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Discovering Nightwish - a personal journey

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A while back I discovered Nightwish through a reaction video, probably to Ghost Love Score at Wacken 2013, possibly The Poet and the Pendulum at Wembly, 2016. Both excellent performances - GLS may be the best I have ever seen. The music is textured and multi-layered, backed by solid musicianship and performances. Compelling lyrics, the great energy of the crowd, and the amazing production value make these live videos perfect showcases for the band's great strengths.

I am no metalhead, but have appreciated both softer fare and certain bands and works from hard rock, metal, punk, ska, rap and grunge. As an amateur orchestral musician, I've accompanied many choral and opera singers, both amateur and professional. Now I feel I've been ready to discover Nightwish for some time. I regret not being introduced sooner!

What has haunted my spare moments and thoughts these last few weeks is the need to process the fact of Floor Jansen, the artist, and all this may imply in my internal world. Temporarily consumed, I have been lost in fantastical landscapes and waded some dangerous personal waters. How could this happen to me? Now with some distance and reflection, the answer is because yes, she is just that good. I'd been knocked off my moorings, set adrift. But this is potent psychoactive stuff, requiring parameters for safe handling, for which I offer the following.

In an old dream I sat in a small and otherwise empty diner, diagonally across from Princess Diana. Without regalia, bodyguards or paparazzi, this was Diana the woman, eating eggs and sipping her morning coffee. Just us two; surely I should say something? My confused thoughts were, "What could I possibly say that would have any real meaning to her, or to me? I know her because she is famous and because she is famous I cannot know her." These two poles describe the public/private face of celebrity. Floor Jansen the woman does and will set her personal physical and social boundaries, as we all should. These are to be respected, not questioned or tested.

What I want to share is part of the journey of personally integrating the discovery of Nightwish, and Floor Jansen the artist. Art can transcend its creator, medium or interpreter. For me, Floor the artist has been some kind of Jungian archetype, erupting into consciousness from hidden depths, demanding to be addressed. Nightwish play on similar primal imperatives, amplifying the effect. Floor is a force on her own, and Floor in Nightwish that much more so. Jung warns that suppressing an emergent archetype may lead to psychosis; integration will require personal transformation, possibly with great trauma. While this is a bit hyperbolic here, let's just say I'm quite affected by my musical discovery.

Far too much time this last while, including late nights and night-time wakings, has gone to watching performances, interviews, reactions (and to writing this!). Then watching again, letting it wash over me, getting choked up. Watching and thinking, comparing. Watching Floor's older material, her collaborations, revisiting some of my old favorite bands and performers. Getting choked up again, damn it! All great in those moments, too hard to set aside, but sanity and a healthy lifestyle must be reasserted.

In my own world of performance, a tell that I am moved by a work is my mood approaching the show, and difficulty getting the music out of my head afterward. For me, symptoms on performance day include a desire for quiet, few demands, no decision making please, and a predictable environment (I'm an introvert - others might have different needs). If these aren't possible I get irritable, uncharacteristically difficult and moody, unreasonable. These are some reasons I never pursued a career in music. How do professionals cope? Does performance school cover this?

While watching these videos, similar symptoms present - so clearly I've been Floored. It's like being caught in powerful ocean swells, briefly reaching land only to get dragged under again and again. These are warm waters, and I've been more willing than wise. But I still need to breath! Somehow, day-to-day tasks and interactions have still been possible, exhausted and spent as I am.

What is just that good about Floor? Much has been said about her vocal range, whether pitch, texture, colour, varied style or use of different voice registers. To me all of this is perfectly true. The vocal control is frankly rather shocking in itself, and also the facility switching and blending singing styles (sometimes in the same phrase). To my ear, her voice has an underlying, low end warmth that makes me feel happy when I hear it. This doesn't relate to the pitch, or the style or the mood - it is an intrinsic quality of her vocal instrument. I would likely enjoy her singing scales and arpeggios - her voice is that compelling. To this, whether deliberately or unaware she adds little nuances, colouring, hairpins, pauses etc. Tasteful and very charming. (And yes, I do know she sings metal.)

Some have criticized her operatic skill, which to me is quite unfair. In interviews, she very openly states that only one year of her professional training was dedicated to opera. I'm not a singer, or an expert, but I do know opera performance programs are typically 3 to 4 years, with additional graduate program options. Floor's style is metal with operatic effects/moments, not full on classical opera. I'd expect her program included voice training in other styles, but I'm still impressed with Floor's credible rendering of Puccini, both amplified and not. 

Opera technique is hard because of the hard problems it was meant to solve. This is oldschool song-acting, and here are some of its demands (singers please correct me if I say something stupid). Projection: the singer needed to be heard unamplified over a full orchestra and at the very back of a large hall. (I sometimes accompany singers 3-4 feet away; opera singers are loud!) Floor usually performs amplified, so not an issue, but she does have a big voice, and strong breath support. You can tell because she can maintain volume across a long line, even with big changes in pitch and timbre (voice "colour"). Registration: singers in most vocal styles want to maintain the same vocal quality when the pitch crosses ranges where the physical mechanism of sound production changes. The term comes from the registers, or banks of pipes in an organ, which are combined to produce distinct sound qualities. Floor does this very well, very cleanly. Diction: opera tells a story, just like theatre. Important in choral and other styles, in opera, words need to be especially distinct, clear, easily understood even in the last row. The vocal techniques used to meet these demands largely give opera its characteristic sound. It has great artistic range: majestic, tragic, ethereal, powerful - well suited to symphonic metal.

