Album review: Nightwish – Imaginaerum

The Six Wives of Tuomas Holopainen: The Movie: The Musical: On Ice

Genre: Groove metal/hard rock with film music and light music influences
Country: Finland
Release date: November 30, 2011
Format: 12” vinyl
Label: Nuclear Blast
Catalog number: NB 2789-1

Annette Olzon – vocals
Emo Vuorinen – guitars
Marco Hietala – bass, vocals
Tuomas Holopainen – keyboards, arrangement, primary composer
Jukka Nevalainen – drums, percussion
Troy Donockley – uilleann pipes (tracks 5, 13), tin whistle (tracks 1, 8, 10), vocals (tracks 10, 12), bodhrán, bouzoki
Pekka Kuusisto – violin
Kai Hahto – percussion
Guy Barker – solo trumpet
Paul Clarvis – percussion
Stephen Henderson – percussion
Dermot Crehan – Hardanger fiddle
Dirk Camble – sorna
Thomas Boews – orchestra conductor
The Looking Glass Orchestra
Metro Voices – choirs
The Young Musicians London – choirs








Ghost River



Slow, Love, Slow



I Want My Tears Back









Turn Loose the Mermaids



Rest Calm



The Crow, The Owl, and the Dove



Last Ride of the Day



Song of Myself





Total running time:


“Symphonic metal” has always been tempting but dangerous musical ground for metal musicians. The bombastic thunder of a symphony orchestra at full blast is one of the few things in music, after all, that can rival the intensity of a metal band, and the cultural cachet of the symphony orchestra has long been an object of envy and desire for metal musicians, who have, far more than their counterparts in the punk scene, generally not been satisfied being seen as purveyors of mere entertainment. But for every success like Therion’s run from Theli to Lemuria/Sirius B or Blind Guardian’s A Night at the Opera, there have been at least ten bloated, sentimental disasterpieces like Dream Theater’s The Astonishing that instead lean into the worst qualities of the most bastardized forms of metal and orchestral music—all of the overweening pomp, tedious time-wasting, kitschy pseudo-emotion, and phony erudition of bad orchestral music, combined with all the baseball-bat-to-the-face vulgarity, amateurish instrumental hackwork, and lyrical juvenilia of bad metal music. Even the good stuff is usually not all that good and the bad stuff is downright horrifying. And then there is Imaginaerum, an album where the very worst of this style is brought to its absolute apex, an album so plastic that it was named after the corporate job title of the architects of the Disney theme-park empire, whither millions of children are dragged every year to be indoctrinated into the idea that hour-long queues, heat exhaustion, marital strife, and capitalism are “fun”.

I didn’t always despise this band, and their early works in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s were, for better or worse, a part of my adolescent musical education. Oceanborn and Wishmaster were not particularly sophisticated or even all that original, mostly a watering-down and sweetening-up of what Therion and Stratovarius were doing around the same time for a wider audience, but they had an ear for catchy Celtic and Nordic folk melodies and how to arrange them well, and two standout talents in singer Tarja Turunen and keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen, who were able to cover for the relative weakness of the average riffwork of Emo Vuorinen and the metronomic drumming of Jukka Nevalainen. They also knew the limits of both their own abilities and their sound, their strengths and weaknesses, and how to make the most of what they had. They were young, hungry, and self-aware enough to make their brand of Finnish synthphonic cheese taste much better than, say, Wintersun’s, especially since they actually played it instead of programming it on a computer like Jari Maenpaä did.

