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Review: Imaginaerum

After a wait of more than four years, Nightwish have finally released their seventh album. It was supposed to be titled Imaginarium, but shortly before release they were asked to change the name in order to avoid confusion with other things with the same name, so it became Imaginaerum. The name of the last song has also been changed to reflect this, though the word “imaginarium” is still found in the lyrics of Storytime, which was selected as the first single.
The original plan Tuomas had was to film a video for every single song, all of these videos having a common theme, which would be best understood by watching all of them in order. However, once Stobe Harju, who should have directed these videos, heard of it, that crazy plan evolved even further. As such, the album will be followed, most likely in the spring of 2012, by a movie with the same name, for which it is essentially a soundtrack, though some changes have been made to the songs in order to make them fit the action of the movie better.
But I should stop here, as this post should in fact be a song-by-song review of the album, which I have been listening to for the past four days. It’s the first time I’m trying something like this, so I’ll just be taking the songs one by one and writing my very honest but purely personal and highly subjective opinion of each. If that’s all right with you, keep on reading. If you were expecting or desiring something else, move along now, because you won’t find it here.

The first song, Taikatalvi, is one I tend to ignore. It’s supposed to be an intro, but it seems to be something in between, too much for an intro and too little for an actual song. The music itself is nice enough once the lyrics end, but I can’t get much out of it before that. A large part of the reason why that happens is likely the fact that it’s in Finnish, so I can’t understand what’s being said, but I get the feeling that I wouldn’t care for it even if I did. The music box sound it starts with, before the orchestra steps in, adds to the feeling that it’s a bedtime story for a child, which is another thing that bothers me, for quite a few reasons, not particularly related to the song itself.
Then we have Storytime, which has already been released as a single. It seems to me to be the most commercial song on the album and quite similar to Amaranth in that way. It’s reasonably catchy, but otherwise it didn’t impress me when I first heard the single version and the longer album version doesn’t impress me either, instead appearing more like something that had to be included for the sake of the record labels, so Tuomas could get them out of his hair and be free to work his magic on the rest of the album. Taken like that, a bone thrown for the suits to chew on, it’s good enough, but let’s just let them play with it while we move on.
I’m tempted to say that the album actually starts with the third song, Ghost River. It’s likely the harshest and heaviest song on the album and, despite being nothing compared to Dark Passion Play‘s Master Passion Greed, my initial reaction was to reject it for that reason. Listening to it once was enough for the chorus to burn itself into my mind, but I had to listen to the entire album a few times before allowing myself to open up to this song. Once that happened, I saw its purpose and started liking it more and more. It’s not one of my favorites, but I can see myself looking for it in my playlist while angry or scared for quite some time to come. The lyrics certainly help as well when it comes to seeing it fit for such a purpose.
By contrast, Slow, Love, Slow is likely the most unusual song on the album. The other songs are quite different from each other as well, but this particular one is unlike anything Nightwish has ever done before. When I first heard it, I was puzzled and tended to reject it, so at that point I feared that I wouldn’t like the album at all, the first four songs all seeming inadequate from my point of view. However, as in the case of Ghost River, listening to the whole album a few more times made me see this song’s value and purpose as well. It’s not a sound I’d particularly care about, but the song is better suited for your mind’s eye than your ears, as it intends to create a certain atmosphere and does so perfectly. In addition, a line like “only the weak are not lonely” could be enough to win me over on its own, plus that Anette‘s voice sounds surprisingly good on it, being different in a good way from what I was expecting.
