I say all this to make it clear that Nightwish is, in many ways, a one-man band. Don't get me wrong; the other members do contribute to the sound and even to the songwriting, but most of the magical moments seem to have quite simply popped out of this mans head and onto disc. Both guitarist Emppu Vuorinen and bassist/vocalist Marco Hietala have contributed music to the band too, and of all the musicians in the band, Marco is certainly the one I would be most sorry to see go, if ever they parted ways. His voice really is something special, able to sing softly on ballads ("Taikatalvi", "The Crow, The Owl and The Dove") and deliver power on the heavier tracks ("Ghost River", "Last Ride of the Day"). Lead singer Annette Olzon (who, as of late 2012, left the band) provides good, but never quite great, vocals, but honestly, she is given such great material, both lyrically and melodically, that it doesn't even matter.
One thing you absolutely know you can expect from a new Nightwish record is something new; something they've never done before. Holopainen has pushed the band's musical boundaries on every release they have done so far, and by this, their 7th studio album, there's not really a whole lot that is left to do. But he finds new things anyway; the very Danny Elfman-esque "Scaretale" will frighten the casual listener with it's foray into creepy carnival music, while the beautiful "Slow, Love, Slow" is a soft jazz ballad, and perhaps the highlight for Olzons voice.
Fans of the band will also be looking out for a Nightwish staples: First, there is always at least one song that breaches ten minutes, which is often the highlight of the album. In this case, it is the penultimate track "Song of Myself", but it is in some ways a trick; the song itself ends at around the 7 minute mark, leaving almost half the song to a pretty instrumental with various voices reciting words over the top. It's very poetic, and interested to listen to once or twice, but after a while one finds it easier to skip the rest of the song.
Another thing that should be noted, and will affect the way you hear this album: The whole record was written not as a stand-alone record, but really as the soundtrack to a movie that Nightwish is producing of the same name. As of the date of this review, February 2013, the film has seen release in Finland, but is still not available for purchase on DVD. One can expect the album to make a little more sense after seeing the film.
This album is overall not as strong a release as 2007's "Dark Passion Play", which in my mind is the greatest album thus far released in the symphonic metal genre. But it is a solid release, with fantastic songs and a very rewarding overall vision. As with all of Nightwish's material, these songs will get into your soul; expect these songs to still be a part of your life 10 years from now. That, after all, is the real strength of Nightwish; the music is a fantasy that somehow plants itself inside you, and never lets you go. Let's hope Tuomas and the rest of the crew keep making fine music for decades to come. 4/5