All that started to go away with Century Child in 2003, with metal gradually giving way to Middle America-friendly alternative rock, boiling riffs down to simple rhythmic elements and the more diverse structures of earlier songs to post-post-post-grunge rockers and ballads of a type that were already stale by 1997, but at the same time, arrangements have blown up to absurd proportions. The most elementary songwriting is draped over with layers and layers and layers of counterfeit film score textures (John Williams and Danny Elfman should be getting royalties for this shit, especially the Harry Potter music box that appears on seemingly every song) and the sort of orchestral “light music” that graced the homes of music-hating philistines across the English-speaking world before the advent of smooth jazz. Every apparent emotion on Imaginaerum is boiled down to primary colors of “happy”, “sad”, “angry”, and “scary”, every ambiguity extinguished to avoid provoking any un-imagineered imagination. Like a Disney theme park for the soul, the Imaginaerum experience guides you, directs you, condescends to you at every moment. Engineered, calculated, controlled, like the album cover, a Roger Dean-esque dreamscape defaced with an ugly high-tech amusement-park façade, complete with guard rails strategically placed so the little ones don’t fall off the islands in the sky and bump their precious heads. The production is likewise Pro Tooled entirely to death—if you’ve heard a “modern metal” album, you’ve heard how this sounds. It sounds more expensive than average, but that’s it as far as character or atmosphere goes.

I had ragged on Metallica’s Master of Puppets in an earlier review for adhering so closely to rock music convention when their contemporaries were branching out and making far more ambitious music, but by comparison Imaginaerum makes Puppets look like a Mahavishnu Orchestra album in comparison. Metallica themselves get ripped off the moment “Taikatalvi” fades and the guitars start, with the first recognizable metal riff on the album being nothing but a heavily simplified plagiarism of the opening riff to “Blackened”, but without any of the speed or energy Metallica brought to that song in 1988. More often, though, guitarist Emo Vuorinen is just grinding out two or three chords in a very simple pattern, or wending his way through similarly rudimentary folk melodies that sound like a joke even compared to the ones heard on earlier albums like Oceanborn and Wishmaster, let alone the Blind Guardian leads they take their phrasing from.

But no one really listened to Nightwish for their guitar solos—the band built their fanbase and their identity on Tarja Turunen’s opera-trained vocals, and whether you enjoy her extremely over-the-top soprano or consider her in the same league as dentist drills and dragging metal furniture (though I think she only really got bad when she tried to mainstream up her tone on Century Child and Once), she was a distinctive talent and a commanding presence both in a mix and on the stage. Annette Olzon, on the other hand, is not up to the task of singing over a metal band. Tarja, for all her hilarious diction and questionable pitch control in the upper reaches of her range, had charisma, energy, and enormous vocal power that could easily cut through the guitars and keyboards and sound every bit as larger-than-life as Geoff Tate or Bruce Dickinson. Annette would make a decent—but not remarkable—jazz or acoustic pop singer, and while she is quite serviceable in the more relaxed moments, especially “Slow, Love, Slow”, where Nightwish do straight-up smooth jazz elevator music. It’s rote and insipid, but in being insipid, it at least avoids being offensive. However, when the distortion thickens and the spoopy scary Halloween orchestrations crank the bombast up from the usual 11 to 17 and she tries her hardest to summon deep, open tones that are simply beyond her, the diabetes-inducing twee cuteness of the whole display completely undermines any attempt the song makes at being gloomy or threatening or serious in any way—and this album tries so, so hard to appear deep and serious. “Scaretale” has the worst of it, alternating between sounding like a rejected cue from a Tim Burton flick and a rejected Arcturus song, with Annette screeching in an affected nasal whine like a rejected SpongeBob character.

