One of the last things I did before Christmas descended and all my free time went out the window was to go and see Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish – arguably the biggest in their genre – play the legendary SSE Wembley Arena with my good friends Beth and Mandy. To make things even more exciting, they were supported by Amorphis – whom Beth and Mandy particularly love – and the legendary Arch Enemy, recently joined by powerhouse vocalist Alissa White-Gluz of The Agonist fame. I am a huge Alissa White-Gluz fan, so I was just as excited to see her perform live as I was Nightwish, if not maybe secretly more so! After an absolute mission making our way up to the venue (the SSE Wembley Arena is located on the complete opposite side of London to where I live), what followed was an absolute master class in spectacle and musicianship. Although certain members of the audience threatened to spoil my good time and impact negatively on my review, it was an undeniably magical evening filled with surprises and flashes of brilliance; I am so grateful to have been there to witness one of my favourite ever bands play the gig of their lives along with a couple of very special friends.
First up was Amorphis: a prog/death metal band also hailing from Finland, consisting of six members, whose twelfth album, Under The Red Cloud, was released last year to critical acclaim. As previously mentioned, it was a bit of a mission making our way up to the venue and we arrived much later than we would have liked, meaning that we were still in the queue by the time Amorphis came onto the stage. Consequently, we only managed to catch the tail-end of their set (apparently they played just eight songs) so I am not able to expound much upon my thoughts beyond that I thought they sounded quite good, certainly got the crowd going, and I look forward to seeing them play the Rescue Rooms in Nottingham later this year when I go up to visit Beth!
Next was Arch Enemy, who stormed onto the stage with a single from Khaos Legions – their final album with Angela Gossow – ‘Yesterday Is Dead And Gone’. Alissa White-Gluz – a veritable streak of brilliant blue hair and spiky black armour – jumped, snarled, charged and whipped her way around the massive stage without so much as breaking a sweat, all whilst delivering the kind of vocal fry that other heavy vocalists can only dream of. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I don’t actually think Arch Enemy is the best vehicle for showcasing Alissa’s talents and vocal gymnastics, but by God she is a much needed breath of fresh air for them.
Their setlist leaned heavily upon their latest album, War Eternal (which is understandable given that this is the album where Alissa stepped in) however there were also a few tracks taken from the aforementioned Khaos Legions along with a couple of classics from Doomsday Machine and Wages of Sin thrown in for good measure. Personal highlights for me were the wonderfully melodic ‘Avalanche’, the rallying aggression of ‘No Gods, No Masters’ and their most well-known hit, ‘Nemesis’.
- Yesterday Is Dead and Gone
- War Eternal
- Stolen Life
- You Will Know My Name
- As The Pages Burn
- Under Black Flags We March
- No Gods, No Masters
Outro: Enter The Machine
Alas, Arch Enemy’s time on stage was over far too soon. With their mission to whip the crowd up into a furious frenzy and get them ready for the main event accomplished, I have no doubt that they left that stage with 12,500 fans of ‘pure fucking metal’ in their wake.
After this, a massive safety curtain descended as Nightwish’s road crew got to work on finishing installing the massive screens and pyrotechnics; this was the first time Nightwish were headlining a stage big enough in the UK to support their full show. The mystery only enhanced the build up and our excitement bubbled to breaking point! Unfortunately a few less-than-thoughtful crowd members decided to choose this moment to shove directly in front of us and one of the girls, who wanted her boyfriend to join her, started waving her hands directly in my face. This was the first person I told to get lost before the night was over.
Breaking with tradition, Nightwish did not come on to a soundtrack taken from Tuomas Holopainen (keyboardist and songwriter)’s latest favourite film. Instead they took everyone by surprise and literally burst onto the stage with an explosion of fireworks and the sudden dropping of the safety curtain to the storming orchestral opener ‘Shudder Before The Beautiful’. It was a truly exhilarating moment and set the tone of the show immediately, with everyone singing along, cheering, throwing their arms up in the air and head-banging from the word go. The noise was simply unbelievable, and sent shivers down my spine; one of the best opening songs for a concert I have ever, ever seen.
