Symphonic Metal. Not a term you hear often to describe a musical genre, particularly in Australia. What immediately springs to mind when you hear it? Eurovision? Spinal Tap? Dwarfs dancing around a mini Stonehenge? Easy laughs, but symphonic metal is a serious and credible musical genre. One of the best proponents of this strange and unusual strand of music from the heavier end of the spectrum is Finland’s Nightwish. This is the type of music composer Richard Wagner would make is he was around today and a rock star.

Nightwish were formed in 1996 by songwriter/keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen, guitarist Emppu Vuorinen and former female lead vocalist Tanja Turunen. To date, the band have released seven albums and sold over seven million records worldwide. They have also collected numerous awards throughout their career. They are a leading light in their musical field and genre.

The band went through negative periods in their career due to personal and professional differences and pressures, which saw both their original bass player, Sami Vanskar, and, crucially, lead vocalist Turunen leave the band. This resulted in the band taking a hiatus for a number of years.

Fortunately, Nightwish have overcome the obstacles and issues that have faced them and appear to be stronger than ever. Nightwish have recently released their seventh album, Imaginearum, one of their most consistent and strongest releases yet, featuring ridiculously infectious, dramatic and over the top songs like “Ghost River”, the brilliantly titled “I Want My Tears Back” and, clocking in at over thirteen minutes, the truly epic “Song Of Myself”. It also shows off the very impressive vocal chops of new female lead singer, Anette Olson. The music this band create is an utterly confusing mix of the heavy and soothing all at the same time. This is part of what makes Nightwish unique.

How would you describe symphonic metal to a newcomer? The music of this genre could be best described as being very in your face and bombastic, featuring soaring and operatic male and female vocals over, musicalyl, what could be described as a mash up of elements of both classical and heavy metal music. The results have struck a chord around the world with lovers of heavier music, offering something different to most sub-genres of heavy music out there.

Tone Deaf’s Neil Evans recently spoke with Nightwish’s Tomas Holopainen on the eve of their third Australian tour in January next year.

“We were never supposed to be a metal band when we initially formed Nightwish,” begins Holopainen. “We cut our demo and I thought that we sounded boring. Metal was something I’ve always loved in my life, along with film scores and music written for the cinema. Nightwish was those interests and passions hitting each other and seeing what happened as a result.”

“The music of Nightwish is very much our reflection and impression of the world around us. The sonic elements reflect the beauty and chaos of the world around us”, said Holopainen. The band primarily sing in English with a smattering of Finnish here and there in their music. An unusual approach for a band to whom English is not their mother tongue. “I actually find it easier to write in English,” laughs Holopainen. “I have tried to write songs in Finnish, but, to my ear, they sound ridiculously corny and just weird. To put it plainly, it simply feels more natural to write in English.”

Apart from the band’s incredibly ambitious sound and vision, what is at the heart of Nightwish and their music are the stories and narratives of the songs themselves. “Before we get into the musical elements and components of the music, the story is where it always begins for me,” explains Holopainen. “To me, the lyrical story, whether it comes from a dream, a vision, a book I’ve read or anywhere else, it the seed where it all starts. Without that, musically there is nothing. After that is in place, the best thing the band does is paint with music and the results form around the story.”

Nightwish are very much looking forward to returning to these shores next year. “I might sound like I’m sucking up and brown nosing a bit here, but, outside Finland, Australia is my favourite place in the world,” enthuses Holopainen. “Not only have Nightwish toured there twice, I have been on holiday there in my own time. The people are so cool and down to earth, not to mention the incredible weather, especially around your summer. We can’t wait to get back there next year.”

After the hiatus period for Nightwish, what made Holopainen and his partners in crime get back to doing what they do best? “Apart from ambition, the idea of life without creating and playing music was simply impossible. Nightwish are five people that live and breathe music every moment of their lives. We wanted to keep going and not give up the fight, no matter what we faced as a result. We simply felt that we had more to do as a musical entity and being,” he explains.

Some of the songs that Nightwish create, such as the truly epic “Song Of Myself”, with its spoken word outro cutting between multiple people, and especially “Scaretale”, with its completely out of left field circus interlude in the middle, defy description and have to be heard to be fully appreciated and believed. How do the band incorporate such disparate and unusual elements into their music and, more importantly, make them work? “That circus theme was the Danny Elfmen moment in ‘Scaretale’, laughs Holopainen. “Again, it all goes back to the story. The creation of the music is a long and involved process. This takes a lot of improvisation in the studio and practise sessions to get the songs to where they should be sonically to match what we have lyrically. Then there is the practising for months before we go out on tour. Definitely an involved and long process, but one that is incredibly rewarding.”

“I still love my metal. Metallica and Pantera have always been favourites. I’ve also had a life long passion for film scores and cinema music. I really love my film music composers like Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard and Vangelis. Those loves and influences always bear on what Nightwish do”, said Holopainen. One definitely gets that feeling listening to “Imaginaerum”-it’s like the film soundtrack without the film.

“It is so heartening to see how fans and the public generally have accepted Anette in the band”, he said, referring to Anette Olson. “I thought there would be a greater sense of bad feelings and backlash when we let our original singer, Tanja, go. When we released the album “Dark Passion Play” in 2007, everyone was concentrating on Anette’s vocals more than we would have liked, and missing the bigger picture of the record as a result. It’s really nice to see that, now that she has been accepted by the fans, people are listening to “Imaginaerum” will less of a sense of judgement and possible prejudice. It makes acceptance of the new material easier”.

Fantaty literature has also been a big influence on what Nightwish do. “Absolutely”, said Holopainen. “It’s very much part of our physical image as well as a musical one. Nightwish is very much about creating a fantasy world that can be something of a haven or escape from the pressures and realities that sometimes drag us down We make a point with our music never to be preachy or political. The more mythical elements veil concerns about the real world on a lyrical level. This is definitely at the core of the band in regards to our philosophy and point of view”.

A big question is, with music that sounds so layered and complex on record, how does Nightwish translate this into a live medium and experience? “I’m sorry to say that we have to bow to modern technology”, confesses Holopainen. “The five of us play totally live on stage. However, we do use extensive backing tracks for the orchestral and choir sounds and effects. Financially, it simply isn’t viable to tour with a full orchestra and choir around the world. So, it’s a bit of a cheat, but the music sounds dead and wrong without the choir and orchestra behind it”.

Unfortunately, Nightwish won’t be bringing out their full show to Australia next year, with the fire and pyrotechnics. “Unfortunately, we won’t be bringing the big show”, admits Holopainen. “We will be doing more intimate shows at some fantastic venues in your country, such as The Palais in Melbourne. That’s still a challenge on a live front and we are very much looking forward to it and being back in Australia”.

– Neil Evans