I Want My Tears Back was the first song I liked right away, without needing to listen to it multiple times first. The guitars are actually quite angry and the vocals can get there as well, but the Celtic portions have been mixed wonderfully into it, taking away that edge and creating a simply brilliant whole. Anette again sounds surprisingly well and the lyrics can paint pictures faster than your mind can process them. This is where the album, the movie, the spirit of Nightwish and what we know of Tuomas truly tie together. It’s the first song I liked right away and also the point where this album grabbed hold of me and never let go. From this point forward, expect magic.
Once hooked by the previous song, Imaginaerum will throw you straight into a carnival of horrors with Scaretale. Anette’s voice, now depicting an evil queen who has you in her clutches, again fits the song just perfectly, and Marco completes the picture like he was born specifically for it. There may be one or two places where the guitars have been allowed to take center stage for just a little too long, but for nearly all of the song’s seven and a half minutes music and lyrics blend again to put images into your awestruck mind. It’s creepy, it’s epic, it’s memorable and absolutely, completely brilliant.
And then you suddenly find yourself in the desert. Arabesque is the album’s first instrumental track and is performed strictly by the orchestra and the choir, without any members of the band. Yet even without words it paints a vivid picture, which is all the more shocking when it’s so different from the one painted by the previous song, or in fact by any of the previous songs. At first glance, you could be tempted to say that it doesn’t fit with the rest of the album, but then you realize that the album is held together by imagination, fantasy and storytelling. Are not the Arabians known for all of these?
The next song, Turn Loose the Mermaids, reminds me of The Islander. It’s a soft, melancholy tune, sung entirely by Anette, whose voice again fits it like a glove. I know I keep saying that, but it’s true for most of the songs, and perhaps even more so for this one, and I was surprised to say the least, seeing as I had relatively low expectations from her. You can simply close your eyes and let her voice and the beautiful music accompanying it carry you away, allowing new images and emotions to fill and calm your mind and soul. After a carnival of horrors and the Arabian desert, it was perhaps time for some rest.
And that’s exactly what the following song, Rest Calm, tells us. However, the song itself is anything but calm or restful. During the first half, Marco’s voice is actually rather angry and the guitars carry a punch, the only calm and restful moments being the two times Anette sings the chorus alone. And then you get to the second half, which consists of nothing but the chorus being repeated several times, delivering an increasing amount of energy. At first it’s still soft and soothing, sung by Anette and a children’s choir, but then Marco joins in and seems to take charge, with the orchestra and the drums becoming more and more powerful with each repetition. It’s supposed to present the end of the journey, the final moments before death, yet it feels more like a rebirth. Which, perhaps, it is.
However, after recharging us with energy, Imaginaerum takes us to another soft and lovely song, The Crow, the Owl and the Dove. It features the vocal talent of Troy Donockley and again makes me think of The Islander, particularly due to the sound of acoustic guitars. Also like The Islander, it was composed by Marco, so the connections are obvious, as is its place in the album, at least musically. No matter how energized we might have been after the end of the previous song, it signified death, and death brings rest and peace, which is exactly what we get. On the other hand, I’m still not quite sure how the lyrics fit into the story at this specific point, though in themselves they’re every bit as deep and meaningful as anyone could expect. I’m also still wondering about the meaning of those two lines that aren’t in English.
But those questions are forgotten as soon as Last Ride of the Day starts. It’s the proper conclusion to the album’s story and, while only four and a half minutes long, it’s every bit the rollercoaster ride it means to represent. Mostly energizing, but alternating in intensity, having a few moments when it seems to almost die down only to suddenly pick itself back up and throw you with all its force past the next peak. It’s the kind of song to listen to when you need to get yourself going, especially if you also pay some attention to the lyrics, which will once again paint pictures faster than your mind can register them. I don’t exactly agree with the meaning behind those lyrics, but that was a given, seeing as the album is supposed to be a celebration of life and its beauty.

