Introducing The Dark Element, prog's newest supergroup

A portrait of The Dark Element
(Image: © Patric Ullaeus)

“I heard a great story about someone from Germany,” says Jani Liimatainen, his voice full of amusement. “This guy was listening to The Dark Element album and one of his colleagues came over and said, ‘Hey, that new Nightwish album sounds pretty good!’” he laughs.

Liimatainen is taking a break from acoustic rehearsals with Stratovarius vocalist, and Cain’s Offering bandmate, Timo Kotipelto to talk to Prog about his latest project. He’s particularly excited because it’s the first time he’s worked with a female singer. Despite crossing paths with Nightwish on many occasions during his time with Sonata Arctica, Liimatainen only met Anette Olzon in person a few months ago. The partnership was instigated by Italian label Frontiers, who approached Liimatainen with the idea of a side-project in early 2016.

“I love Anette’s voice and I really loved some of the songs she did with Nightwish so I was really happy with the idea,” he says. “When I started working on this album, I went back to listen to Dark Passion Play and Imaginaerum to analyse her vocal range. I thought, there’s no fucking point in making a Cain’s Offering record with a female vocalist, so I made a conscious decision to keep it more straightforward this time.”

His plan suited Olzon perfectly. The Dark Element is the Swedish singer’s first album since the release of her 2014 solo debut Shine, which was met with mixed responses. Save for a few guest vocals here and there, and appearances on the Finnish talent show Tähdet Tähdet – a celebrity cross between X Factor and Stars In Their Eyes – she’s been keeping a low profile to concentrate on a degree (see sidebar). Her other commitments meant her only involvement in The Dark Element was recording the vocals remotely, so it was down to Liimatainen to work his magic on what she sent him. The results are insanely catchy.

“Working with Anette, her voice… if you have a metal song with symphonic elements it’s going to sound like Nightwish and I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” he says. “They are a great band so I take it as a compliment if someone says we sound like that.”

The self-titled debut is very different to Cain’s Offering’s power metal. Its dramatic sounds are merged with pop melodies, prog metal, electronica and those distinctive vocals, creating a much grander feel that’s not a million miles away from Olzon’s previous band. The personal lyrics are written entirely by Liimatainen, who tapped into his feminine side. From the Nightwish-esque lead single My Sweet Mystery to the ballad Someone You Used To Know, the 11-tracker explores what the guitarist refers to as “the dark elements in our life… It’s the same shit that everyone writes about: love and loss, death, hate, regret – the basic metal themes! But those dark elements are not necessarily a bad thing: they can help you grow.”

But press him for deeper meanings behind certain songs and he says that listeners should come up with their own interpretations. One thing he is more forthcoming about is influences. He lists Dream Theater, Pain Of Salvation and Soen among his current favourites, but he really loves Haken.

“I was introduced to their music a few months ago when I was on tour with Insomnium and [guitarist] Markus Vanhala played me some. I was like, ‘Holy shit! This is cool!’ When I went home, I bought Affinity and I like it a lot. I love all these new progressive bands, but every time I try to write complex material, it sounds like I’m deliberately making it difficult, whereas they make it sound natural. I don’t like feeling like I’m trying to show off so I tried to keep this album less complicated.”

Given the grandiose nature of The Dark Element’s music and all those Nightwish comparisons, it’s surprising to learn that Tuomas Holopainen and co weren’t among Liimatainen’s influences. In fact, creating a symphonic metal album was not his intention. Despite fitting into the genre, the Finnish guitarist seems surprised to find himself in the same musical category as Nightwish, Within Temptation and Epica.

“I don’t really listen to that kind of music myself and I don’t know that many symphonic bands, except Nightwish,” he muses when asked why he thinks the genre is still so popular. “I guess when I was younger, genres were more locked in but nowadays it seems to be more open-minded. Evolution happens, and if you don’t get it, open your mind!”

Even though he frequently refers to himself as “a metal guy” in the interview, it’s clear that Liimatainen is far more than that. He doesn’t have Holopainen’s technical training, but he has a shared passion for movie soundtracks.

“I really like the epic, symphonic scores: the stuff that sounds like pop music written for an orchestra is really cool,” he enthuses. “I like Hans Zimmer [The Pirates Of The Caribbean], Harry Gregson-Williams [Prometheus], Howard Shore [The Lord Of The Rings], Danny Elfman [Planet Of The Apes]… There are shitloads of great composers on that scene so I guess Tuomas and I have a lot of the same influences in our songwriting.”

Liimatainen’s bandmates from Cain’s Offering – bassist Jonas Kuhlberg and drummer Jani Hurula – join him and Olzon on the album, which has been mixed by Jacob Hansen (Avantasia, Epica). The end result is something far bigger than the little studio project that he set out to create.

Since news of the venture broke online, festival and tour offers have been rolling in, even though the Cain’s Offering lads only met Olzon during their promotional video and photo shoot. To date, they have yet to play together as a full band, although it’s something that all parties seem interested to pursue.

The Dark Element might not have had a conventional beginning, but their evolution proves that fate really does move in mysterious ways.

The Dark Element is out now via Frontiers. For more, visit www.facebook.com/TheDarkElement.

Classic Rock, Metal Hammer, Prog & TeamRock launch She Rocks month

A farewell to kings: How women are rejuvenating prog rock

50 women who changed rock'n'roll