FROM SPIRITS AND GHOSTS ( SCORE FOR A DARK CHRISTMAS )
Whenever we hear these classic Christmas songs each year we are five years old again, nestled in front of the fire, the smell of pine cones in our noses, and the feeling of snowflakes on our tongues. But a week or two later we are already sick of these songs and wish we could throw the music into the same fire we were previously nestled in front of. So one option then is finding a way to come up with new, yet lovable, Christmas songs. Very few people even attempt this endeavor and even less prevail; two examples of success are "River" by Joni Mitchel and "Last Christmas" by Wham. The only other option is giving classics a new and fresh twist. But the title of "Dark Christmas" definitely put a half-grin on my face. I expected nothing less than excellence from one of the best soprano vocalists in the genre of metal crossover. From Spirits and Ghosts (Score for a Dark Christmas) is Tarja's seventh studio release as a soloist and her second Christmas and classical release. I wasn't entirely sure what I should look forward to hearing. "Dark Christmas" sounds to me like the polar opposite of the coveted "white Christmas," so I had hoped for a black mirror effect. Perhaps with songs transposed to a minor key and sped up or slowed down.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
We Three Kings
Deck the Halls
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
What Child Is This
We Wish You a Merry Christmas
"This Christmas you can expect the unexpected!" says Tarja Turunen's website. Certainly this is more than your typical approach to Christmas. Even from the first, it felt like perhaps I had wandered too far from home and fallen through the rabbit hole with Alice. The idea of a grim and slightly off sort of Christmas had never occurred to me before (no more than say, Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas). I had never thought about it in metal before. I believed that had I been the one laying down the tracks, they would be ghostly and peculiar; an almost gothic Christmas. Well, I am pleased to say it was all of these things and more. I was correct in my assumption that they would transpose our classic upbeat Christmas carols into a minor key, a choice of which I adored. I was also correct to think there would be changes in tempo. But my imagination fell woefully short of the genuine listening experience. From the start, I felt the hair stand up on the and back of my neck and rarely during the entirety of the album, From Spirits and Ghosts (Score for a Dark Christmas), did it settle back down.
Tarja wastes no time moving in to claim her throne as the metal queen she is. When "O Emmanuel" starts, there is a slight tingle of danger from the beginning. The overall feeling that something is a bit off never goes away. This album is heavy in harmonic dissonance. It is ambitious in the modern musical world where unresolved dissonance is not valued and is often considered to be ugly and undesirable. From the very beginning, the music and Tarja's voice meld together to become a creepy and beautiful force of nature. As hard as it may be to pick a favorite in this treasure trove of twisted Christmas tunes, I am extremely impressed with the song selection order. "O Emmanuel" gets us off to a great start and ends in a crashing crescendo. Followed by another extremely strong song, "Together". "Together" gently lulls you and reassures you with Tarja's honey sweet voice and rich velvet sound. The ethereal pull of this melody is almost physical. I do believe it's one of my favorite songs on the album. I would happily listen to this all year round. This song was actually written by Tarja herself. So, though it has a Christmas feel, it's also strong enough to stand on its own; just like the lady herself. The arrangements on this album are beautiful and impressive. Aside from the overall melancholy feeling of this album, there is a hopefulness behind it. You can hear fear; you can hear wrongness, but you can also hear the hope in a key change and it makes it that much sweeter.
Another impressive detail worth mentioning is that Tarja is singing these songs in multiple languages. None of them are her native tongue. Finnish born, Tarja sings in English, Latin, Spanish and German on From Spirits and Ghosts (Score for a Dark Christmas). By the time Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas comes around I have goosebumps that won’t go away. The feeling of otherness about the album is palpable. But when the 8th song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" comes on, it doesn't seem as odd as the others. It's breathtakingly gorgeous but it is missing the macabre element that is so prominent on this album, in this reviewer's opinion. There is less a feeling of being the main character in a Tim Burton film. Even still, there is a more obscure vibe than one would find in a typical holiday album. I found that this didn't decrease my enjoyment one bit. Tarja's website promised "the “Christmas Tree” song you know [that] sounds nothing like the original. Get ready for an intense and dark war battle that will blow you away!” I expected this with "Feliz Navidad" but it was much more extreme than I had anticipated. "Feliz Navidad", the holiday classic everyone can't help but dance to, takes on some drastic time changes. The chorus is completely different, yet it is some of the most dazzling music on the whole album. "What Child Is This" is a song that already had a dismal feel about it. If anything, Tarja's version feels brighter and in some ways, makes more sense to me. I was most surprised when I got to the last song on the album, "We Wish You A Merry Christmas". As an American, I associate this song primarily with Christmas caroling. I imagine hordes of folks, with their warmest winter hats, sweaters and jackets, shivering in the cold with smiles on their faces as they sing with their beloved friends and family. I could not fathom how "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" would fit into this album of melancholy melodies. This "tired old Christmas song" had so much harmonic dissonance it was nothing less than exhilarating. At points it sounded like a child's toy piano was melting. The effect was sinister in all the right places. It was a fanciful way to end the album (though, perhaps the title, "We Wish You A Happy Halloween", would have been more fitting). I absolutely loved it.
It is not easy to take our tried and true favorites and make them into more than they were. But I feel that Tarja's From Spirits and Ghosts (Score for a Dark Christmas) was a success. Tarja has shown year after year she knows the right way to celebrate Christmas. But this Christmas album I would listen to all year long. This aspect of Christmas, framed within the sounds from a parellel mirror, is nothing short of genius. It felt like I was wandering into "Wonderland" or "Jim Henson's Labyrinth" right before the clock strikes the 13th hour. Overall I think I would rate this album 9/10 or if we were rating it solely against other Christmas albums 10/10. I really loved the new original song and the twisted turn on the holiday classics. From Spirits and Ghosts (Score for a Dark Christmas) definitely has a dark sound to it. Because only in the darkness can you find the light.
Tarja Turunen's website: http://tarjaturunen.com/home-tarja/
Listen on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/album/2IYMorQVpR1X5LsvuOs2jC
Buy From Spirits and Ghosts (Score for a Dark Christmas): https://tarja.tmstor.es/