11.07.07 The Marquee Theatre; Tempe, AZ

To say Nightwish put on the best show I’ve ever seen would be a gross understatement. This Finnish metal band with the majority of their US fanbase seemingly underground has made their way into the states for the first time in their 11-year career, and it’s all due to a recent member change that has left the group stronger than ever.

Tarja Turunen, the band’s lead vocalist of nine years, was dismissed late in 2005 shortly after the band completed the filming of a world tour concert for their DVD, the appropriately titled “End Of An Era.” Band composer and keyboardist, Tuomas Holopainen, presented Turunen with a personal letter following the performance that has since been reposted on the studio and the band’s webpages telling the vocalist in the kindest way possible that she and her ego were not needed any longer.

“[Your] attitude,” wrote Holopainen, “was clearly shown to me in the two things you said to me in an airplane in Toronto: “I don’t need Nightwish anymore,” and “Remember, Tuomas, that I could leave this band at any time, giving you only one day’s warning in advance.” I can’t simply write any more songs for you to sing.”

The letter also reveals the band had not toured in either the US or Australia because Turunen told the band, “the [profits] and the sizes of venues are too small.”

Holopainen ended saying, “…this decision is not something we are especially proud of but you gave us no choice…we are beyond the point where things could be settled by talking.”

For over a year, the band continued to write while searching for a new vocalist, finally selecting Annette Ozlon–Swedish frontwoman for Alyson Avenue—to replace Turunen. On Sept. 28, 2007, the band’s newest album, Dark Passion Play, was finally released. An album is driven by exactly what the title would suggest. The band went straight from the studio to the road, this time pushing their new album and new vocalist to a broader audience.

One might have guessed that an album that has within the first week of its release went double-platinum in the band’s homeland of Finland would be an easy choice to top US charts, but unfortunately, it’s yet to even hit gold status in the states. But for devoted fans, the wait has paid off and the band announced it’s North American tour for 2007, this time including the US in the lineup.

Though the band didn’t schedule a Utah appearance, a handful of friends and I pulled all the spare change out from out couches, broke open our piggy banks, begged for money on the streets (not really, just from family members and gullible friends), and destroyed our credit scores to make our way to the closest show the band would be playing this year: The Marquee Theatre in Tempe, Ariz.

The Marquee Theatre is the sort of venue Turunen would have snubbed. Even the group joked at one point with the audience that it seemed “a little smaller than what we’re used to playing in.” With a capacity of 1,000, the theater sits something like a single-level, slightly-wider version of In The Venue. The stage is slightly deeper and wider, allowing the bands to take advantage of the room. Well, at least one of the bands.

Perhaps better know to the US audience, UK Gothic-Metal band, Paradise Lost, followed Nightwish on the road as their opening act. Though the group’s style was a perfect introduction to Nightwish, the performance was surprisingly luke-warm.

The group was almost sedentary, with such limited movement you wondered if they knew they were playing an actual show and not just having a practice session. The only exceptions were drummer, James Singer and lead guitarist, Greg Mackintosh. Even from behind his set, Singer went out of his way to connect with the audience while Mackintosh’s epic solos were performed with a equal amount of enthusiasm. Though the two kept the energy high throughout the act, the rest just seemed to drag despite their high-intensity tracks. Musically, the opening was fantastic, but the performance just left me underimpressed.

After a long wait–and what seemed to be a quick repair to the drum set–Nightwish walked on stage to their long-in-waiting US audience who greeted them with the same enthusiasm the band was about to give right back.

The stage set with pieces inspired by the artwork on their new album, the group spread out to allow room for the elevated drum set that occupied most of the center-back stage and Holopainen’s two-tiered keyboards with a third off to the front of stage left. All smiles and enthusiasm, the band wasted no time starting into their premiere single, Amaranth.

Those who have seen the bands performances before will recall the band’s former first-lady standing and making hand motions, not allowing herself to (like her bandmates) get swept away in the high intensity songs. Her performance seemed stiff, uncomfortable and felt more like watching a Sarah Brightman knock-off than watching a woman at the forefront of a metal group. Fortunately, the US is lucky enough to have been spared those memories.

Oslon is nothing short of amazing. Far superior to her predecessor, Oslon sang to the audience, not afraid to make eye contact and get personal. She was never without movement, walking (running, jumping, dancing) all across the stage and making sure there wasn’t a single person in the crowd not enjoying themselves. Likewise, her two mobile bandmates, guitarist Emppu Vourinen and bass/vocalist Marco Hietalan, could barely stay in once place for more than a few measures. Though Hietalan had to remain near his microphone during a few of the songs, Vourinen more than made up for it by playing for virtually every section of the crowd, tossing an (apparently) endless supply of guitar picks at the fans as he went. Even during his solos, Vourinen seemed almost casual and kept his eyes on the audience more often than he would his fingering, making sure a caught guitar pick was accompanied with a wink.

More impressive even was that even behind their respective instruments, keyboardist Holopainen and drummer Jukka Nevalainen, performed with the same intensity as the other three, refusing to be outdone. Nevalainen played with an animal intensity. Literally, this drummer was sprawled across his set, in constant movement, pounding away at two massive bass drums while looming over his set with an expression that was nothing short of wolven.

While perhaps not as wild as Nevalainen, Holopainen not only played with the intensity of his bandmates, but with a great deal more emotion. Though both Oslon and Hietalan bring an emotionally engaging quality to the songs with their voices, Holopainen plays with such emotion, one can see the personal, even spiritual, connection he has with this music. Serving also as the band’s composer/lyricist, one can see the emotional investment made in writing Dark Passion Play. While the others delivered high-energy performance, Holopainen’s is heart-wrenching and personal. Watching Tuomas Holopainen perform is watching a master at his craft.

The band played all the tracks from their newest album as well as Nemo and I Wish I Had An Angel, two of the band’s standards. Hearing Oslon’s take on these two tracks only further proves how suited she is for the group. Whereas Turunen’s voice always seemed to clash with Hietalan’s, Oslon is not afraid to get edgy and gruff, complementing the bassist’s voice far better than their former singer had.

While most bands seem to prefer to love their fans from a distance, the group wasted no time after the performance getting into the security pit in front of the stage to greet their waiting fans. The crowd continued applauding for almost 15 minutes after the group finished playing, another five after they finally left the stage. The band continued to win the hearts of their fans, finishing off with a meet-and-greet around the back of the building. If they were tired, the band didn’t show it. They were more than happy to spend time talking and joking with their fans, never rushing them through the line.

The concert began at 8 PM.

We arrived back at our hotel at 1:45 a.m. with a 9 a.m. flight looming in a few hours. Lack of sleep aside, my pocketbook was thankful. If we’d driven to Tempe, we would have followed the band straight on to New Mexico.

The band will be finishing their 2007 tour overseas, but does plan to come back to the US in the first half of 2008. Although the band has no concrete plans to make it to Salt Lake in their North American tour, they will be hitting Arizona again, and this time adding Colorado to the list.

Let it be known, I fully intend on going to see them again and I’m now accepting donations for the “Poor Students For Finnish Metal” fund. Feel free to contact me for more information on how to pay my way to Colorado.

I mean, donate.