Friday, March 4, 2016

No Winspear Mosh Pit: Nightwish in Concert, Reviewed

Nightwish. At the Winspear.

It is simply not possible to overstate the awesomeness of having one of Europe's preeminent and influential power metal bands play in Edmonton's premiere concert venue.

For the majority of people who do not know that Nightwish is even a band, let alone what sort of music they play, let's clarify that they describe themselves as a 'symphonic power metal' group, originally built around crushing power chords, an eccentric keyboardist and songwriter, and an immensely talented mezzosoprano named Tarja Turunen. Skillfully weaving together heavy metal, opera, and symphonic and soundtrack music, they were considered pioneers in the burgeoning genre of power metal when they formed 20 years ago, and are Finland's third most popular recording artists (for comparison, Madonna is 11th).

To be completely honest, when the tour was announced, I was initially more interested in the opening acts of Delain and Sonata Arctica, having only a couple of Nightwish CDs in my collection. After purchasing their most recent album Endless Forms Most Beautiful (the first studio release with new lead vocalist Floor Jansen), I was eagerly anticipating a great show from the headliners.

And that's what we got.

Their show opened on a darkened stage, and Hans Zimmer's "Roll Tide" (from the movie Crimson Tide) filled the air to set the mood. The lights slowly came up as the music changed to the introduction from Shudder Before the Beautiful, and cheers rang out as the band took their positions, and became deafening when Floor strode onstage.

And I do mean strode; the woman has a considerable stage presence, which is aided by the fact that she is 6'1", and had a strategically placed fan in front of her mic stand to add a little motion to both her long hair and the cape she was wearing.

For the two opening acts, ushers had actually asked concertgoers to remain in their seats, but three songs in, Nightwish had everyone in the sold out Winspear Centre on their feet, throwing the horns, banging their heads, and cheering throatily.

Dutch openers Delain did an admirable job getting the crowd warmed up, but were down one guitarist (much to the chagrin of many ladies in the crowd, as bassist Otto Schimmelpennick van Oije is indisputably good looking and puts many dedicated metalhead hairfarmers to shame with his locks), but have also added petite tour guitarist Merel Bechtold to their lineup.

I've no idea where Otto was, but I was also surprised and delighted to discover (at the merch table) Delain had released a new EP, Lunar Prelude, and opened with its new single, Suckerpunch. It is the kind of powerful, catchy anthem you'd expect from a synth based outfit, gives vocalist Charlotte Wessels quite a bit to play with, and it almost made up for the fact that they didn't play Stardust.

Apparently I need to get on Twitter in order to keep up with the bands I like, and I hope the next time Delain comes to town they do so as headliners, so if anyone reading this hears anything about future appearances, please let me know!

Sonata Arctica is one of my favourite bands, full stop, and vocalist Tony Kakko is a funny and engaging frontman with a tremendously powerful voice. Both their set and their setup suffered a little from opening act-itis, insofar as both volume and mixing needed a bit of work, but I still wish they could have played a longer set. They did get in Audrey's favourite, I Have a Right, a song written around the UN Declaration of Rights of the Child, and closed out with their signature hit Don't Say a Word. Opening acts don't really get encores, but SA got everyone up to sing their traditional closer, "Vodka/ We want some vodka" to the tune of Hava Nagila,

All the artists made a point of expressing their appreciation for the classiness of the venue, but I wonder if the venue perhaps dampened the crowd's enthusiasm a bit. It's not like there is room for a mosh pit at the Winspear, y'know? Being a fat, middle-aged guy (a demographic with ample representation at the concert!), I was fairly content to sit and bop my head, but was actually glad when I had to take my feet during Nightwish's performance.

Our friends Jon and Michelle joined us from Camrose for the show, Jon mostly as a Delain fan and Michelle as a classically trained voice and piano teacher who is also a willing explorer of unfamiliar musical genres, and you could not have asked for a better concert to showcase such variety.

