The rise of Nightwish has been slow and steady, though that doesn’t make it any less remarkable. From a spot at the Bloodstock Festival in August 2003 to topping the bill at London halls such as the Astoria, the Hammersmith Apollo and Brixton Academy, via the ugly dismissals of Tarja Turunen and Anette Olzon, it’s been a dizzying ride.
Their arrival at arena-headlining status suggests the Finnish group have finally validated the cause of symphonic rock, a genre that from a UK perspective once enjoyed the same kind of popularity as Donald Trump is experiencing right now. It’s highly probable that Tuomas Holopainen, the band’s guiding force and a self-confessed professional daydreamer, was alone in harbouring the possibility of such a transformation.
Wembley is still four-fifths empty, though, when Amorphis hit the stage at the somewhat unearthly hour of 6.45pm, though this doesn’t seem to phase the Finnish six-piece one tiny bit. Sacrifice, Bad Blood and House Of Sleep offer an atmospheric blend of dark metal and muscular, melodic hard rock. Interweaving Celtic and gothic elements, the arrangements are also pretty thoughtful, and while Tomi Joutsen’s lapse into growled vocals seems to ruffle the feathers of some of the more timid audience members, a stirring 40 minutes later, the venue is well and truly on their side.
Of course, the purists will pose the question of whether Nightwish really are a progressive rock act. And the answer is ‘not in the very purest sense’, but any band that closes an album with The Greatest Show On Earth, a 24-minute, five-song suite inspired by the evolution of human life, featuring narration from noted evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins, can surely lay claim to being a very close relative indeed!
One thing is for sure: with Floor Jansen (After Forever/ReVamp) at the mic, and the line-up expanded to include the Uilleann pipes, low whistles, bodhran and bouzouki of Troy Donockley, the band are stronger than ever.
That they are here at all is due to the vision of one man. Holopainen is Nightwish’s leader, though he recently insisted to Prog’s sister title Metal Hammer: “I’m not a tyrant or a dictator.” An omnipresent figure, Holopainen gazes down upon the stage and his bandmates from a keyboard set-up the size of a larger than average living room, reminding us that Nightwish do nothing by halves.
Kicking off with Shudder Before The Beautiful, one of seven selections from current album Endless Forms Most Beautiful, tonight Nightwish are bathed in a pyro-enhanced light show so blinding that it could probably be seen by Major Tim Peake on the International Space Station. And even though they’ve played in far bigger venues, the audience response appears to catch them off guard.
“I’ve seen Christ The Redeemer, I’ve visited the Taj Mahal and I’ve experienced most of the seven wonders of the world,” bassist Marco Hietala announces disbelievingly, “but all of those are nothing compared to this, so let me just say: ‘Good evening, Wembley!’”
At their most complex – essentially, just about everything performed except for the fairly modest Nemo – each song borders upon a mini-symphony. The orchestral and choral segments so prevalent during 7 Days To The Wolves, Weak Fantasy, Ghost Love Score and the uber-dramatic, five-part The Poet And The Pendulum are all pre-recorded, admittedly, but as ELP discovered, it’s just about impossible to take an orchestra out on tour. The fans have known the score since day one, so who’s to complain? Meanwhile, the full-time appointment of Donockley adds crucial swathes of colour to the likes of Nemo and I Want My Tears Back.
This is also the job Jansen was born for. Where her predecessors displayed varying degrees of nervousness and trepidation, the Dutchwoman laps up and deserves the spotlight. Her voice is simply sublime, her presence alluring.
For two hours, Nightwish hold 12,500 people in the palm of their hand. Finally, the band leave the stage to thunderous applause, returning to sign off with the evening’s most ambitious piece, the aforementioned The Greatest Show On Earth. And just as you think the evening cannot be any more overblown, the musicians and Jansen separate to form a guard of honour, welcoming Professor Dawkins to the stage, who proceeds to narrate the final section of one of the year’s most entertaining and ambitious gigs.
Of the 10 previous Nightwish shows witnessed by your correspondent since 2003, from unknown minnows at London’s Mean Fiddler onwards, this was the best. How lucky that it was filmed for posterity.