backing orchestra. This is the most expensive album in Finnish music history, and it shows in the glorious sound of the 175(!) additional musicians assembled to provide the accompaniment. And despite my criticisms of the performance above there are still a substantial number of songs that are pulled off pretty well. 'The Islander' and 'Lost of the Wilds' provide a nice pair late in the album, the first an acoustic ballad, the second an instrumental blending standard metal elements with frenzied bohemian fiddle (a genre mashup that almost always pays big dividends). The singles, 'Bye Bye Beautiful' and 'Amaranth' are almost overwhelmed by their cheese factor but still deliver infectiousness and great chorus hooks. 'Amaranth' in particular was my first introduction to Olzon's voice and while I was at first turned off completely (“Oh my God it's the fucking Corrs!”) I was somehow reeled back in by the splendorous pop vocal line of the chorus. And there's absolutely no denying the brilliance of the opening and closing tracks. The album begins with the quarter hour epic 'The Poet and the Pendulum', which ebbs and flows through five movements of film score orchestra and rocking metal, and ends with 'Meadows of Heaven', in which vocal histrionics are unleashed over a song that puts me in mind of nothing else so much as Pink Floyd's 'High Hopes'. Bringing things full circle...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw Nightwish in Portland, OR at the Roseland on 11/1/07.

I love Tarja's voice yet have also been solidly supportive of giving the new gal a chance to prove herself.

The band that night was simply fantastic, however - -altho' Anette has a fun presence and the band clearly seemed to be enjoying themselves with her on stage - - her vocal abilities do not show themselves to be in the same league as Tarja: I am talking vocal technique here, which is different from vocal style or tone; Anette was quite simply not up to the old songs, and in fact had a somewhat difficult time even with "her" song, Amaranth.

I thought maybe this might partly be due to her not being able to hear herself, but the band had in-ear monitors, and besides... I heard the exact same problems in the same parts of the same songs while listening to UTube videos posted by concert goers from different shows. (Duh, these won't sound like a pro live sound mix or an album, but it was easy to hear the vocal problems, regardless. They were also evident in the same way at the LIVE show I saw.)

The issue seems to be swollen vocal cords from overuse, due to singing incorrectly, i.e. using chest voice too far into the upper range. This is a common problem for inexperienced vocalists due to combinations of bad vocal technique, not warming up, singing too hard over too-loud stage volume, etc. Many well-known singers can struggle with these issues, but it's especially prevalent in inexperienced ones.

Both live and on several videos: she butchered (yup, tough word but appropros, sadly) Sleeping Sun, a song which demands a smooth, controlled, powerful vocal presence she seems to lack.) Singing Amaranth, she went flat on the high notes after the modulation every time.

In her Portland performance of Nemo, she started to lose her voice toward the end of the song.

There were other issues, but no need to catalog it all.

Look, singers have a rough time of it as it is, dealing with a completely physical instrument. That's why it's especially important for them to be both physically and mentally prepared to go on the road, which is arduous. Add into the mix very vocally demanding music and high expectations of a fan base from all over the world, and that's quite a load to bear.

Idiotic comparisons between Tarja and Anette abound all over the web and read like highschoolers screaming over their favorite football team.

The grade school mentality peanut gallery can rave all they want about Anette's looks, stage presence, vs Tarja's...

I roundly prefer Tarja's voice and style for Nightwish's music. Regardless, the band will, and should, continue on. Whether I prefer one vocalist over another isn't the point.

Fans were simply hoping this world-class band would choose another world-class singer. Tarja is one of those.

Pro musicians constantly study their craft and seek to improve themselves. Anette could really use some vocal lessons and fast -- at the very least so she doesn't hurt her voice.

My jury's still out on whether Anette will eventually measure up to the demands of working in a band of the calibre of Nightwish.

She's certainly not there yet.