Keyboardist and songwriter Tuomas Holopainen somehow manages to imbue powerful, guitar driven heavy metal with melodic and symphonic elements from many cultures, and the tracks from Endless Forms have a significant Celtic influence to them. This is probably due in no small part to bringing former session musician and uillean pipe player Tory Donockley officially into the band 3 years ago, around the same time they welcomed Floor.

Donockley is a charmer and a talented multi-instrumentalist, playing the aforementioned great Irish warpipes, the mandolin-looking Celtic bouzouki, Irish pipe and tin whistle, bass guitar and even adds cumbrian chanting to the beginning of My Walden.

Nightwish transitions naturally and seemingly effortlessly from operatic vocal solos to shredding guitar work on tracks like Stargazer. The shredding is courtesy of Emppu Vuorinen, who, to his credit, shows no discomfort at playing right next to a vocalist who towers 10" over him (his nickname is The Hobbit, and the band's visual presence made me think they could model for D&D covers  or a movie adaptation of Gauntlet - Rogue, Wizard, Valkyrie and Gnome).

They have tremendous variations in both pace and volume, with ballads like Bless the Child generating a forest of waving arms from the crowd, some holding their cellphones, but the one old-schooler with an actual lighter was swiftly admonished by a Winspear usher.

Watching bassist (and supporting composer, as it turns out) Marco Hietala, imposing and impish with his forked beard and wicked grin, switch from growling background vocals to taking the lead on the softer but still powerful ballad While Your Lips Are Still Red while wielding en enormous double-necked guitar was a real revelation.

These slower spots were also a great chance to catch our breath before the big finale: the middle third of The Greatest Show On Earth. The album version is a 26 minute epic (!) praising the miracle of evolution, and including references to the Goldilocks zone and LUCA. Science!

Floor Jansen is a marvel. As a singer, she displays the same degree of versatility as the rest of the band, singing ethereally to open Bless the Child and operatically on Stargazer, then bringing ominous and husky growls to the verses of Greatest Show On Earth before just fully rocking out on the chorus.

Her countenance can portray the ominousness of Morticia Addams while singing, or the playfulness of your favourite cousin while smiling and chatting up the crowd, and with a stature and presence that could see her standing in for Wonder Woman if Gal Gadot doesn't work out onscreen.

Exhorting the crowd to sing along with the final line of "We were here", she sustained the last notes longer than anyone, her voice still clear and powerful after an 11 minute song wrapping up a 90 minute set that saw her singing on every number save one.

As a newcomer to power metal, Michelle was pleasantly surprised how much she enjoyed the show, favouring Delain the most, but enjoying Nightwish more than she expected. Jon was a bit let down, Nightwish didn't play the title track from the new album but had a great time. Glory and Audrey had a wonderful time, and especially appreciated the humor and energy Tony Kakko brought to the middle of the evening.

For me, it was a perfect confluence of three talented bands playing music in a genre we just don't get to hear enough of in Edmonton, and in my favourite venue, and with people dear to me. Last night was very likely the highwater mark for power metal concerts for me, and I think it will be quite some time before it gets supplanted in my memory, if ever.

My hope is that the fact that it was a sell-out show combined with the artists clear appreciation for both the venue and the crowd means that word will spread, and that we will perhaps see even more shows like this before Nightwish returns, And that return cannot happen soon enough to suit me.


  1. I really liked Delain (I am glad I bought the Delain shirt!), but I think I actually liked Nightwish even more - especially loving the Nightwish songs that included the piper.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the headliner! For the token non-Finn, Troy Donockley is pretty awesome.

  3. A greater power-metal triumvirate than even Power Glove - Turisas - Dragonforce?! High praise indeed. Or would you classify that concert differently?

    1. The Nightwish tour was a highwater mark for quality, plus bonus points for the venue, plus I was eagerly anticipating all three bands. Despite all that though, I probably had a better time at Dragonforce, due in part, no doubt, to the element of surprise!