Album Review:Imaginaerum

★★★★★

On Jan. 10, Finland-based symphonic metal band Nightwish released its first full album since 2007’s Dark Passion Play. Imaginaerum is a brilliant concept album that proves Nightwish is still pushing its grandiose, orchestral sound to new and intoxicating heights.

The album kicks off with a soft intro in Finnish called “Taikatalvi,” then jams into the first single, “Storytime,” a song with skillful lyrics and rapid-fire pacing that shot to the top of European music charts upon its release.

More than previous albums, Imaginaerum utilizes the dueling vocal talents of bassist Marco Hietala and lead singer Anette Olzon. Hietala’s voice fluctuates between a gravelly growl and surprisingly soft singing, and Olzon complements him perfectly, matching his snarl or soaring above it with powerhouse alto ballads.

One of the most beautiful tracks on the album is a seven-minute, multi-layered masterpiece called “Rest Calm” that transitions effortlessly between Hietala’s tortured howls and a gorgeous, lilting melody provided by Olzon.

The music itself is astonishingly eclectic. “Ghost River,” a visceral, grinding metal thrill ride, somehow manages to blend into the minimal instrumentation and smoky vocals of the jazz-inspired “Slow, Love, Slow.” Immediately after the sultry tones of “Slow, Love, Slow,” a few guitar riffs precede the cry “I want my tears back!” and a pounding Celtic jam by the same name follows. Miraculously, these abrupt stylistic shifts work.

Olzon cackles delightfully on “Scaretale,” a song about children’s nightmares that starts eerie and quiet then quickly escalates into a whirling dervish of a track with all the camp and flair of a symphonic metal carnival.

The urgency of “Scaretale” is carried through in a twangy, percussive instrumental called “Arabesque,” then dips into the soft ballad “Turn Loose the Mermaids.”

Previous Nightwish albums have experimented with different musical styles, but they always seemed disjointed – a Celtic metal song here, a slow ballad there – and there was always the sense that Nightwish threw them in more as an experiment than anything else.

However, with Imaginaerum, composer and keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen has more than hit his stride, weaving together each style and instrument for a clear and distinct artistic purpose.

The album is so coherent that guest composer Pip Williams was able to combine the main musical themes into the masterful final track “Imaginaerum,” a six-minute instrumental medley that provides the perfect conclusion to the album.

The one part of the album that seems a little off is the 13-minute long “Song of Myself,” which breaks up driving orchestral segments with slightly overindulgent segments of spoken-word poetry.

Imaginaerum will go hand-in-hand with a full-length musical fantasy film of the same title written and directed by Stobe Harju and co-produced by Nightwish.

The movie, which explores the imaginary world of a dying composer with dementia, will be released later in 2012. With a soundtrack so brilliant, it’s hard to believe the film could be anything less than extraordinary.