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Nightwish (Finland) live at Resorts World Arena, Birmingham, 22 November

It has been four long years, a twice postponed tour, a pandemic and several major events within the band since Nightwish last visited these shores, but to say that this show was “worth waiting for” would be the understatement of the century.

Structurally, Nightwish lost male vocalist and bass guitarist Marko Hietala early in 2021, to, inter alia, chronic depression (recently gaining bassist Jukka Koskinen, as a partial replacement, and who seems to be settling in now) while female vocalist Floor Jansen lost a gall bladder but much more significantly underwent major surgery less than four weeks prior to this gig for breast cancer. And there had been two others before it. That the show wasn’t postponed for a third time (the Asian tour early in 2023 has been) is nothing short of a miracle. And a testament to the staying power of Nightwish’s very own Amazon.

But there was a seismic impact all the same. Nightwish shows are getting shorter. The previous tour, the 20th anniversary ‘Decades’ one, was also 20 songs – and over two hours – long. The recent Americas tour comprised 17 songs. For the European tour it has been whittled down to 14. Those that bit the dust were ‘Planet Hell’, which was probably included earlier as a ‘finger’ to the pandemic, ‘She is my sin’, and ‘Seven days to the wolves’.

Undoubtedly, the shrinkage is due to a perceived need to lighten Floor’s load but, you know, I’m not convinced she needs such patronage. She was in fine fettle from beginning to end, her voice as strong as ever, vigorously jigging around the stage during ‘I want my tears back’  and the energy-draining, head twirling ‘windmills’ were in full flow throughout. Yes, of course ‘looks’ can be deceiving, but the woman is an inspiration.

Unfortunately it meant that what Floor herself described as “one of my personal favourites” throughout the Americas tour – ‘Seven days to the wolves’ – didn’t get a hearing, which is a shame because by many accounts the performances – the first time she’s sung it without duet-ting with Marko – were frequently the highlight of that section of the tour.

Seven days to the wolves, Toronto, May 2022

I’ll get this out of the way now. Floor seemed to forget the words; I think it was during ‘Dark chest of wonders’, and Troy Donockley might have lost the use of guitar or uilleann pipes during the early section of ‘The Greatest show on Earth’. It certainly sounded a little different as other band members appeared to fill in with remarkable virtuosity.

That’s where I’m drawing a line under nitpicking folks, because a Nightwish performance is an experience at the very highest level of the entire body of the performing arts. It truly is the greatest show on Earth.

During the previous, ‘Decades’, tour they asked the audience in a pre-show message to turn off smart phones and to ‘live for the moment’. This time, after the opening instrumental and Kai Hahto drum section to ‘Music’, the first song on their most recent album ‘Human. :||: Nature.”, (and mysteriously absent from live performances for such a wonderful potential opener) Floor sang about their distaste for the ‘Noise’ that is the product of those same devices and the attendant flotsam and jetsam of the 21st Century World.

Floor, in a new costume that would suit Batwoman, dominated the stage from the word go; a stage illuminated by a fantastic juxtaposition of controlled lighting, kaleidoscope-like video screen images, superheated pyrotechnics and explosions that would waken the dead.

After that it was a consistent tour de force, from the effervescent ‘Storytime’ (a more elaborate performance than you’ll appreciate on any YouTube video) by way of the most sublime delivery of ‘Sleeping Sun’ (themed on the 1999 total solar eclipse) to the rollicking ‘Dark chest of wonders’ and its incredibly well-coordinated explosive interjection that acts as the weirdest bridge you’ll ever hear.

Dark chest of wonders, Los Angeles, May 2022

By now even the most stony-faced venue security guards, who typically wear a vacant look which says “we’ve seen it all” were turning to the stage as if to ask, “Who are these people?”

And the variety of Nightwish’s work is evident in songs like ‘Harvest’ and the Jansen-Donockley duet that is the ballad ‘How’s the heart?’ – both representative perhaps, of an acoustic direction in which they are heading, back towards their 1996 roots.

Before ‘Shoemaker’ Floor said she wanted the crowd to join in with an “easy to sing along to” piece (which is in 14/8 time I think) including the final, solo, ‘operatic’ section, ‘laudato si, ad astra.’  My heart sank. Mercifully they didn’t. They preferred to sit and stand in silence to appreciate what is possibly the most beautiful thing you will ever hear in rock music. And she absolutely nailed it, as ever. The final notes literally take your breath away.

I mentioned the stage design earlier and ‘Shoemaker’ is the perfect catalyst to sing its praises. Precisely at the moment Floor sings the final “laudato si” before the first “Ad Astra”, the Sun – previously represented by the rising spotlight – ascends above the Earth and Moon (where the scientist Eugene Shoemaker is interred) on the video behind her.

The technical co-ordination required to do that, perfectly, every time, is on another level but is merely one of many such examples I could give, such as the 11 candles that illuminate during ‘Ghost Love Score’. In a song replete with religious references, and particularly to ‘original sin’, what do they represent – the Last Supper minus one? Nightwish have that innate ability to keep you guessing.

And yes, up to 25% of what you hear (the orchestrated parts) is pre-programmed. They couldn’t play all of it themselves; they would need an orchestra, literally (which might happen one day). But if you think that makes it easy, think again. The programmed material goes at a programmed speed, along with the images, which is why Nightwish can’t and don’t improvise. If you can’t keep up with your part, or you make a mistake, it will stand out like a sore thumb.