What could possibly follow after the conclusion of the story? The conclusion of the album, and perhaps of life, which I’m going to make a separate section for because it’s a world apart from the rest. If this album would have ended before Song of Myself, it would have still been a very good album, it would have still been a testament to the talent of one of the greatest living composers and lyricists. However, it would have been a regular album, made up of songs. The songs may have a somewhat common theme, most of them may be very good, they may leave an impression on you, may make you dream or remember, may energize or depress, soothe or anger, but they’d still just be songs. This is more than that.
What could be said about Song of Myself to do it justice? I simply don’t know. It’s 13 and a half minutes long and so much is going on in it that I don’t even know where to begin. I’m not even sure if it wouldn’t be better to just read the lyrics and let them sink in before listening to the song, especially since the second half is a simple recitation, on many voices, on top of a very soft orchestral background. At first I thought that it was a portion of the original poem, but it’s not. The quality and depth of the lyrics is absolutely outstanding in itself, and I’m sure that in fact nobody but Tuomas himself could ever find all the references and meanings hidden inside them, past the obvious ones.
As I said, this is more than a song, it’s an experience. You simply have to listen to it, read the lyrics, let it all sink in, course through your body, mind and soul and forever leave its mark on you. It’s far more than the sum of its parts, and if it won’t move you to tears then… Well, then nothing I say will change that, but I have to wonder what’s so terribly broken inside you to cause such a lack of reaction. I only know what’s broken inside me to make me only choke on tears that only moisten my eyes but will not come out…
The only bad thing I can say about it is that it makes me miss Tarja. Only after noticing that Anette’s voice doesn’t fit this song, which still took me some time, did I notice a couple, and just a couple, of other moments, on other songs, where she sounds more or less like I expected her to, which isn’t exactly a good thing. All I can say is that, overall, the rest of the album is so wonderfully tailored to Anette’s voice that I’m quite sure it sounds significantly better like this than if Tarja would try to sing it. However, something as massive, as epic, as extraordinary as Song of Myself simply begs for Tarja’s voice… Then again, perhaps it’s better that she’s not singing it. Humans aren’t meant for perfection, so if we were to hear it we all might have simply broken down, never to recover.
And after all of this, what could I still say about the last song, Imaginaerum, which is in fact the final portion of Song of Myself, separated due to the requirements of the movie? It’s an instrumental piece, essentially made of portions of all other songs and arranged by Pip Williams. It’s meant to be the credits song of the movie, but if I were to also guess at its purpose in the album I’ll say that it’s yet another way to remind us to dream. It’s supposed to be a memory of imagination, a dream of a fantasy. And after Song of Myself, or more exactly after the other parts of Song of Myself, it fits wonderfully.

Perhaps I criticized a few little things too much, or pointed out my initial impression too much instead of the fact that I’ve been more or less listening to this album for four days straight and it just seems to keep getting better. Or perhaps I let myself get carried away with what impressed and awed me and forgot to mention other details that may be more meaningful. But I simply wrote what I felt, what it made me feel.
This is not the Nightwish that brought me to metal, at the end of a process that required some four years. This is not the Nightwish that made a song I fell back to without fail whenever I was in any sort of negative mood for over a full year, which was obviously also the first song I fell back to after Andra left. This is not the Nightwish that made a song that made me cry my eyes out for 40 full minutes, hugging myself and rocking back and forth, only stopping because I was walked in on and asked what was I doing. This is not the Nightwish that made an album I gave a huge personal significance to for years. However, in every way except the female vocals, this Nightwish is significantly better than that Nightwish. And when even that single issue is mitigated close to perfection on all but one of the songs, we perhaps need to be thankful that it exists. Otherwise, as I said, we might have found ourselves in the presence of true perfection and broken down as a result, never to recover.

Imaginaerum is an absolute masterpiece to which my words could never do justice. Not to diminish the merits of all the others, I must say that it’s yet another testament to the genius of Tuomas Holopainen, who is undoubtedly one of the very best composers and lyricists alive today. No amount of work or training could ever result in something like this without an inhuman amount of talent. And likely no amount of talent could ever result in something like this without certain life experiences meant to trigger such an outpouring of meaning and emotion. Unfortunately, those experiences could not be pleasant, as the best art is always born of pain. However, what Imaginaerum reminds us is that there’s always a hope for better days. As long as we can still imagine, as long as we still remember how to dream, we can still hope that one day it’ll all be worth it. And we can still hope for that one moment of perfection… Even if it’ll be our last.


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