Tuomas Holopainen came up with the idea of forming Nightwish while doing his national service in the Finnish army. His plan was to create an acoustic band to make “campfire music”. Luckily for metal, he quickly achieved a singing life. Kumbaya was a terrible idea. Even more fortunately, he spent his service in the military band, playing the clarinet and saxophone rather than undergoing intensive weapons training or doing maneuvers.
“I didn’t have to play with guns or anything,” he says. “There was a lot of free time in the evenings, so I got permission to go into the rehearsal room and play piano and keyboard. During these months, I composed all the songs for the first album.
Symphonic metal was barely a fuss of strings in the early 90s. Of course, metal had flirted with classical music – Black Sabbath had used strings and piano in 1972 on Changes, while Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride and Celtic Frost had found ways to use orchestral instruments in extreme metal. But beyond bands such as Therion and Emperor, who had begun to incorporate symphonic sounds more directly, the relationship had not been formalized.
Then came 1997, and the first albums from Nightwish and Within Temptation. Separated by over 2,600 miles, Nightwish and Within Temptation had no way of knowing what the other was up to. Nevertheless, they shared common traits. Both wrote fantastic lyrics that relied on a sense of escapism. Both had a flair for the dramatic, using symphonic elements to underpin their epic sound. And both had a male/female songwriting duo who shared vocal duties, with the female operatic voice at the heart of their sound.
“It was clear from the start that [Nightwish] needed a singer,” says Tuomas. “I was a huge fan of bands like The Gathering and Theater Of Tragedy, [as well as Norway’s] The Third and the Mortal and Therion. their album [1994’s Lepaca Kliffoth] might be the first true symphonic metal album of all time.
Similarly, Robert Westerholt of Within Temptation believes that Sharon den Adel was key in turning the music he originally wrote for his death metal band, The Circle, into WT’s debut album, Walk in. “As rudimentary as it was, doing demos for our first real songs and having Sharon on every song, it felt like everything just fell into place,” he says.
Both groups had a long way to go first. Although Tuomas had already written much of the material for their debut album, The angels fall first, while in the military, he still needed a band to play him. He recruited his childhood friend Emppu Vuorinen on guitar, and together the duo approached another friend, Tarja Turunen, to fill the vacant vocal spot.
“We just walked over to our old high school friend Tarja’s house, knocked on the door and asked her if she could sing for this little thing called Nightwish,” Tuomas recalled. “She was just a country girl, the same way we were just country boys, really naive and full of life.”
The boys had already heard Tarja sing at school, where she often imitated her icon, Whitney Houston. But by the time she joined Nightwish, she had been classically trained, dramatically transforming her voice. The first time they heard it, they were blown away. “We didn’t expect it to be so lyrical, so… lyrical,” Tuomas says. “We thought, ‘This is something really unique.'”
Giving up on the acoustic experience after trying three songs (“it was a bit boring”), they went into the studio to record a demo. “Everyone was so stoned and so free,” Tuomas recalled. “[Although] jukka [Nevalainen, drums] broke his leg coming down from the recording room, so all the bass drums for the last song are done with a keyboard!
This demo ended up on the Spinefarm label, who responded enthusiastically and released it as a The angels fall first, without any re-registration. As exciting as it sounds, the address of Tuomas’ parents on the demo copy had accidentally been printed on the cover, leading to some interesting fan meetings. “There was a girl from Russia who came to my parents’ doorstep with two huge suitcases and said, ‘I’ve sold everything in my life. I’m going to come here, marry your son and live with you now,’ he recalled, “It was so disconcerting, it wasn’t even scary! We worked things out, but poor girl!”
At the same time that Tuomas was creating Nightwish, other future symphonic stars of Within Temptation were making their Dutch debut, following Robert Westerholt’s split from The Circle. Formed in 1992 by Robert and a few classmates (including future Within Temptation keyboardist Martijn Spierenburg), The Circle began life as a death metal band but quickly evolved.
“The golden days of death metal were coming to an end,” says Robert. “You could clearly see in the last days of this movement that people were looking for more melody. With bands like Napalm Death and Carcass, extremes had been explored, so people were interested in groove and melody. For my part, before discovering metal, I was really into symphonic music – Pink Floyd, Marillion, Sisters Of Mercy, The Cure…”
They also began to draw inspiration from bands such as My Dying Bride, The Gathering and Therion, but issues with singer Carmen van der Ploeg caused splits in the band. Fortunately, Sharon den Adel was ready to step in and save the day.
