Nightwish remain Finland’s biggest act and are a beloved figure not just for genre enthusiasts but casual listeners of symphonic metal.
Though I presume that most people when asked would say they “listen to everything,” one breed of audiophile stands out to me as one very happy and set in their interest: the metalhead. Metal exists in extremes, and those who resonate with said extremes find everything they need in 200-song libraries that add up to days’ worth of music.
Finnish group Nightwish takes those extremes to even greater heights by imbuing the genre with orchestral and operatic influences. A sound that eventually grew to incorporate the London Philharmonic Orchestra started with just four band members and a single flautist on their 1997 debut, Angels Fall First. While it lacks the sonic and lyrical growth of later projects, the album formally introduces many of Nightwish’s calling cards, from former vocalist Tarja Turunen’s commanding soprano to leader Tuomas Holopainen’s epic choices of wordplay.
Escapism plays a major role in Nightwish’s material, established first and foremost with Angels Fall First. Rife with references to D&D and LOTR, “Elvenpath” thrusts the listener into a fantasy world which is then revealed to be dreams conjured by the narrator. Never a distraction or waste of time, the imagination consistently serves as a source of strength, creativity and joy. “Taking a step to the world unbound/ Spinning my fantasies all around” comes later in “Know Why The Nightingale Sings,” while “Tutankhamen” literally details an obsessive desire for the fabled ruler of Egypt. As Nightwish’s overall talent developed, the escapism grew larger as well, with Holopainen creating an entire film which follows the fantastical dreamscapes of a comatose artist.
Originally compiled as a demo, Angels Fall First plays like a band at their starting point. The synthetic strings incorporated into dynamic metal arrangements hint at the band’s later experimentation with actual strings and other live instruments. Choral chants, set against Turune’s burgeoning operatic range, bring an additional gravitas to tracks like “Nymphomaniac Fantasia.” When adopting a more folk atmosphere as on “Etiainen,” the music still retains the sweeping, symphonic quality people turn to Nightwish for to this day.
These humble beginnings really do humble As he continued to develop his artistic voice, Holopainen actually uses it on “The Carpenter” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Thankfully, he learned early on that for all his musical aptitudes, singing is not one of them. His own melodic sensibilities also come up a bit short on Angels Fall First, evidenced by the awkward pacing of “Know Why…” or the clumsy allargando guitar riffs around a minute into “Beauty and the Beast.”
As is the case with much of their material, the most distinctive element is Turunen’s expressive, flowing voice. Despite being the perceived antithesis of a metal vocalist (booming, gritty, typically male), her opera technique inexplicably fits the music perfectly. The runs she delivers on “Beauty and the Beast” stand out as one of the more polished aspects of Nightwish’s debut, and her presence undoubtedly helped catapult them to worldwide fame on Once.
Reliving Angels Fall First recalls the memories of Turunen’s dismissal from the band via an open letter; this move in hindsight, along with Anette Olzon’s own firing, makes her bandmates look worse than the diva they tried to paint her as. As it would turn out, the debut’s title ended up a self-fulfilling prophecy for the band, with the loftiest member the first to be shot down.
Today, Nightwish remain Finland’s biggest act and are a beloved figure not just for genre enthusiasts but casual listeners of symphonic metal. Dramatic in both music and lyrics, the band’s material follows a formula first discovered in Angels Fall First. For all its shortcomings, it dares to dream in extremes and thereby manifests the beginning of a successful, decades-spanning career.