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  • David Bentley

Feature article: Reflections on the plight of Nightwish (Finland)

I’ve sat on this article for several months while I weighed up the events of January when Nightwish’s bassist and vocalist Marko Hietala suddenly and unexpectedly announced he was quitting the band, on the eve of his 55th birthday. This is as big as it gets in the world of metal. It’s the equivalent of, say, John Lennon opting to part company with the Beatles, Robbie Williams walking out on Take That, or Ginger Spice bidding au revoir to the Spice Girls.

I still can’t really draw any meaningful conclusions but I’ll give it a go. Time is of the essence now as Nightwish start their year-long delayed world tour with two 90-minute global virtual online shows on 28thand 29th May. It is conceivable, though I hope I’m wrong of course, that this could be their last tour.

Hietala is a 20-year veteran of the symphonic metal band which celebrates its 25th birthday this year, and has become something of an institution, not only for his bass playing but his vocal contribution, both solely and duet-ing fiercely with his three female counterparts; most famously perhaps with Tarja Turunen on Nightwish’s cover of the theme to ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, one which even committed fans of the world’s most renowned musical respect and admire.

In true Nightwish fashion Hietala posted his resignation notice online for all to see. In it he said he was not only leaving the band but also “public life”, complaining that he could no longer “validate” his life and taking a swing at the industry, targeting specifically streaming, profit sharing and “paying dividends to Middle East… (where) some theocracies can take the money from the music that would get you beheaded or jailed there without appearing as hypocrites” (sic).

It’s a muddled message couched in fractured, creaky grammar which suggests he wasn’t really thinking straight when he wrote it. But there is much more to it. He acknowledges that it is common knowledge he is a chronic depressive, saying, “It’s dangerous for me and the people around me, if I continue. Some of the thoughts a while back were dark.” Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Finland still has the highest suicide rate of all the Nordic countries and they are all bad. And that was before the pandemic. (Which begs the question of course, how many other musicians are in this state?). He ends, “I am so sorry about this.” It sounds like an epitaph. We just hope he has the support he needs.

In a statement, the band said it left them with “some difficult decisions and choices to be made”. I’ll bet it did, and compounded by having to discuss them by Zoom with two band members located in Sweden and the UK.

The most pressing question is who replaces Hietala on male vocals? Nightwish say they intend to use a session bassist for the tour and will make an announcement about that “soon”. Although technically a tenor - and an exceptionally good one, he won the Finnish version of the ‘Masked Singer’ competition in December (which doesn’t quite square with being depressed, I suppose) – he can also turn on a deep bass voice like a tap and can growl and grunt with the best of them; an essential part of the armoury for a metal vocalist.

Possibly it could mean the Englishman Troy Donockley plays a greater vocal role. A full-time member of the band since 2013 his significance has grown and he can sing for sure as he proved on the latest album,’Human. : II : Nature’. (April 2020) on which he performed lead vocal on one track. Or perhaps band founder Tuomas Holopainen could help out. He added supporting vocals in the early days.

Finding a full time singing bass player of Hietala’s quality might present Nightwish with a big problem and fortune can favour the brave as it did with Genesis when they had to replace Peter Gabriel in 1975. Having listened to hundreds of aspiring candidates they ultimately turned to their own drummer. Perhaps this is Donockley’s Phil Collins moment?

But there is something deeper to all this. For years the prospect of losing their lead female vocalist (again) has haunted Nightwish’s global army of fans. After the final performance of their ‘End of an Era’ toursupporting the album ‘Once’ in Helsinki in October 2005 the male band members infamously and publicly sacked founder member Tarja Turunen, accusing her of ‘diva’ like behavior and of being more interested in herself and money-making than the band itself.

That decision polarised fans in a manner that persists to this day and lo and behold they did the same thing again seven years later, this time to the Swede Anette Olzon, while she languished in a U.S. hospital bed with crippling stomach pains. Something tells me that if they repeated that today, in the age of female emancipation they’d be banished to the Arctic Circle forever.

And yet the fear of current singer Floor Jansen going the same way has lingered throughout her nine-year tenure. Let’s face it, they’ve got form. Not that the strapping, physically impressive Dutch six-footer would be a pushover and even if they had any grounds at all to dismiss her (which they don’t); they’d have a fight on their hands to say the least.

And that is why Nightwish fans have been blindsided by this shock, out of left field, Marko Hietala debacle; why they’ve been hit for six. It’s like an official announcement that the Covid pandemic is over, followed by another one five minutes later about an untreatable variant of Ebola sweeping the planet.

The real possibility now is that Nightwish might be about to face up to its own ‘End of an Era’. Much will depend on the permanent choice of Hietala’s replacement and of how he (or she) fits into the overall scheme of things, including song composition. These are big boots to fill. And on how the other band members adapt accordingly. It’s not all doom and gloom. Many people believe Floor Jansen is the best thing that ever happened to Nightwish, and she came on the scene 14 years after they started. Who knows who will follow Hietala? They don’t rush replacements unless they have to and the next bassist might be better still.

But the message is, see this band while you can, just in case, whether it is one of these two forthcoming virtual shows or an in-person one (they begin on 31st July). I was a latecomer to Nightwish, I’ve only seen them once and it was a slightly sub-par show by their standard, the 74th out of 75 across the globe in six months. I was still mesmerised.

They are the biggest band in the Nordics, the only one I can think of which can fill arenas from Beijing to Buenos Aires and all points in between, except peculiarly, in the U.S., where many people don’t seem to ‘get’ symphonic metal. If they’d ever properly ‘broken’ North America they’d be the biggest band in the world, bar none.

In the last few months videos have emerged of their 2018 ‘Decades’ tour, including this one from Buenos Aires, where the fans always behave as if Messi has just scored a late hat trick in the World Cup Final to crush Brazil.

It’s a two-hour show, brilliantly staged and filmed. I point you to the final two songs, which are two of their three famous 10 minute-plus metal-prog ‘opuses’, namely ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ (about evolution and the future of the planet, and a celebration of life [“we were here”) – that’s Jansen grunting at 1:47:00 by the way, what a woman - and the show-concluding ‘Ghost Love Score’ (original sin), which for my money is the finest song written so far this century, by anyone. The ending is always fabulous and in this case it is orgasmic.


Image credit: Olijoan P Dubé/Nightwish Facebook page.

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