“Robert was already in The Circle when I met him, but I told him about the school band and he joined too,” Sharon explains. “He really liked my singing and we ended up dating. One day he asked me if I would sing for The Circle because their lead singer didn’t come often, and I said, “Of course” – I was already practicing! I loved the music they were playing.
The Circle broke up in 1995 and the following year Robert formed a new band with Sharon on lead vocals. The songs he had written for The Circle served as the basis for Within Temptation’s debut album, Walk inrecorded in early 1997. It was inspired by the genre-defining 1991 release of Paradise Lost Gothic, as well as more esoteric influences such as Celtic folk band Clannad, combining elements of doom, goth and folk with pop and film. Sharon quotes Tori Amos and Bram Stoker’s Dracula as inspirations, while Robert says there were “no rules”.
“It wasn’t like there was a scene to help build the genre at that point,” he explains. “In death metal, people exchanged demos and tapes, so there was a certain connection. [Symphonic metal] hadn’t evolved yet, so you were just doing your own thing.
Within the temptation Walk in was released in April 1997, followed by Nightwish’s The angels fall first in November. They didn’t immediately set the world on fire, even though The angels fall first would reach number 31 in the Finnish charts in 1998. First, people had to get used to this new genre of music.
“When we started playing with Within Temptation, nobody knew where to place us because we were melodic, but we also had growling vocals and a doom sound,” Sharon explains. “We were weird for metal, but also really weird for mainstream because we were so dark. It was something they had never seen before, a girl in a dress playing with this kind of band. We loved it!”
They weren’t alone. They were soon playing to growing crowds in their native Netherlands and, for their fourth performance, were invited to play Dynamo alongside equally great artists including Therion and Dimmu Borgir. “It was the biggest metal festival in Europe,” says Sharon. “We were nowhere near as visual as we are now. I remember going to a bridal shop and buying all these dresses that were on sale, but we didn’t even have a backdrop then. We had moonflowers, though!
Nightwish was slower to make its live debut, playing New Year’s Eve 1997, in front of 400 people. “I remember throwing up before the show because I was so scared,” Tuomas recalled. But within months they were playing with other Finns, Children Of Bodom. “There were a few Finnish bands emerging at the same time, for the first time,” he says. “Stratovarius, Sonata Arctica, Children Of Bodom, HIM… Nothing happened for decades and then suddenly, within two years, all these bands broke up overseas. It was good to ride that wave.
In a male-dominated genre, Sharon and Tarja became role models for women and girls who aspired to sing in a band. “I wouldn’t play music without them,” says Serena Cherry, singer from Svalbard. “Tarja was one of the first women I ever saw on stage, [German festival] Wakken. You can never underestimate this power of representation. I’d spent all day watching guys perform on stage, and then suddenly you have this incredible presence and soaring voice; seeing this as a woman in the crowd made me think, “Hey, maybe I can do that too.” The whole symphonic metal movement – Nightwish, Within Temptation, After Forever, Epica… all of these bands have been absolutely essential in bringing women to the fore as valid singers and performers in metal.
“It’s really heartwarming. It’s really the case to hear these kinds of comments,” Tuomas said in response. “We all want to leave a mark on this planet, to achieve something with our lives and what we have. fact, so hearing people say something like that brings tears to my eyes.”
Nightwish and Within Temptation may not have invented symphonic metal, but they certainly defined it, the imagery of corsets forever intertwined with keys and strings through their influence. Twenty-five years after their debut, both bands are stronger than ever. They each achieved a string of chart-topping releases, performed in front of arena-sized crowds, and continued to drive the genre forward. However, today, Tuomas still has a weakness for The angels fall firstopens, Path of the Elveswith his lyrics: ‘The house gnome told me to keep the sauna hot for him. “I was just a huge fantasy nerd then and still am,” he smiles. “But at the time, it was on another level and it shows! There’s nothing I’m ashamed of on this album. When I listen to the songs, they just put a big smile on my face.
Meanwhile, Sharon is proud to have influenced a new generation of bands. “I think it’s so cool, especially to hear that so many girls have been inspired,” she says. “I think it’s wonderful that there’s been a new wave of women coming to the table and taking their place. I love development, and I think if we can help other bands get a seat, it’s very cool.
Posted in Metal Hammer #361