Friday, October 5, 2007

"Dark Passion Play" by Nightwish

I recently obtained Nightwish's new album, "Dark Passion Play" (DPP for short). For those of you not in-the-know, Nightwish is a Finnish symphonic power metal band who on all previous albums was fronted by a female operatic vocalist, Tarja Turunen. If they aren't the first, they are definetly the most famous band of their kind to use such vocals.

Due to internal issues, the band replaced Turunen with a more 'traditional' sounding vocalist, Anette Olzon. Fans have been pretty divided over this, even before hearing Olzon sing. Originally I was put off Nightwish because I thought it strange to have opera singing with metal. But once I got beyond that, I fell in love with the music and came to like Turunen's voice just fine. Though I had no allegiance to Turunen I was worried that a non-operatic voice would not be able to withstand the power and bombast of Nightwish's sound.

I was wrong. Gleefully so.

Musically, the album is Nightwish. That is who it sounds like, no one else could of created this album. When put into their discography chronologically, I can see how it logically flows out of their previous album, "Once". DPP follows the heavier, more aggressive, crunchier sound of "Once" and one-ups it. "Once" also was the first album to try to utilize a full orchestra and choir but DPP multiplies that by 10. Where "Once" had an orchestra backing up the songs, the orchestra IS the songs on DPP, making the album a gigantic monstrosity of dynamic sound. Some versions of DPP come with a second CD of just instrumental/orchestral versions of the songs. I've heard a few of these and it is amazing how well they stand up without lyrics or lead guitars to carry the songs through, each song standing well on just the orchestra/choir.

Vocally I think Olzon's voice does just fine. Vocal duties are split evenly across this album between Olzon and bass guitarist/male vocalist Marco Hietala. Hietala previously primarily sung back-up/duets with Turunen but never really got to shine on his own. And shine he does - the man sings as well-if-not-better than the best of them. Aside from adding to the dynamic quality of the album, spreading the vocal load between the two voices helps to ease Olzon's new sound into the music and into the aural image of the band.

Comparitavely, Nightwish still does not sound like anyone else out there. Some fans accuse them of sounding more "pop-ish", likely due to Olzon's more traditional singing style and the 'catchiness' of a few of the tunes ("Amaranth" is the only one that comes to mind). I have to argue with this and point out that this is by far the heaviest, most aggressive album they've made. Furthermore, Nightwish is a symphonic power metal band - by definition power metal is epic and melodic, often more "positive" sounding. I can pick out a dozen pre-Anette Nightwish songs that could be considered "poppy" but aren't by diehard fans simply because the vocals are operatic (and in itself, operatic vocals are not traditionally "metal" either). So I think the argument is largely based on the fact that people just hate change.

Personally the album makes sense to me. There are songs on here Turunen could of sung but others I just don't think she would of worked out for. Olzon's voice adds an element of flexibility to Nightwish; there are just some songs that would be crushed under the weight of operatic vocals. And with enough attitude, a more traditional vocalist can fill the gap left by the missing "epicness" of operatic vocals. So I am perfectly happy with Olzon's voice. I also like that we get more of Marco's vocals on this album as well - and that's saying something for me, since I normally prefer female vocals.

Conclusion: I love this album. I don't have to stretch to accept it at all - it just makes sense in the flow of Nightwish's growth. The album works on a whole and most of the songs stand alone on their individual merits. We'll see how it stands the test of time but after a few days of listening to it, it is swiftly becoming my favorite Nightwish album.

Bye Bye Beautiful - obvious lyrics spitting with anger. I wish I could write songs this well for the people who have done me wrong.
Amaranth - catchy or not, this'll be one of those concert favorites like "Nemo", "Bless the Child", and "Wishmaster". This is the song people are judging the whole album on, which they shouldn't, but it's still a great song.
Sahara - I like the subtle nature of this song. The chorus has this understated power that love. I think Olzon's vocals shine best on this track.
The Islander - written by Hietala, an accoustic sea ballad. It gives me chills. There have been a few other accoustic songs in Nightwish's history and this is the best. My favorite track. Olzon's backing vocals are the cherry on top.
Last of the Wilds - instrumental Celtic influenced song with fiddles and pipes. A rousing song - something Runrig may of done if they were metal. Love it!

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

"Ciao, Baby" by theSTART

When my friend Trey and I were in Denver we hit a few Hot Topic stores. At one store they were not playing the usual thrashy, growly music and I was liking what I was hearing. It was a band called theSTART and it was their new album, Ciao, Baby!. I had to have it.

