MUSIC REVIEW: Tarja-"What Lies Beneath"

For a while now, I have wanted to try my hand at writing a review of an album. I am not a musician (aside from some piano playing in my youth and occasional singing), but I am a music lover, and it was fortunate for me that one of my favorite artists has just released an album. For those who are not fans of “weird” music, this review may not be for you.

Trigger warning: Mention of child abuse.


(tarja-whatliesbeneath.com)

Some backstory: This album is by a Finnish singer named Tarja Turunen, who is most famous for being the ex-singer of Finland’s most beloved metal band (and my favorite band), Nightwish. Nightwish was known for combining metal music, orchestra (in their more recent albums) and operatic vocals, courtesy of Tarja, and has a devoted fanbase all over the world. Most “metalheads” will know of the band Nightwish. (Likewise, Nightwish will be remembered by many as “the band that had the opera singer”). Tarja was with Nightwish from its inception in 1996 until her firing in 2005 due to conflicts between her and the rest of the band. It can be argued that, as the face of the band, her voice helped the band rise to fame. Tarja has since embarked on a solo career and has released three albums since 2005. However, Tarja was merely the singer, not the composer, of Nightwish’s music, so while Nightwish has had to find a new vocalist, the band has retained some of its well-known sound going into the future. Tarja, while still possessing a lovely classically trained voice, is not as astute a composer, and her solo work has been lackluster compared to her former band’s new work. Tarja’s first widely released solo album (and second solo album overall), My Winter Storm, was disappointing to me personally. Her voice was lovely as usual, but the composition of the songs was weak and the quality of the instruments subpar and merely functional. Despite these obstacles, the album did have several good songs, but overall it was not a great album by any means.

However, Tarja’s newest album, What Lies Beneath, is a huge improvement over her last album. The songs are better written and catchier, the production and quality of accompanying instruments has vastly improved, and the tracklist is shorter, which allows for a more cohesive album. There is an assortment of heavier songs, pretty ballads, and mid-paced numbers, most of which are excellent. Yet, as with all things, there are good and bad parts to this album. There are a few tracks which are dull or don’t add anything to the album or are generic. Tarja’s voice, sadly, is no longer what it used to be. In the early days of Nightwish, her voice was powerful and operatic, and slowly she changed her style of singing to a less operatic, and sadly, less affecting and emotional, manner of singing. Comparing her voice on this album to her voice in the late 1990s makes it clear the quality of her voice has decreased. This review will be divided into my views of what is excellent on the album, and what I felt was less memorable.

THE GOOD:

First of all, the opener, “Anteroom of Death”, is the most interesting song on the album and is definitely a highlight. Tarja herself described it as “freaky”. Whether you think it is “freaky” or not, it is nonetheless an intriguing track. Combining a harpsichord, heavy guitars, and the vocals of the a cappella group Van Canto (which are clearly Queen-inspired), the song changes tempo several times and is quite memorable, unlike any Nightwish or other Tarja song. The Evanescence-soundalike “Dark Star” is an amazingly catchy song (although it is far better than anything Evanescence could produce, in my opinion) that features the voice of Phil Labonte from the band All That Remains. This song also makes good use of the cello and features some of the better guitars on the album, and it is one of the strongest tracks on the album. “I Feel Immortal”, a ballad and single that is sadly not available on the American edition of the album, seems an ordinary ballad that is uplifted by inspiring and passionate orchestral assistance. It is one of the finest tracks on the album. The soaring ballad “Underneath” features some lovely voicework and gradually builds from soft piano to powerful guitar in a truly satisfying way. “In For a Kill”, a midtempo song, features some excellent orchestra work and sounds like a song from a film soundtrack. The single “Until My Last Breath”, is another catchy, solid song. The song “Rivers of Lust”, while maudlin at times, features the most pure and operatic and emotional vocals on the album. The dramatic closer “Crimson Deep”, which is reminiscent of an early Within Temptation song, has a lovely piano and acoustic guitar sections which breaks up the heaviness of the song. “Falling Awake”, the first single from the album, features some amazing guitar work by legend Joe Satriani. The bonus track “We Are” has a catchy chorus, and fellow bonus track “Naiad” is pure serenity and simple loveliness that really should have been on the album.

THE MEDIOCRE:

The ballads “MontaƱas de Silencio” (available on the American edition) and “The Archive of Lost Dreams”, while very pretty, are dull and rather uninteresting. Tarja’s voice drags in a bad way in these songs, and she sounds dispassionate and bored and not like she is exerting any effort, especially in the latter song. The heaviest song, “Little Lies”, while catchy, also suffers from lackluster, nasal vocals and lacking, uninteresting vocal effects. “Rivers of Lust”, as I said before, is a bit too saccharine and maudlin in addition to being heavy-handed in its subject of child abuse. The last song, “Crimson Deep”, is too unchanging for its over seven minutes of runtime. For me, longer songs need to have variety and tempo changes to remain interesting. “We Are” has both a generic song structure and a truly discordant and unpleasant guitar solo. Lastly, the final bonus track, a cover of Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night”, is hilariously cheesy, and not in a good way. Barring the nice orchestral interlude, Tarja’s classical vocals do not fit with the style or lyrical content of this song, and she should stop doing eighties songs covers. (This is her second, Alice Cooper’s “Poison” being her cover song of choice on her last album. It was even worse than the cover on this album.)

The other aspects I found less than satisfying are more production related. Firstly, the backing “Tarja choir” vocals that are present in most songs are not at all necessary and detract from the lead vocals. Tarja’s voice in general, sounds overproduced: there are no interesting flaws or breathing that would have lent her voice some freshness and humanity. Next: The guitars are mostly just functional and lack the enthusiasm that the Nightwish guitarist brought to the table. The other instruments are also just decent and aren’t particularly inventive. The songs, with the exception of “Anteroom of Death”, are rather generic and if Tarja weren’t the singer, would not attract much interest. The mix of “Dark Star” is disappointing, covering the cello with chugging guitars. In addition: the record company has different tracklists and song orders for different countries, which is disappointing because the way the songs on an album are ordered can make a big difference, and leaving out and putting in other songs seems to be just a way for the record companies to make more money. Lastly, Tarja needs to find something to sing about that makes her passionate and emotional. She needs to collaborate with songwriters who can challenge her voice, because it seems to be stagnating with the material she is singing now. This change in her vocals from operatic to clean has been ongoing since after 2000, and has culminated in some lesser moments in her singing career.

My final opinion is that this album is a good, strong album, with some true highlights, but with a good deal of things that could be improved. There are some excellent moments of the album, but some mediocre elements as well that could use some improvement. I look forward to her tour following this album and hope I get a chance to see her perform in concert.

Tracklist:
Anteroom Of Death (feat. Van Canto)

Until My Last Breath

I Feel Immortal (Not on U.S. edition)
In For A Kill

Underneath

Little Lies

Rivers Of Lust

Dark Star (feat. Phil Labonte)

MontaƱas de Silencio
 (Only available on U.S. edition)
Falling Awake (feat. Joe Satriani)

The Archive Of Lost Dreams

Crimson Deep

Bonus Tracks:
We Are
Naiad
Still of the Night

Comments

  1. While this may not be my favorite genre of music as you well know, I think you have done a great job of reviewing the album. Your analysis shows that you are really thinking about the music and the lyrics and not just listening to it. It may be "weird" but you have painted a grounded picture for those of us who have not experienced the music itself.

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