It is not surprising then, that Marco Hietala, whose voice had previously appeared only as an occasional contrast with Tarja’s voice in one or two appearances per album, now has about half of the vocals to himself, and while Annette’s voice is merely insufficient, Marco Hietala’s performance is an unmitigated disgrace. He started out in the 1980s with a very strong and pure tenor with his own band Tarot, but acquired a teeth-clenched grunge-meets-Dio snarl in the ‘90s that, since his addition to Nightwish with Century Child, has gradually swallowed up his voice until it’s almost impossible to tell what note he’s singing, or if he’s bothering to hit a note at all. He sounds like a cartoon villain now, all pseudo-sinister affectation and histrionic cackling. At some times he yarls and grumbles, at others he shrieks hysterically, not just chewing the scenery but sometimes literally gagging on it. His vibrato has lost the tightness and uniformity it once had so, his notes warble all over the place even when you can hear them past his posse of insane clown voices. He’s also deafeningly, obliteratingly loud in the mix so whenever he comes in he completely takes over everything and you can hear nothing but this 50-year-old man with an old, tired voice pouting “I want my tears back NOOOW!” in a Jack Daniels-addled parody of the tone a ten-year-old would use to taunt a six-year-old. Is this really the same guy who sang “Midwinter Nights”? Oh yeah, and he plays bass too. You can’t really hear it, but it doesn’t matter, because nothing played by the electric stringed instruments in this purported heavy metal band matters.

However, even this schlock would be less offensive if it weren’t so bloated and full of self-importance. Songs stretch well past the five-minute mark, but most of them either go nowhere, desperately throwing about synth or orchestral red herrings to disguise their lack of tension or development, or else are full of baffling and anticlimactic changes, like the chorus of “Rest Calm”, which derails what little momentum the recycled Pantera riffage of the verse is able to build up with an elementary folk melody that is very reminiscent of the main theme of Iron Maiden’s sesquipedalian “Where the Wild Wind Blows” from a year earlier. However, the cadences of the phrases in the “Rest Calm” chorus are much weaker and indecisive than those in the Maiden song, making the chorus seem to stop and start rather than flow as a single musical statement. This stuttering non-theme takes over the entire rest of the song, never revisiting any of the riffs from the first verse and tying them into the overall structure. Like “Wild Wind”, it goes on and on and on running one idea into the ground after that first chorus, and here I am split—which is worse? On the one hand, “Rest Calm” only drags on for seven minutes instead of going the full fourteen. On the other hand, Iron Maiden were at least honest with how basic the material was, while Nightwish try to make it as “epic” as possibly by a brute-force bukkake of orchestral inanities, the succession of music-box tinkles, malingering strings, and heroic brass noises proceeding in the same manner in which the RMS Titanic proceeded into an iceberg.

However, the most fatuous bullshit of all comes with the prog-Pooh monstrosity that is “Song of Myself”, a thirteen-minute demon from the lowest circle of kitsch where all the problems with Imaginaerum come to a head. It starts as yet another butt-rock clunker before the rock abruptly stops and in comes—oh dear God, stop them—a garbled, out-of-sequence reading of extracts from the Walt Whitman poem! The already maudlin original is twisted into a hideous caricature of its original self as the selections are twisted to fit Tuomas Holopainen’s narcissistic megalomania. Through Whitman’s words (and only the most vulgar, maudlin, and borderline pornographic ones), we are meant to marvel at Holopainen’s sensitive, tortured, artistic soul, and all the horrors he supposedly witnesses but, as the wealthy European captain of a phenomenally popular band cum media mini-empire, is personally unaffected by and unwilling to do anything about. While a band with an actual soul might bring up poverty and suffering as a call to action or a j’accuse aimed at some malefactor or other, Holopainen uses his gallery of stolen victims to talk about himself, how being sad about the sad thing makes him an artist, all the while canned orchestrations play that are so generic they sound like they could be on tapes labeled “happy”, “mournful”, “wistful”, etc. in a dusty box in the deepest corner of some movie studio back room. Each little synthphonic tableau is unrelated to the ones before or after it, and merely serves to heighten one and only one feeling, usually one of the most superficial ones, expressed in each little bit from Whitman’s poem, and the voice actors reading it do it in this anal-retentive Shakespearean RP accent that couldn’t be further from what Whitman was and represented.