I ordered it from and got it yesterday and I listened to it 5 times in a row (this is unusual for me). I love it. For me it is instantly accessable and catchy without being trite, already-done, or simplistic. theSTART is neo-80's new-wave/punk. When I first heard them I immediately thought of electro-goth duo Collide (Collide is much darker and has an industrial, rather than new-wave, flavor, and they also utilize middle-eastern tones). After a few listens I now think that its better to describe theSTART as a mash of Garbage, No Doubt (for vocals and pep), Goldfrapp, and Siouxsie & the Banshees. Funny enough, theSTART has opened and toured with Garbage and the Birthday Massacre as well as Front Line Assembly, all bands I think they can relate to and all bands I like.

The use of digital bass, heavy and buzzing, is reminiscent of Goldfrapp and middle-era Garbage. The vocals and plucky guitars are punk influenced. Some of their atmospheric keyboards/guitar is reminiscent of 80's Blondie and Siouxsie & the Banshees. The vocalist, Aimee Echo, sounds similar to Dale Bozzio from Missing Persons, according to my musically encyclopedic sister. Or for you non-80's folks, reminiscent of a raspy Gwen Steffani (No Doubt), as far as vocal dynamics and range.

The whole album is a highlight but if I have to pick a few "must-listen" tracks, they'd be:
Wartime - Goldfrappish, modern beats, off-kilter catchyness
Runaway - catchy, singalong, frentic 80's punk
Blood On My Hands - attitude, catchy, definite early punk vein in the guitars/vocals, lovely rasp
Dance Revolution - dark, boiled down. Sounds like a Siouxsie & The Banshees song with Gwen Steffani lyrics/beats thrown in

Positive with attitude, light enough to be a great summer album with dark enough 80's threads to make it good for the turning seasons (if you find your music seasonal, which a lot of mine is - no B-52's in the winter, sorry). Love it. :D

Scrapped Princess

Here's the Wikipedia entry for Scrapped Princess. (if you read that Wikipedia article, don't read past the "Story" bit - the character profiles and everything below are rife with spoilers). I bought the boxed set (6 discs in one plastic box - the best deal for your money). In Japanese and English, though I always watch my anime in Japanese with subtitles.

Scrapped Princess is about this 15 year old girl, Pacifica, who was born to the royal family and then ordered to be killed as a baby when a prophecy from the Church of Mauser was made saying she would become "the poison that destroys the world" upon her 16th birthday. Well, she wasn't killed and was instead sneaked to a family who raised her as their own. Their parents now dead and the Church of Mauser aware that the princess lives, Pacifica and her two older adopted siblings, Shannon (a very awesome swordsman) and Raquel (a wizard), take to the roads to escape.

The story takes place in a high-fantasy type world, swords-and-horses kind of place with a *very* slight steampunk aesthetic, mostly in terms of clothing technology. As the tale wears on, though, sci-fi and high-technology creeps in as we discover more about this worlds past. It's pretty neat - I'm guessing this whole world and society is post-apocalyptic, only the sci-fi apocalypse happened 5000 years ago.

The characters are very three dimensional right from the start. And none of them are stereotypical - I honestly haven't seen characters like these in any other anime yet. Pacifica wears pink and acts the spoiled princess, but under it she's honestly a sweet person, very caring about others, and is SUCH a tomboy (reminds me of Aeryu from "Simoun"). Raquel is the tall "Sachiko/Sakaki" looking older sister - she's very quiet and can seem absent minded but as you learn more about her powers, you start to realize that she's just extremely understated and has WAY more awareness and power than anyone lets on. And Shannon, the older brother, is the biggest surprise - I thought I'd hate him. I thought he'd be the gruff, "dark horse" brooding swordsman. But he's not - he's the housekeeper, OCD, cynical, mother-bear of the group, quickly becoming my favorite. Side characters are just as interesting, too.

The story is neither dark and heavy nor silly and over-the-top. No high-pitched voices anywhere, no goofy faces. Humour is actually more realistic (often in the form of sarcastic comments between the siblings). The plot is detailed and complex and only halfway through I'm having fun guessing at what is around the corner.

The music is also very good, fitting the setting and era (i.e. no bubblegum pop or heavy metal or anything uncharactaristic of existing technologies for the most part) - and the animation itself is high quality stuff, from Studio BONES (the folks who brought us Wolf's Rain, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Cowboy Bebop). I'm starting to see a trend with BONES productions in that they're rock solid in all departments - characters, animation, story, music - everything. It's a whole package.

Conclusion: I'm only halfway through but I'm really fond of this anime already. It's solid: no single element is carrying the series on its own. I'm made to care about the characters and I'm interested in finding out about this world's past. Halfway through, it is worth watching. And heck, I even got my anime-hating sister to watch and even enjoy it thus far, so it must be good, right? :D