Album Review: TARJA The Shadow Self
And here I was, thinking that Tarja, or Tarja Soile Susanna Turunen-Cabuli as it reads on her passport these days, was just a blip on the screen of the world of metal. Everyone is likely familiar with how she was ousted from Finnish operatic metal superstars, Nightwish back in the mid-2000s and has gone on to sustain herself with a solo career in both the worlds of metal and classical. Though, you can argue the “solo” part of that declaration until the end times as Tarja, while definitely possessing an incredible set of pipes, is more of a musical interpreter as opposed to a fully-fledged creative force exclusively writing and performing her own original compositions. At the same time, whether she seems less talented or worthy in your eyes because of her majority stake in the world of interpretation and rearrangement, there’s no denying her success. She’s killing it on a level of which I had no idea. The Shadow Self is full-length number four and judging by all the hullabaloo the record caused before its August 5th release, it’s going to contribute to her album sales totals, which is already comfortably into seven figures. There’s a story online about Tarja’s camp breaking the internet – well, at least in Finland, Germany, Belgium and other locales where people give the biggest shits about her – back in February they revealed the new album’s title began with the letter ‘T’. Seriously; people were losing control of their faculties because she used a letter from the alphabet.
It’s times like these we think that it’s not going to matter one iota what the jokers at a website like Metal Injection think. Tarja devotees probably aren’t looking to the same site that runs stories like “Dank Slams: Droppin’ Earthquakes from Pennsylvania to Scandinavia,” “Every Time I Die’s Andy Williams Returns to the Wrestling Ring to Smash Some Fools” and runs a serial called “Funeral Doom Friday” for updates on their gossamer-tressed heroine. And the audience that Tarja’s promotional posse are trying to expose her to, beyond those already enchanted by her siren song, is far and away above the quality of dirtbag who reads (and writes for) this site. Admittedly, I have little knowledge of symphonic metal-lite/rock, a subgenre which appears to be a majority European phenomenon, or how many of you might be fans, but here is the genre’s undisputed queen and what we have to say here isn’t designed to convince you to push aside any brutal death or misanthropic black to make way for The Shadow Self in your listening rotation. More so, it’s to give you a barometric idea of what’s going on out there and how the other half lives. And if you think that having a person whose only exposure to Nightwish came because Century Media sent promos of Oceanborn and Wishmaster over a decade-and-a-half ago and hadn’t heard any of Tarja’s solo work until deciding to pony up for the challenge of reviewing The Shadow Self is ridiculously unfair and unquestionably dumb, you might be right. But what’s wrong with a little step outside of one’s comfort zone?
Hell, Tarja (or whoever wrote it) does it on “Demons in You,” which starts off like the worst sounding stab at the decaying corpse of funk metal…from an operatic angle, which only makes listening to the song’s intro that much more incredulous and laughable. But a funny thing happened on the way to the chorus: the song transformed from a risible slice of point-your-finger-and-laugh humiliation to a rather catchy chunk of four-on-the-floor symphonic groove metal. It’s the sort of thing which fans of bands like Slipknot, Disturbed and those looking for a gateway band to connect metal with Nana Mouskouri would awkwardly bang their heads to. What’s-her-name from Arch Enemy offers some particular demonic backing vocals and not even that goofy slap-and-pop bass break can stop me from enjoying this track.
More along the lines of what you’d expect is album opener, “Innocence.” Starting off with some completely unnecessary piano shredding, the song quickly becomes one which sets the table for much of the album. A simple and plodding guitar progression is laid down and classical instruments (and the electronic doo-dads that mimic classical instruments) are layered to create a massive and lush orchestral sound. On top of that is Tarja’s voice, which has trained soprano and doves flying over a mountain crest after being released during a rich couple’s wedding written all over it. The chorus will corkscrew its way into the listener’s brain with huge lurching, major key note selections and about as simple a sing-a-long refrain as you’ll ever hear anywhere. Similarly, the formula remains the same on “No Bitter End” which kicks off with a cheesy vocal solo and lyrical eye-rolling positivity before moving into some bouncy populist riffing that basks in the light side of the force and a chorus that even those with concrete in their ears will admit is exceptionally catchy. In fact, this one sounds like it could accompany a slo-mo Baywatch beach run/rescue scene more than a bunch of partying headbangers in a German farmer’s field.
Otherwise, songs like “Love to Hate,” “Supremacy” and the ironically-titled “Diva” demonstrate how clumsy and disjointed the combination of metal and classical can be. There are clear demarcations between the styles within each of the songs, either to give Tarja a chance to display her vocal prowess or to refrain from falling to deep down the wormhole of one or the other. However, when the classical/orchestral sequences are rammed willy-nilly into a song, stopping a wall of guitars dead in its tracks, there seems like there’s little regard for the flow and the listen moves from adventurous to klunky mess. There is redemption with the ballad “The Living End,” which seamlessly incorporates classical bombast with acoustic strumming. Having another stellar chorus propping up the affair doesn’t hurt either.
Well, as much as I can say that The Shadow Self won’t be making very many appearances (if any) on the Stewart-Panko gramophone, I can also admit that there won’t be any running and screaming for the hills were it to somehow make an appearance. There’s a lot more going on this record than what gets actual credit for, especially from the metal underground. There are definite weak spots and this brand of metal isn’t what you'd turn to in order to experience unchecked aggression and the expression of its creator’s simmering dark side, personal struggles and full-on disgust for the ways of the world. One very noticeable weakness is how the listener doesn't get hit on multiple or psychologically insidious levels that metal is so adroit at tapping into. However, there’s no doubt of the infectiousness of just about every chorus here and that this will feature highly both at Wacken and on road trips with your mom in which she wants to connect with you on a level beyond giving you shit for your poor life/career/relationship choices.