In the end, even the poem is irrelevant. The poem is there to show that Tuomas reads Whitman, and Tuomas is erudite for reading Whitman. Whitman cares, and he cares too, and you should care that he cares and care that you cares that Tuomas cares that Whitman cares, not about anything in particular but the act of caring itself. Things are Important not because of anything related to the world outside Tuomas Holopainen, they are Important because Tuomas Holopainen believed they were really, really hard and emoted gushingly to make them seem so. Fantasy becomes not a tool to examine the world and the human condition through the imagination, rather the imagination is imagineered to reflect back on itself infinitely in a closed timelike curve of Freudian “infantile” narcissism, not the mentality of the actual infant who wishes, above all, to learn and grow and become, but that of the adult who wishes to become infant, to forget, diminish, and shrink into himself—and I use this gendered term because for all the lacy cursive and goth-girl singers, Nightwish have never, ever had an actual woman’s perspective, only Tuomas projecting his creepy, horny ambivalence onto his women singers, his Wives of Henry VIII, of whom he disposes just as capriciously (if rather less violently) as the Tudor monarch. “Musical masturbation” rarely becomes less explicit than Nightwish’s use of their women singers, their supposed centerpiece but really just another object in Tuomas Holopainen’s hall of fetishes, because someone as self-absorbed as him can only relate to others and the world through fetishes, whether of the sexual variety or the relentless onslaught of references to Disney and other pop-culture child-brainwashing products that seem to structure his entire view of the world.

After failing to kick the US military out of Atlantis, the Wraith decided to get into vaudeville.

The cum shot of this jerking session isn’t even included on the album. I mocked Dream Theater’s attempt at multimedia marketing with The Astonishing and its tie-in expanded universe dribble, but Imaginaerum got an entire movie made as a band vehicle, in which Holopainen himself appears as “Thomas Whitman” (sic) and works through his daddy issues in a fairy tale dream-world in his head before dying in a coma. That’s it, nothing actually happens, the only characters in the move who are not figments of the protagonists’ imagination do nothing but slowly watch him die in a hospital bed, regressing first into childhood and then into oblivion. But a lot of caring about happens, and that, in this twisted worldview, is what is important. But in the absence of an actual idea, message, or purpose, why should I care? What in here was worth spending $4 million, on top of the assuredly beastly budget for the album recording and likely millions more for the worldwide marketing blitz, to make?

From the Stalinist-Disneyist idea of “imagineering” in the album title, to the empty sentimentality, to the syrupy, monotonously consonant “beauty” of every chord of the music, to the nauseatingly self-regarding lyrical concept and attempts at achieving unearned cultural relevance through tie-ins and promotion, Imaginaerum is a complete desert of anything original or inspired or even human. How could a Frankenstein’s monster like Imaginaerum have any humanity to it, having to be simultaneously the artistic statement of a tortured introvert who has millions of euros in the bank and thousands of mall-goth fangirls ready to throw themselves on his dick, a sexual fantasy for the goth girls’ brothers and boyfriends, a collection of hard-rock party anthems to make drunk, sweaty Europeans grind against each other at Rock am Ring, a collection of easy-listening symphonic pop albums to go up on Midwestern housewives’ shelves next to the Kenny G. and Cristy Lane CDs, a cinematic shaggy-dog story, a multifront corporate marketing operation, an orchestral dry-run for Tuomas’ absurd Muzak solo project The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck (sic!) and a stage for all to witness Tuomas Holopainen the romantic genius kiss his own ass?

Listening to Imaginaerum is like trying to eat a wheelbarrow full of cotton candy all at once, and is about as good for your brain as the aforementioned candy floss feast is for the rest of your system. Imaginaerum is the black hole at the center of the entertainment galaxy, a tribute to “the imagination” that spares the listener the work of actually using that imagination, because the Imagineers™ can do better, and if they can’t, they can at least do bigger, gaudier, and more expensive. Save your money and your time and listen to something else, anything else. ELP’s Love Beach album is better than this. The Machete sequels are better than this. Listening to Dennis Prager tell you that liberals are going to destroy America with gay Mexican abortions is better than this. Say no to the engineering of your soul, and stay away from Imaginaerum.

Rating: 0%

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