Regarding diction, my Italian is not great, but Floor's Puccini (O mio babbino caro) both unamplified and with mic sounded clear enough to me. So does amplified Pergolesi (Stabat Mater Dolorosa with Simone Simons, a beautiful Latin choral work). Also, in Eccentric (2004 live) for example, it sounds like there's deliberate articulation. So I know she can do this. In some songs, maybe in high/piano/legato sections (probably a difficult combination for diction), the words get lost in the melodic line. There, I said it, she's not perfect. To her detractors: those who seek to find fault, who wish to be disappointed, will surely find a way. I'd rather riff on her greatness than pick at faults.

Floor's artistry has me pretty hooked. It could be the gestures both small and grand, beckoning and compelling the crowd, swaying, throwing smiles or scowls, flashing her eyes. You can see the performance training here. Her on-stage playfulness is both infectious and endearing; her positive love for and joy in her craft clearly radiates. And the commanding stage presence must obviously be mentioned. The crowd at that GLS performance would have stormed the gates of Mordor if she would only lead them.

We can guess at Floor's professional character. From what can be gathered from interviews and on-stage comments, her disarming groundedness and candor, professionalism, support for and sensitivity to bandmates and collaborators, and her great charm are surely appreciated by everyone she works with. She is firm when needed, without being rude – certainly better than some interviewers deserve. I respect that. Those who disparagingly call her Diva have the great good fortune of having never actually worked with one! But to refocus on one aspect of Floor's artistic abilities that captivates me, I think of those two great performances.

GLS lays bare the anguish of unrequited love that will never be. The setting is lushly constructed, as Floor transports us across the shifting sands of one character's emotionally fraught journey. Her ability to embody that soul, to live and project each mood is impossible to ignore (or seemingly to forget!).

We find tender, nostalgic longing and shy hopefulness. We meet the Valkyrie, strong, seemingly untouchable but knowing Fate's ways. We transcend back to hopeful longing. The music settles, peaceful. The second section sees a more demanding, insistent presence - Decide! and raw, naked aggression. At great peril does one trifle with a Goddess! A momentary weakness, imploring. The Valkyrie appears one last time, attempting to meet Fate with strength and dignity but only to end in that final, devastating capitulation. Here I mean the build-up, and yes, the Floorgasm itself. Evidently some near 80,000 people felt the Earth move at Wacken that evening. A brilliant performance of a brilliant work.

In P&P Tuomas must have finally been able to convey his grief. As an amateur musician I'm well aware of the pain of hearing in your head what you cannot convey through your instrument. It is harsh for anyone to not have the voice to express their inner passion. This may be in part why fans build communities - when another has had the same powerful experience little needs to be said for understanding to be shared. And with Floor, I believe Tuomas has a new way to share, to help us understand.

This multipart journey is beautifully executed, with Floor assuming, and shifting between multiple personae. And it is here that I'm most captivated. To give just one stand-out example, at the end of the second singing of the duet ending, "whore for the cold world" - the spitting demon, eyes flashing with barely contained self-loathing. Then the music and mood change. Our medium looks upward, perhaps to channel Heaven? An interval, the head lowers, the body finds composure. And the demon is vanquished! (for now at least..) Exorcised. Replaced entirely in those few moments by that angelic, sweet, empathetic creature. The transformation itself is fine art, moving and magical.

Nightwish and Floor have been in a loose orbit for years: performing in similar styles, their careers starting around the same time, independently growing their genre, playing the same festivals. The Fates that dictated Floor at last land in Nightwish opened a new Golden Age for both. Nightwish brings exposure and recognition, a strong catalogue of material with high potential of more to come, and fine musicianship. Floor brings those vocals (enough said!), fine artistry and a compelling front of stage presence - the group must enjoy new converts and see past fans return, more engaged than ever.

Artistically, what Tuomas and the band may dream up with Floor's lead voice and interpretive range is left wide open. Listening to her other works and projects, clearly her scope of ability exceeds what has been asked of her so far. The duets with Marco show some possibilities: Marco leading on While Your Lips are Still Red, then supporting in Last Ride of the Day, or tossing the lead back and forth in Romanticide for example. Speaking of this last, that parallel sonic sweep! Nice effect you think - but then it just keeps climbing (and climbing, just past the impossible!), crests, pivots, descends again. This is no crude screaming. Technically it is impressively controlled, deliberate, delivered just so. And emotionally, Wow - shivers. If you felt nothing, please check for a pulse!

Potential for crossover work is also there. Acoustic numbers on stage with Marco, Troy, Kai show how much fun this could be. Floor can also excel in other styles: ReVamp's Sweet Curse, if promoted as a single, could (would?) have had mainstream success. It's easy for me to imagine average people stumbling through their day, that song in their head and thinking, "but who is that singer?" (I'm thinking Graspop, but yes it also sounds great with Russel Allen as guest.) And it's probably still out there for Northward.

Nightwish songs like Ever Dream (maybe set slightly softer), or Sleeping Sun (just as it is - Tampere 2015 makes me want to cry) could probably see mainstream popularity too. Elan almost begs for this, but very much from the softer side. It's a fine, feel-good song, but I doubt Floor and Nightwish want to take their sound quite this far too often - current fans would probably hate that. And I can imagine Floor wanting to explore Nightwish going the other direction. So many possibilities to pick and choose. The point is many Nightwish songs aren't that far from being able to reach a broader audience, if that's something they want to do. But I'll stop there - not long ago I knew nothing of Nightwish!

With composition this good, this calibre of musicianship, and this so staggeringly able a singer I'm eager to face the next voyages in the Nightwish journey. For myself, putting words to some of my own journey has been cathartic. The archetypes can renew, not only destroy. Some things artistic have been exposed or swept away by those powerful waters to make room for new growth. The first shockwaves have passed and I'm still learning from the experience. Compliments and gratitude to all those involved in making this sharing of passion possible!


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