While it is possible that a few bands began with a discussion around a campfire with friends, it should be no surprise that this is how the idea for Nightwish came to fruition. Saying that, following Tuomas Holopainen playing in other bands, his original idea was not exactly a symphonic metal behemoth, the brainwave was more in the terms of experimentation and an acoustic set up. Holopainen was sure of one thing – the band would feature female vocals. The first version of Nightwish only included three musicians, Holopainen, classically trained vocalist Tarja Turunen and school friend, guitarist Emo “Emppu” Vuorinen with the trio recording a collection of acoustic demos in 1996. Following the release of the demos, drummer Jukka “Julius” Nevalaninen joined the band, acoustic was exchanged for electric and a more “metal” approach to record second demo Angels Fall First in 1997. This demo was picked up by Spinefarm Records which then landed the band a deal and allowed them to record four more songs. Angels Fall First gained recognition in Nightwish’s home country of Finland from the off. There was some early rotation of members with session musicians with Sami Vänskä being invited to play bass.
It was Nightwish’s second album Oceanborn, released in 1998 – and initially only in Finland – which took the band on a more progressive path, leaving behind some of the more folk-like elements and even added growls (a style still synonymous with the genre today) as a contrast to Turunen’s operatic style. A strong album and its success in Finland led to an international release landing the record in the German charts as well as a support slot opening for German thrashers Rage on their 1999 tour. Following albums Wishmaster  and Century Child  continued the trend of Nightwish’s international success. At one point in 2001 Tuomas Holopainen considered ending the band following tensions withing but a change of heart came from a change in management and replacing Vänskä on bass with Marko Hietala who was also able to provide vocals. Nightwish was about to enter a golden period for the symphonic pioneers.
It was Once – originally released in 2004 – that smashed the glass ceiling turning Nightwish into bona fide stars and it was the album that broke the band in the hallowed land of the United States. First single Nemo still remains the most successful Nightwish single reaching number one in several countries and charting in many more and the album saw the band utilising an orchestra on nine of its eleven tracks. Once was well received critically and the band toured the album, Nightwish performed at the opening of the athletics championships in Helsinki in 2005 and the band released a ‘best of’ in September of the same year. However, Once is also the final album to feature the vocals of Tarja Turunen who was fired from the band in October 2005 quite publicly and marring what is considered to be Nightwish’s exceptional breakthrough release.
So much has happened with Nightwish, the drama of not only replacing Turunen but then firing her replacement Anette Olzon two albums later and Floor Jansen filling in mid-tour to enable the tour to continue and eventually becoming the full time vocalist. In that time, Nightwish have ascended to not only headliners but taking the top slot of festivals such as Wacken in Germany and headlining London’s Wembley Arena.
There is some trepidation in revisiting Once. For some, Turunen’s firing is still a sore point, one does not have to travel far to see “no Tarja, no Nightwish” comments and to some, Tarja is the only vocalist for the band. For others, Turunen’s operatic style was off putting, the more pop stylings of Olzon opened the Nightwish door and for others Floor Jansen can do it all and she is and always was the perfect vocalist for Nightwish. For sure, bands switch vocalists all of the time but outside of the controversy of their previous vocalists, the vocals married with the instrumentation, Holopainen’s vision for the band that just having anyone sing for Nightwish will not just do; it can easily be argued that without Turnunen’s tenure, Nightwish would not be the band that they are now.
Despite Once being the album it is, seventeen years later, there is that trepidation in revisiting it. With hearing songs effortlessly performed by Jansen since and all that the band has achieved since Once was released in 2004, taking in the album again did feel like taking a step backwards but in actuality, this is the worst approach to actually take: Once remains a masterpiece. As much as Nightwish were well on their way even as early on as Oceanborn, Once is the album where it felt that Nightwish had brought everything together and all that they had been striving for was presented and wrapped with a bow. This was it, Nightwish had arrived. The glorious metal in the guitars on opener Dark Chest Of Wonders, the pop sensibilities of Nemo and that fantastic contrast between Hietala’s vocals against Turunen’s on I Wish I Had An Angel. There are those perfect headbanging moments that drip in orchestral brilliance, perfectly proportioned, and deftly delivered. Whilst nothing is entirely direct with Nightwish, the compositions do not feel stretched or wearing out paths already trodden and songs such as Nemo deliver the orchestral with that shot of pop and hard rock that sends it straight to the vein. I Wish I Had An Angel is another perfect example, the peaks and troughs between pop perfection and aggression, the pumping bass and the swathe of keys at the mid-point; the bass rumble on Romanticide and the heavy set mid-section trade off on vocals is sublime. A great many fans will point to Ghost Love Score, surely Nightwish’s pièce de resistance, a ten minute journey of absolute perfection. It is tough not to forget Floor Jansens’s performance of the song from the Wacken headlining slot (as captured on the Storytime, Showtime album/blu-ray from 2013), hitting that high note at the end but the revisit to the version performed by Tarja on Once, the original depiction is still something to behold.
Remastering of albums always generates a debate as to whether there is anything gained by remastering. It is not like the original Once was a duff production job – hardly – the original was the most expensive production in Finnish history at the time but the remastering (in comparison to the original album on CD) does add punch and some extra spice in the sound, every instrument sounding clear and given some spit and polish.
Once is available in a number of versions – a CD “Earbook” with four discs, the album and Once instrumental, a disc of bonus tracks, alternative versions and edits and then a live album directly recorded from the soundboard. For vinyl addicts, available in several configurations. The album offered for review is the two disc album with the instrumental version of Once which is worthy of comment on its own. Practically all successive Nightwish records have included an instrumental of the album within their special editions, it is nothing new, but it is still a tremendous addition to Once. It may (as has been said) be the same album “just with the vocals taken out” and therefore a bit of a throwaway but this is a point being missed. The instrumentals do enhance the original albums and are total mood changers especially when the vocals are quite operatic and with that focal point removed, the bells and whistles of the music does provide for a completely different listening experience and Ghost Love Score is once again the stand out in this regard.
Hearing Once again felt like finding an old photo album and that intrigue as to what life was like when the photos were taken, the view through the lens at that time. Listening to this record was like unpacking the past to rediscover it all over again and the rush of enjoyment was surprisingly thrilling; the mix of the familiar and songs that did not make the favourite list of the time sounding different from the first time around. As much as music and especially Nightwish has moved on since 2004, time travelling in this way may not be the direction that some wish to go but it is thoroughly worth it. Depending on the listeners viewpoint, some may have arrived in Nightwish’s world since Floor Jansen or Anette Olzon and revisiting the Tarja era is not on the cards but if that is the case, change that immediately. Even if the journey only goes as far as Once – do it. For those that already possess this extraordinary album, the remaster is worth a listen, or this could be the chance to own on vinyl – finally.
This is one re-release where there is literally something for everyone. Either way and as already stated – Once is a masterpiece – and one that lives and breathes symphonic metal. No home should be without a copy.
Nightwish Once is available now on Nuclear Blast Records