“Best of” albums, eh? “Albums” certainly, but rarely the “best of” a band’s output. In fact, I suspect that one day we’ll discover that record companies have been collectively involved in a Machiavellian conspiracy, and that “best of” means “cash in” in some ancient Outer Mongolian dialect.
Still, symphonic metallers Nightwish have some semblance of a good argument for releasing Highest Hopes. Given that it took them four albums to get noticed outside their Finnish homeland (2002’s Century Child) and a further one before they hit pay dirt (last year’s Euro chart-topping Once), they can at least claim to be educating the masses who found Nemo but don’t know much about its prequels.
Listening to Elvenpath – the sole track from Nightwish’s debut Angels Fall First – it is unsurprising that they took a bit of time to break into wider consciousness. It’s an acquired taste to say the least with the musical emphasis more on the operatic than the metallic, and airy-fairy lyrics about “elf-folk”, “the deepest forest” and “the howling of a night wolf”. Remember, Lord Of The Rings hadn’t had its renaissance back in 1997…
By the time of Oceanborn, the year after, the band who had tweely started out around a camp-fire had been reborn itself as an old skool metal band with a gothic edge and where the operatic nature of the classical-trained Tarja Turunen’s vocals were a cool party trick rather than the raison d’etre.
Stargazers is a highlight from this period with technical wizardry on all musical fronts and a memorable tune to boot. Nightwish’s versatility is also in evidence in the spooky metal of Sacrament Of Wilderness contrasted with the slower, escalating rock of Sleeping Sun.
2000’s Wishmaster was where the pieces of the palapeli (that’s Finnish for jigsaw – impressive, huh?) really began to fall into place, though. The title track in particular is a stomping triumph – heavy, fast and superbly sung, while this time, the fantasy lyrics (“Master! Apprentice! Heartborne, 7th Seeker Warrior! Disciple!”) are entirely in keeping with the aggressive nature of the music.
In fact, in this context, it’s hard to fathom that in the same year as Wishmaster was released, Nightwish applied to be Finland’s entry in the Eurovision Song Contest (yes, really). They came second and in losing probably stopped their fledgling career from going down the pan…
Century Child built on Wishmaster’s strong foundation and pricked up the ears of Europeans beyond Lappland. The bold and soaring Bless The Child boasts big blasts of keyboard and equally sizeable chunks of thrashy guitars; Dead To The World sees bassist Marco Hjetala leading the vocal line in a melodramatic Euro metal-fest; while Ever Dream tones down the loudness to show off Tarja Turunen’s mightily impressive voice.
Of course, “cash ins”, I mean, “best ofs” have an annoying habit of not ordering tracks chronologically so if you want to plot Nightwish’s progress you’ll need to listen to Highest Hopes with the CD cover, a discography and this review.
Just to confuse matters further, there are three cover versions dotted in fairly randomly. Gary Moore‘s Over The Hills And Far Away becomes a parping keyboard-fest that somehow still works; so does Walking In The Air, with some excellent guitar soloing to add atmosphere; while the rocked-up Phantom Of The Opera is where the metal, theatre, gothic and slightly cheesy aspects of Nightwish all combine to maximum effect.
Unfortunately, to these ears the album closer – a live version of Pink Floyd‘s High Hopes – is pretty overwrought and tedious.
But this is a small pimple on an otherwise healthy musical complexion. I’m not going to bring myself to recommend buying a “best of”, but there’s no doubt that this is better than most.