This week’s pick is an album that saw a band move on from their power metal roots and lean fully into the symphonic sound they had been prodding at their last few records before. The results would launch the group into the stratosphere and put them at the forefront of heavy metal in their native Finland and worldwide. The symphonic movement in metal would explode, while the very group that put it on the map would unexpectedly reconfigure after the touring cycle for this album.
Nightwish – Once
Released June 7, 2004 via Nuclear Blast Records (Europe)
My Favorite Tracks – Ghost Love Score, Planet Hell, Nemo
Keyboardist and band leader Tuomas Holopainen has always been the chief force behind Nightwish’s compositions. For Once he chose to record most of the album with orchestra accompaniment, utilizing the London Philharmonic. The album would be the most expensive to have been recorded in Finland, a record to be broken again by Nightwish years later.
While Holopainen was the band’s mastermind, its showcase would be singer Tarja Turunen. Turunen is a classically-trained soprano singer whose operatic style was an unlikely but welcome fit in heavy metal. The power and character of her singing would be the centerpiece of Nightwish’s presentation.
While Once is available in a few configurations with bonus tracks, I will be discussing the standard 11-track version most widely released.
Dark Chest Of Wonders
The opener is epic and heavy. It’s the perfect blend of symphonic composition and heavy metal attack. The song goes on a fantasy-laden adventure far from the grind of reality, a recurring theme in Holopainen’s songwriting. It’s clear through the Nightwish catalog that he wishes to go on a fantastic journey and Nightwish is his vehicle for that trip.
Wish I Had An Angel
Another heavy tune that was also one of the album’s hit singles. It features Tarja on the verses and bassist Marco Hietala belting the chorus. While the song is dripped in very intense imagery and symbology, its roots are far more basic – Holopainen spawned the concept after seeing people hit on his girlfriend while out on the town. Some people get into fights over that, Tuomas writes hit songs from it instead. While many of the songs on Once are epic and far-reaching, this song keeps it pretty simple and drives everything home.
Written about the origins of the name Nemo, meaning nameless or no one. The song is based in more of Holopainen’s sense of loss and search for meaning. Despite the dour subject matter, the music is lush and uplifting, creating a beautiful soundscape. The song was the album’s first single and was a major hit ahead of Once’s release. It stands as the group’s most-played song live and one of the three most recognizable for the group, all which hail from this album.
A heavier approach sees Nightwish tackle the scenario of the planet devolving into total chaos. That’s subject matter than any thrash band would do any day of the week, but here Nightwish wrap the harrowing ordeal up in another epic, operatic offering featuring both Tarja and Marco handling vocals.
Planet Hell would take an odd place in gaming lore a few years after its release as part of a compilation video featuring players in Runescape exploiting a glitch to attack others outside of the traditional player versus player area. It’s odd how songs sometimes get used in weird places and wind up being a piece of lore.
Creek Mary’s Blood
Holopainen wrote this song based upon a book of the same name. It is another sad account of the plight of the Native Americans, this time told in epic fashion by a group of Finnish musicians. The song’s conclusion features a poem originally written in English but subsequently read in the Lakota language by musician John Two-Hawks.
A song clearly about the mythical sirens who would lure sailors to the rocks and their deaths with beautiful singing. It’s a perfectly fitting song to record when your singer is Tarja Turunen. The Siren was the album’s fourth and final single release.
It was reportedly written by Holopainen about a bad period of writer’s block. I’d imagine a lot of writers wish they could come up with stuff like this in down periods. This song does shade a bit toward the sound Nightwish would pursue on albums after Once.
We’re into a blistering track that goes for the throat and tackles more lovelorn concepts of self-worth. It’s a tale as old as time but told in grand and heavy fashion here. Tarja’s operatic delivery of the heavy-hitting chorus punctuates the affair.
Ghost Love Score
Although not released as a single, this ten-minute epic has possibly become Nightwish’s most famous song in retrospect. While the song was noted as a standout upon the album’s release, it would be years later when the YouTube song reaction community got a hold of this track that it would take on a whole new life.
Ghost Love Score is a monster of a song, offering movements and passages that stand out from the typical popular music compositions. It is a bit of a hybrid prog-opera offering that puts all of Tarja Turunen’s talents on full display, as well as the compositional strengths of Tuomas Holopainen.
The song’s theme is simple – two lovers have parted but the connection and fondness remains. It is a hauntingly mesmerizing and victorious song that couples beauty and tragedy in the most grand manner.
Despite its extended runtime and challenging architecture, Ghost Love Score would become a live staple for the band. It was difficult to imagine anyone besides Tarja handling the vocal duties on the song, but in 2013 at the Wacken festival present-day Nightwish singer Floor Jansen delivered a performance that has the Internet buzzing still almost nine years later. The line from Tarja to Floor is a story for another time but, after everything, Ghost Love Score stands as perhaps Nightwish’s most triumphant moment.
Kuolema tekee taiteilijan
This obvious cut-and-paster of a title was a single released in Finland and Japan. The song was performed entirely in Finnish, a rarity for the group. The song’s title translates to “Death Makes An Artist.” Even without a translation guide, the song conveys a sense of beauty and sadness, ever-present themes in the Nightwish discography.
Higher Than Hope
The album’s closer is one with a tragic yet triumphant story behind it. Marc Brueland was a former comic book artist in San Diego who was pitched in a seven-year battle with cancer and began doing DJ sets at a local club. One night he stumbled across a cover version of Nightwish’s Walking In The Air. This would lead to Marc getting in contact with the band and forging a friendship with Tuomas. Marc would join the band on stage for a performance of Walking In The Air.
Higher Than Hope was a song Tuomas wrote about Marc’s battle and spirit. Marc delivers the spoken word passage in the song’s mid-point interlude. Sadly Marc would pass away several months before the release of Once and was never able to hear the song he inspired. Nightwish do not play the song live unless members of the Brueland family are in attendance.
Once marked the moment that Nightwish broke free from the power metal scene and established themselves as a premier act across the world. The album sold over two million copies and its songs are among the most famous from the group still to this day. It made Nightwish practically royalty in Finland and well known everywhere else.
Nightwish would embark on a successful touring cycle for Once, culminating in a show at Helsinki’s Hartwall Arena on October 25, 2005 that was immortalized on video and audio as the End Of An Era set. The name was well-chosen as, just after the show, Holopainen and the band made the shocking decision to fire Tarja Turunen from the group. The move would reverberate through the metal world and cause months, if not years, of drama and toxic chaos on the Internet.
Whatever came after, Once was a glorious moment in the sun for Nightwish. They delivered on the promise creeping into their prior few albums to break the mold and combine heavy metal with classical arrangement in a way that would spark a series of new scenes within metal. The time and expense poured into the album paid off and put the band on a new plane of existence.
4 thoughts on “Album Of The Week – April 4, 2022”
I saw Nightwish at Bloodstock in 2018 and enjoyed them immensely. However, this has been a great learning experience, thank you.
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They are a splendid band. I haven’t caught them live though if I would have been more on top of stuff several years ago I would have been able to see their first show with their present singer. Hopefully I’ll get to see them someday.
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This one is a suprise and it’s also the last Nightwish album that I really liked.
For me they got the balance right in this one with all the different musical styles they have in their sound.
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They definitely checked all the boxes on this one.
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