I have to make a point of saying something about ‘Ghost Love Score’. It is their signature song, undoubtedly the best known, and it’s difficult to imagine a Nightwish show without it. They say familiarity breeds contempt but no matter how many videos you watch of it (and it seems just about everyone on Earth has watched it now, especially the seminal ‘Wacken 2013’ version) there is no comparison with actually being there in the flesh. It is simply magnificent.

It is a perfect representation of rock opera and I often wonder what Freddie Mercury would have made of it. I think I know the answer.

Slightly behind me and to my right a young woman who I think was new to Nightwish did a passable imitation of Meg Ryan’s faked orgasm in ‘When Harry met Sally’ as the tempo rose in the concluding section of the masterpiece. Except that this was for real. Lord knows what happened when Floor Jansen hit that final note. I looked away to protect her modesty. Poor thing, I don’t think the woman realised she was having what the band’s fans call a ‘Floorgasm.’

And then, just when you thought that it simply couldn’t get any better, there’s the life-affirming ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ to confirm that yes, it can; all 17 minutes of it, topped off by that memorable vocal outro refrain, “We were here.”

Everyone in the audience was quietly thanking their maker that they were, tonight.

In a recent article (and one of the most read on the blog) I floated the notion that Floor Jansen is ‘the best female rock singer in the world.’ The natural extension of that is to ask if there is any band better than Nightwish. I’ve seen quite a few of the top-notchers (though admittedly few metal bands) but never have I seen a band so together as Nightwish were tonight, in every department, and I can’t honestly imagine how any band could better them.

I once read my favourite critic, Tim de Lisle of the Mail on Sunday, describing Arcade Fire in the same vein as the Dutch national football team’s ‘Total Football’ concept for their co-ordination around the stage. If I’m sticking to football analogies then Nightwish are Brazil and Tuomas Holopainen is Pelé.

So why are they not a ‘bigger’ band globally than they are, even amongst metal fans? Why do many of them dislike symphonic metal generally?

I saw quite a few followers of support act Beast in Black leave the venue once they’d left the stage or soon after Nightwish had started, having paid around a quid a minute for what they permitted themselves to hear. On the way out I heard another BIB follower loudly proclaiming to anyone who cared to listen that he’d “seen Rammstein, and they would ‘eat Nightwish for breakfast’.”

What planet does the guy live on? Planet Hell, I guess. Is this a competition? They’re chalk and cheese. It’s like comparing The Beatles with Sleaford Mods or Idles.

However, you can’t ignore the statistics and they say the attendance was 6,100 in a venue that can hold over 15,500 (although the previous night at Wembley, London was sold out). That’s despite the huge publicity Nightwish has had over the last few years, during which time they’ve become probably the most ‘reacted to’ band on YouTube.

Part of the reason may be the financial situation in the country. But a more significant one I feel is that the mainstream media continues to ignore any variety of ‘metal’ music, as indeed do the main festivals. I’d love to drag an arty-farty critic from any of the broadsheet newspapers or some head up his arse DJ from BBC Radio 2, or one of the management from Glastonbury along to a Nightwish show and stand back and admire the way his or her jaw hits the floor with a thud that could be felt in New Zealand.

On the other hand – and despite the Birmingham audience being exceptionally enthusiastic and up for it and the acoustics being excellent – I’m surprised there was no northern England show. There are arenas across the north, in Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Liverpool, with capacity varying from 11,000 to 21,000 and with two of them available the night after the Birmingham show, which took place only 100 miles from the London show.

That takes about 30 million people in the north, also Scotland, North Wales, and even Northern Ireland, out of the equation, apart from those whose six numbers just came up.

It is a potential audience you can’t ignore and one that has turned out in droves for Nightwish in the past. You have to speculate to accumulate.

And I’m sure Troy would have appreciated the opportunity to nip home, pick up his mail, feed the cat and have a cup of tea. Perhaps to sink a pint or two of Theakston Old Peculier.

But that’s another story.

Surprisingly, a Birmingham full show video has been posted already, but it’s a long distance shot.

(The first review I ever wrote about Nightwish can be found in the ‘From the archives’ section. Things have changed greatly in those four years)

A quick note about labelmates Beast in Black. They’ve been around Nightwish for a long time and opened for them the last time I saw them.

This time out they seemed to have moved up a gear. They are a different version of ‘metal’ altogether; “HEAVY METAL!!” as singer Yannis Papadopoulos frequently exclaims. He has an excellent, if rather surprisingly high, voice and even sounds like Floor Jansen at times.

Their onstage presentation is a delight to behold; an amalgam of The Muppet Show, The Sweet and Synchronised Swimming as the three guitarists and Yannis swing back and forth in perfect union.

But despite what I’m sure is a deliberately self deprecating send up they shouldn’t be taken lightly. Their music is powerful and tuneful, especially the songs ‘One night in Tokyo’ and ‘End of the World’ which was louder than I expect the real one to be.

I was amused by their giant logo, which is of a red headed, bright red lipsticked girl in shades who is a dead ringer for ‘Angelyne’, the busty wannabe singer-dancer-actress-model who advertised herself heavily around all the freeway billboards in Hollywood in the mid 1980s and actually got some work out of it.

They’re highly entertaining, that’s for sure. And they’ll be back, early in the New Year.

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