Whilst not the strongest set list I could have hoped for (my work-colleague Agnese attended their show two weeks earlier in Prague and was privy to the magnificent ‘Wishmaster’), there was a good mix of old and new with a smattering of greatest hits and no less than three monster songs that exceed the ten-minute mark:
- Shudder Before The Beautiful
- Yours Is An Empty Hope
- Ever Dream
- My Walden
- While Your Lips Are Still Red
- Weak Fantasy
- 7 Days To The Wolves
- The Poet And The Pendulum
- I Want My Tears Back
- Ghost Love Score
- Last Ride Of The Day
- The Greatest Show On Earth
Let’s get the low points of the night out of the way first. During a fantastic rendition of ‘Yours Is An Empty Hope’ – featuring rare heavy vocals from Floor Jansen and one of the highlights of the set list despite what I am about to write – a very drunk and inconsiderate oaf came right up behind me and draped his arms all over my head and shoulders throughout the entirety of the song. It was not just me who he did this too either, but several others around me. Collectively, we told him where to go, but he was so blind drunk that I don’t think he was even aware of where he was. Eventually I got so angry that I ended up moving to a spot where I couldn’t see as well, just to get away from this one individual. I was still raging several songs later, and this idiot in addition to the girl I mentioned earlier, completely ruined the first part of the night for me. I began to feel a bit better when Troy Donockley (uilleann pipe-player and fellow Englishman) arrived on the scene to gush about playing a sold out Wembley show and introduce a deliriously soaring and joyful rendition of ‘My Walden’. However, tracks 6 through 10 were pretty weak; I was actually bored during ‘Alpenglow’ and I began to feel incredibly dehydrated and ill due to the heat. During the opening bars of epic song no.1 – ‘The Poet And The Pendulum’ – I began to wonder if I was even going to be able to remain conscious.
Which brings us to the show highlights…
‘The Poet and the Pendulum’ is one of my favourite Nightwish songs ever, and I was so, so excited to see it performed live. Consequently, despite feeling like I was about to keel over and die, I forced myself to hold on in order to sing, shout, scream and thrash my way through all 13 minutes and 54 seconds of Tuomas’ magnificent ode to depression and writer’s block. Images of the enormous, ominous bladed pendulum swinging right to left dominated the backdrop to great effect, whilst vocalist Floor Jansen – whom I personally think struggles to sing Anette Olzon’s songs as well as she does Tarja’s – excelled during this performance, stepping in with her classical voice during the choir boy moments. It was truly fantastic and looked set to be my favourite performance of the night.
After ‘The Poet and the Pendulum’ had finished and the opening piano notes of the band’s most well-known song ‘Nemo’ started up, I took the opportunity to dash outside for a little bit and down a glass of water. Once I felt much cooler and less thirsty, I bought myself a Sprite then took some water back for Mandy and Beth just in time for a thundering rendition of ‘I Want My Tears Back’ from my favourite Nightwish album, Imaginaerum. From there it was pretty much relentless in terms of excellent set list choices, from the vintage ‘Stargazers’ to fan-favourite and epic song no. 2, ‘Ghost Love Score’.
However, not a single song performed that night – not even ‘The Poet and the Pendulum’ – was quite so spectacularly stunning as the show’s closer: epic song no. 3, ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’.
Where to begin? What I experienced throughout this formidable finale – clocking in at a staggering 24 minutes long – can only be described as euphoric; a near-religious experience. What I initially thought was a very bloated and self-indulgent track on the record was nothing short of a masterpiece when performed live. From its ethereal beginning to its introspective end, ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’ catalogues the conception of life on earth through numerous eras of evolution and the dawn of civilisation, paying ode to the spectacular achievements and failings of humankind, including poetry, architecture, musical history (to which an entire bonkers section is dedicated), religious extremism and the ‘giant mushroom clouds’ of the atomic bomb. Floor showcased every aspect of her vocal range including a gorgeous operatic style during ‘Part I: Four Point Six’, futuristic growling during ‘Part II: Life’, and her trademark melodic shouting for ‘Part III: The Toolmaker’, accompanied by bassist and fellow-vocalist Marco Hietala. As the repeated refrain towards the ‘The Toolmaker’s end, ‘WE WERE HERE’ blazed across the screens, the sudden realisation that I was not only witness to this incredible band at the height of their powers in such a special, legendary venue, but also one of the ‘privileged few’ to ‘[win] the lottery of birth’ against ‘stupefying odds’ hit me like a ton of bricks.
And to top off the night, renowned scientist Richard Dawkins – the inspiration behind Tuomas’ latest work and the song’s title – came out after the band had taken their bows during ‘Part IV: The Understanding’ to read a final quote from Charles Darwin:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one. And that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Cue ‘Part V: Sea-Worn Driftwood’, and the crowd erupts.
In conclusion, if I were to let inconsiderate members of the audience and what I believed to be a less-than-stellar setlist affect my rating of this gig, I would honestly give it a verdict of 3/5. However, because Nightwish have no control over their audience, and because of the nothing short of spectacular finale alone, I have no choice but to award the following:
Richard Dawkins Foundation:
Special shout-out to Uber for providing us with an affordable lift home after the show finished too late for us to catch a train.
All photos taken by me, Beth or Mandy (photos used with their permission), except for the picture of the SSE Wembley Arena audience which was taken from Nightwish’s Facebook page. If you look very very hard, you can see us in the bottom left-hand corner. Thanks for a fantastic evening, girlies!