Saturday, August 31, 2013

album review: 'colours in the dark' by tarja turunen

It's really hard to talk about Tarja Turunen without talking about Nightwish. Yes, even her solo career.

I should explain for those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, and it's going to require a bit of a history lesson. Back in 1996, there was a keyboardist and insanely talented songwriter in Finland named Tuomas Holopainen, and he recruited guitarist Emppu Vuorinen and classical singer Tarja Turunen to form a band that would fuse classical symphonic music with heavy metal. In 1997, they (along with future symphonic metal titan Within Temptation) released their first albums, birthing a whole new genre of metal that would take them to fame and fortune. 

It was also one of the first genres of metal I ever explored, and Nightwish was one of the first bands I discovered that I really liked, which was in large part thanks to Tarja Turunen's soaring, powerful, operatic vocals. To put it another way, Nightwish is one of the few bands to cover 'Phantom of the Opera' and actually manage to match Sarah Brightman's incredible delivery. Throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, Nightwish made a ton of fantastic music that I still love to this day...

And then in 2005, Tarja Turunen was fired from the band through an open letter by Tuomas, and the fanbase split violently in two. Now as somebody with the benefit of context and hindsight, I can say that there was no party involved in this split that is completely innocent or deserves all of the blame. Tuomas was always a brilliant, introverted control freak who couldn't stand not getting his own way, and Tarja got used to being the face of the band and thus became a bit of a diva (whether or not it was encouraged by her husband, who has nothing but contempt for Tuomas, is an entirely different can of worms I don't want to touch).

But Tarja swore she was going to keep making music on her own, so the same year Nightwish released their comeback album Dark Passion Play with new vocalist Anette Olzon (which also happened to be one of the best albums of their career), Tarja also released her solo album My Winter Storm. One thing was for sure on both of those albums: neither Tarja or Tuomas were over the whole breakup thing, and were taking more than their fair share of complicated emotions regarding the whole affair. 

However, the important questions regarding that album from Tarja tend to get overlooked amid the hysterics, and I'm here to provide an answer to it: is Tarja's solo material any good? Well, to be blunt, it's better than I expected. Considering it was Tarja's first attempt to write songs on her own (with an arsenal of professionals behind her, of course), I was surprised how well many of the songs came together. And Tarja's voice is as strong and gorgeous as ever, and she has always had a lot of personality and energy in her delivery. The problem becomes that this album is automatically compared with Dark Passion Play, one of the best albums Nightwish ever made that still holds up today. Nightwish made a classic album of the symphonic metal genre, and My Winter Storm just can't compete with that, on songwriting or instrumentation (I'm not jumping into the pit of comparing the vocals of Tarja and Anette, and you can't make me).

Fortunately, her follow-up What Lies Beneath was actually a fair bit better, actually showing that Tarja's (and her collaborators') songwriting was only getting better, and Tarja was experimenting with differing symphonic metal sounds and styles, proving that she could indeed be a pretty potent solo act. Yeah, not all of the experimentation worked - the hints of more industrial sounds were especially hit-and-miss, and some of the tempo changes mid-song brought mixed results, but it was enough to give me a bit of hope that her newest album this year (released while Nightwish is in a bit of a complicated state as a band, having replaced Anette Olzon with Floor Jansen) could actually be something special.

So what do I think of Tarja Turunen's newest album Colours In The Dark?

Well, I'm happy to say that it's not just a great album, it might just be her best album yet. It's an album that not only proves that Tarja Turunen could be a powerful solo artist, but that she might actually be able to compete with Nightwish all by herself. And while I'm not sure it'll make my list of the best albums of the year, it's a real treasure to see Tarja make real improvements across the board.

First, the obvious positives. Tarja's voice is as great as ever, with the classical training and impressive range that made her and Nightwish the powerhouse they were for several years. But what surprised me here was that Tarja sounds more deeply emotionally invested in her material than I think she ever has. One of my underlying issues with Tarja, particularly when she was with Nightwish, was that despite her incredible voice, I always felt a distinctive 'distance', that she felt a bit removed from her material. Sure, her voice conveyed the requisite emotions, but too often, it felt a bit like she wasn't quite engaged with the actual material in a way that showed she really 'felt' the material. 

And yet, this album really struck me with how much Tarja seemed to genuinely care about the songs that she was singing. Maybe it was because she played a more sizable role in writing them, but it definitely sounds like she working a lot harder to show more vulnerability and sell the quieter emotions in her music, and it does wonders for her likability on the tracks. 

It helps things significantly that the instrumentation has been significantly tightened here. There are still a few snags here and there in terms of tempo changes and some awkward transitions which weaken a couple tracks on this album, but Tarja's blend of classical symphonic metal and harsher, more industrial touches is a lot cleaner than it was on previous albums, mostly because the transitions between the harsher, grinding guitars is balanced by smoother, classier electronic elements that fit a lot better. I will say that the drums sound a bit too triggered and inorganic than I would usually prefer, but it's not a deal-breaker, and I was more than a little surprised by how seamless the classical and industrial sounds were blended.

And it isn't just the instrumentation that shows improvement either, which takes us to the songwriting. Yes, there are still a few hiccups here and there that show Tarja is still learning how to frame together good lyrics, but for the most part, there is a surprising amount of coherent and well-executed poetry here with a certain degree of class and flair that still manages to reveal vulnerability. More often than not, Tarja is willing to insert herself as the protagonist/antagonist of the song, which shows a commitment to framing the songs in a distinctly interesting light.

And in this particular case, the title of the album Colours In The Dark is indicative of the album's content, a series of songs that attempt to examine the various shades of grey in which certain 'villains' or dark situations might exist. From 'Victim Of Ritual' which frames the victim as the cult leader for falling into darkness (not the sacrifice) to '500 Letters', which describes an obsessive relationship gone wrong in the worst possible way (which sets up the survivor of the situation as the villain for leading him on) to even the doomed love song duet 'Medusa' (featuring Justin Furstenfeld in a star-making turn as the romantic partner of said Medusa, ‘played’ by Tarja), every song is written to show some fragments of depth into potentially one-dimensional situations of villainy.

Now, to be blunt, this sort of subject matter isn’t precisely revolutionary, and Tarja’s not exactly pushing boundaries by showing obvious cases of moral ambiguity. Furthermore, there really isn’t much of an ‘arc’ to the album, just a series of unconnected incidents that are strung together on a loose theme that lacks a real climax. But what I feel Tarja’s songwriting lacks in depth she makes up (mostly) in presentation and delivery. It does require a certain amount of creativity to be willing to frame her scenes and cast herself as either protagonist or antagonist, which does render the album a bit more complex than many would give it credit. And on that note, I can’t help but say that I was rather pleased Tarja was willing to continue to throw herself into lyrics steeped with fantasy-inspired imagery and poetry. It did a lot to dispel the myth that had long persisted in my mind that Tarja thought herself above that sort of fantastical material, and I was thrilled to be proven wrong.

So, with all of that in mind, I can definitely recommend Tarja Turunen’s Colours In The Dark. Yes, the album is more of a collection of songs than a truly coherent album, but those songs are often incredibly solid on their merits alone. If you were looking for definite proof that Tarja could stand on her own without Nightwish, this is the album for which you’ve been waiting, because in terms of instrumentation, delivery, and songwriting, this is her best album yet.

In other words, if Within Temptation was looking for serious competition this year in the symphonic metal scene, they got it now.

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