January 18, 2020

Marko Hietala, he of the long blonde locks and outlandish twin beards, is most known as the bass player and a (sometimes lead) vocalist with Finnish bands Nightwish and Tarot – the latter an outstanding band who were never as well known as they deserved to be. A true rock ‘n roll bass player with a unique and powerful singing voice, Hietala helped elevate Nightwish to tremendous heights upon joining them for their Century Child album, and has been a vital part of their sound ever since. But while they took a break to recuperate from lengthy touring, Hietala seized the opportunity and recorded Mustan Sydämen Rovio, his debut solo album, sung entirely in Finnish and released in the late summer of 2019. Now, perhaps for more wide-ranging appeal, Hietala has seen fit to offer up an English-language version of the album, alternatively titled Pyre Of The Black Heart.

The first thing listeners may notice is that this album has only tenuous musical connections with Nightwish and Tarot. Pyre reveals an emboldened Hietala stepping into the spotlight, broadening his horizons and arriving at ten dynamic pieces of music that are surprisingly excellent. Not to suggest that it’s surprising that a musician of this calibre would come up with excellent music – but this excellent? And this eclectic? Hietala describes it not as metal, but as ‘hard prog’ – and indeed, he journeys through various moods, sounds and styles over the course of these 52 minutes, often within the same song. Opening track Stones alternates between upbeat acoustic guitar and piano verses, with a thunderous singalong chorus that gives me the feeling that I should be swinging my stein of ale in the air and rocking back and forth with my feast companions. Star, Sand And Shadow maintains an swirling, electronic synth edge even as the song opens up into a heavy guitar rocker – not a usual combination, but it works well here. Keyboards and an ominous acoustic guitar are maintained throughout the longest (and perhaps best) track For You, with a lengthy and emotional guitar solo over wordless vocals closing it out. There’s often one track on every great album that requires a second listening before moving on to the rest of the tracks, and this was that track for me.

Lock up your daughters…

I Am The Way is another successful example of Hietala’s fearlessness when mixing styles and constructing unusual arrangements. The key change at the climax may seem obvious, but it has such a soaring beauty to it, one can’t help but get wrapped up in the tingling sensations it causes. A truly impeccable track with numerous strengths. Then there’s a complete change of mood and pace with the delightfully catchy Runner Of The Railways, with its organ solos, nutty backing vocals and crazy prog rock pyrotechnics. I Dream carries with it a gentle intimacy before the beautiful and haunting closing track Truth Shall Set You Free gradually crescendos and then quickly fades away, leaving us to reflect on the wonders that have just transpired.

Through it all, Hietala boldly explores his vocal range. The guy really is a fine singer of gentle ballads or powerful belters. And his enunciation is perfect – there’s nothing amateurish here, no heavily accented vocals as with some singers who are better off sticking with their native tongues. Hietala and his bandmates Tuomas Wäinölä [guitar], Vili Ollila [keyboards] and Anssi Nykänen [drums] may look like metal heads, but they really do traverse genres with Pyre Of The Black Heart. There is a deep well of styles and influences in the compositions, but the path is never strayed from for so long that the root of Hietala’s musical history is forgotten – he skillfully weaves these eccentricities into a rich and rewarding album, one that gets my absolute highest recommendation. This needs to be heard!

Available on CD and clear vinyl from Nuclear Blast, Amazon, and all usual outlets.