Plenty of bands have found themselves becalmed by the pandemic. A few have even had the infuriating experience of putting out a new album right as the pandemic hit, and then not being able to tour it.
I’m sure most bands in that situation would have thought about doing some sort of livestream instead. Find a nice little studio somewhere, break out the acoustic guitars, do an intimate little show and shove it out on Twitch.
Not Nightwish though. They’re all about spectacle, bombast, and unironic melodrama with the emotional dial turned up to 11. They don’t give a stuff about whether or not you think they’re cool. They just want to make you sing, make you jump around, and then make you bawl your eyes out, and they always go all out to do just that. So when they do an Internet livestream, they break out the green screens and do a full electric show from a fantastically detailed CGI tavern teetering on the edge of a waterfall. Because of course.
If all this sounds a bit Spinal Tap, then you’re starting to get it: the whole point of Nightwish is that there exists a thin line between being genuinely dramatic and spectacular on the one hand, and being Derek Smalls stuck in the pod on the other, and Nightwish have spent their whole 25 year career dancing along that line, singing as they go.
Which brings us to this show (two shows really; there’s one for the Americans tomorrow kicking off at about midnight). The first thing that struck me, after the fact that the tech works (itself quite a feat), was how much they were obviously enjoying themselves. I mean, seriously. They’re a metal band, they’ve just had a year and a half of being stuck sitting at home, they’ve just lost Marko, their bass player and backing vocalist of 20 years, to a combination of mental illness, exhaustion and anger at the state of the music industry. They really have no right to be this damned happy. There they are, playing on their own in front of a green screen, with no audience to feed off of, and they are having a great time.
The second thing that struck me, about three songs in, was this: A band in this situation, live streaming with untried technology, sticking their necks out with a big CGI show, breaking in a new member (Wintersun bass player Jukka Koskinen) and giving an existing member an awful lot more work to do (Troy Donockley now takes on all backing vocal duties), if they were smart, would play it safe with the setlist. Stick to the hits, don’t do anything too technical, don’t go out on a limb, make sure it works first and foremost. But that isn’t the Nightwish way. Instead, we get a drastic (and brilliant) re-arrangement of Planet Hell, a song from 2004’s Once which relies heavily on Marko’s vocals, with Floor basically doing both male and female vocal parts, while the CGI waterfall turns to flame and lava and everything goes very, very extra.
And then, there’s Shoemaker, their paen to the planetary geologist whose ashes were scattered on the moon, which even they said probably wasn’t feasible to play live. Except they do. All of it. Even the magnificent operatic laudato which ends it. It was a huge risk. They pulled it off, perfectly.
All of which brings us to lead singer Floor Jansen. Nightwish songs are technical and difficult at the best of times; even relatively simple songs like Nemo and Élan demand power, stylistic versatility, agility across the full scale, and really disciplined breath control. Here, Floor was faced with the added complications of having to sing new arrangements in which she also covers most of Marko’s parts, and bearing the main burden of fronting the show and connecting emotionally with an audience at the other end of the Internet. That’s a hell of an ask.
To say that she rose to the occasion is an understatement. With this performance Floor has, I think, cemented her reputation as one of the all-time great rock singers. Technically she threw everything she has at it, breathtaking high note after breathtaking high note, with more power and sheer emotion than I think I’ve ever heard her bring to bear. But, more than just her singing (and I know the word “just” is doing a lot of work there), it was her performance that really blew me away. It was riveting, in the way that Freddie Mercury at Live Aid, Bono at Red Rocks, Roger Dalterey at the Isle of Wight Festival were riveting. But playing for people she could not see or hear. It was utterly exhilerating. If Wacken 2013 was the moment that Floor planted her flag in the ground, then The Islanders Arms 2021 was her coronation. Rock, thy name is Jansen.
Yes, I know I’m gushing. But really, Nightwish deserve it. Even the glitches were charming: Troy got so wrapped up in a pipes solo that he missed a vocal cue completely; at one point Tuomas’ keyboards suddenly became inexplicably massively louder than everything else; Floor’s earpiece kept falling out. The band laughed it off, and so did we.
This whole undertaking was a huge risk for Nightwish, both financially (it must have been ruinously expensive) and creatively. It could have backfired or gone horribly wrong. It didn’t. They’re one of the best live bands in the world, in any genre, and with this show they’ve raised the bar again.