Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Blahs Of Symphonic Metal: Nightwish's Century Child!

The Good: Moments of voice, One or two lyrics
The Bad: Most of the music is cacophonous, Obscured lyrics, Repetitive sound
The Basics: In another disappointing musical turn, Nightwish creates a mixed bag of music and noise, obscuring its best lyrics with sound.

Sometimes when listening to a group or album so outside our usual listening preferences, one finds themselves writing more of a commentary on the unfamiliar genre as opposed to staying focused on the sound or evaluation of the specific album. My first experience with symphonic metal, Nightwish's Highest Hopes - The Best Of Nightwish was a review that trended more into the territory of the genre commentary. Listening to the Nightwish album Century Child, I vowed to keep my review more about the specific album than critiquing the symphonic metal genre.

Wow, is that going to be hard!

Century Child, an opera in its own right, was argued - by a fan of the group - to be the best Nightwish album thus far. With ten tracks clocking in at just over fifty minutes, Century Child is an album preoccupied with night and abduction/fleeing.

Okay, here's the bottomline. This is an album that's real difficult for me to muster up a lot of energy and enthusiasm to write a review for. As I listen to it and write - this is my seventh listen to the album - I'm overcome with the sensation that Century Child is an album that tries to be big: it's trying to be big in sound, lyrics, and body. It tries so hard to be BIG, operatic, rockin' and the result is somehow smaller than the sum of all its parts.

First, let's tackle the sound. Nightwish on Century Child is probably supposed to be listened to loud. There are a lot of crescendos, there are emphatic guitar riffs (as I write this, there is a remarkably repetitive chord repetition in "Slaying The Dreamer" playing), and noisy drummings. Farbeit for me to criticize a band with comparisons to legitimate greats, but the drumming right now is annoying me. Percussion can be a powerful musical statement that can sell a risky song as obvious or even safe. When I first heard Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" on The Dance (reviewed here!), I was completely sold on the track by Mick Fleetwood's adept drumming more than the lyrics. The drumming on tracks like "Slaying The Dreamer" plays as more sloppy than professional, less artful and more tactless.

Throughout the album, Nightwish suffers from a failure to live up to conceptual potential. So, for example, on "Forever Yours," a slow, sylvan follow-up to "Slaying The Dreamer," the song never reaches the operatic ballad potential of what it seems to be trying to be. It's too quiet, not insisting on itself enough to entertain or capture the listener enough to believe in the reality of the poetics of the lines.

This brings the music back to the forefront of the problems with "Century Child." Nightwish appears to have degenerated into a multiple personality syndrome with this album where it is unsure whether it wants to be hard and edgy with loud metal clashing like on "Bless The Child" or soft and heartwrenching with tracks like "Forever Yours." The tracks that attempt to negotiate between the two, like "Ocean Soul" fall flat of being either successfully. Indeed, "Ocean Soul" comes across as predictably poppy without any edge.

"Ocean Soul" is a nice example of a failure to have the lyrics match any real musical sentiment. It's hard to take such standard pop rhymes like "Losing emotion / Finding devotion / Should I dress in white and search the sea / As I always wished to be - one with the waves /
Ocean Soul" ("Ocean Soul") when it is accompanied by standard three chord rock guitaring. A soft, sensual ballad - by the lyrics - has its purpose gutted by incongruent music accompanying it. The track that follows, "Feel For You" is perhaps even worse, though most of the musical accompaniment drowns out the vocals.

Lead singer Tarja Turunen has a great voice - as evidenced on the cover of "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Ever Dream" - but it is so often sublimated to the guitars and keyboards that seem to be more preoccupied with the sound than the lines. Sadly, the group's primary male vocalist, Marco Hietala is nowhere near as talented as Turunen and every time he has a front and center vocal is an opportunity missed by the band to use their talent to their best advantage.

For those who are having trouble conceptualizing what Century Child (and the symphonic metal of "Nightwish") sounds like, think Manheim Steamroller or ELO with about fifty percent more volume, twenty-five percent less tune, and vocalists with microphones not calibrated to come close to matching the sound levels of the instrumentals. Century Child only reaches a decent balance on the final track, "Beauty Of The Beast," where there's a nice balance of the lyrics, music and vocals (even Hietala's vocal accompaniment is tolerable here).

But far too often, the album is simply noisy. When I read the lyrics to the songs on the album, I appreciated them more than the sound of the work presented. And, at the risk of being nitpicky, there seemed something cheap and easy about the cover of "The Phantom Of The Opera." Most of the songs on Century Child sound derivative of Webber's rock opera, so it seems simplistic to include the song, like Nightwish was not original enough to conceptualize enough of their own work - to create a full rock opera of their own - to sustain an entire album without dipping into the common troth, as it were.

I don't know who would like Nightwish. My friends who like AFI, opera and metal seem to enjoy it, but even with my diverse taste and range in music, I could not find enough on Century Child to recommend or want to listen to the album again.

The best track is "Dead To The World" which does not put up any pretense and creates a straightout hard-rock song. The low point is "Slaying The Dreamer."

For other impressive female-dominated bands or artists, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
Tidal - Fiona Apple
@#%&*! Smilers - Aimee Mann
The Twelfth Night Soundtrack - Hem


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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