Artist: Marko Hietala
Album Title: Pyre Of The Black Heart
Label: Nuclear Blast
Date of Release: 24 January 2020
Like most fans of heavy music, I have followed the career of Finland’s Nightwish with interest. Whilst I will readily admit that I remain a fan of the Tarja Turunen era, ‘Once’ in particular, I have a healthy respect for this behemoth of a symphonic metal band. Throughout their career, despite all of the challenges they have faced, they have continually produced quality music and kept their core and integrity intact. Naturally, mastermind and principal songwriter Tuomas Holopainen is a key factor in this but, as far as I’m concerned, vocalist, bassist and secondary songwriter Marko Hietala is equally as integral to the success of Nightwish, if a little unsung and perhaps overlooked. Since joining Nightwish in 2001, I have always found his vocals and uncompromising attitude to be irresistible; without him, the fabled ‘Once’ would not have been anywhere near as good as it is.
Naturally then, when I heard that Hietala was finally going to release a debut solo album, I jumped at the chance to hear it. And having got my ears firmly wrapped around ‘Pyre Of The Black Heart’, I can report that its ten songs deliver plenty of what you might expect as well as a fair bit of what you might not.
Without the need to preface the following with ‘spoiler alert’, every one of the tracks is liberally laced with the familiar resonant and commanding vocals of the imposing Finn. You could definitely add ‘unique’ to the list of adjectives too, because if there is one thing that this record highlights and underlines is the fact that Marko Hietala very much has his own style when it comes to singing. No one else quite sounds like him, whether he is belting out those epic notes or exercising a little more restraint and subtlety. The latter is not an infrequent event either, as Hietala is clearly using this debut outing to showcase his abilities across the spectrum.
What this means is that ‘Pyre Of The Black Heart’, created alongside guitarist Tuomas Wäinölä, keyboardist Vili Ollila and drummer Anssi Nykänen, is a surprisingly varied beast. We are treated to the big, bold, brash numbers that allow Hietala’s voice to soar; had we not, I think there might have been a mutiny in many quarters. But importantly, there are also tracks like the quieter, more introspective and slow-burning ‘I Dream’. For the vast majority of this quasi-ballad track, Hietala almost whispers the lyrics, softly, tentatively and in contemplative fashion, only coming out of his shell in the rousing final minute or so.
But most striking of all, is the blend of folk, acoustic and great many prog elements that all play such an important part in the overall sound. Hietala refers to the music as ‘hard prog’ and I’d tend to agree with this succinct definition on balance. Regardless of labels, it is clear that ‘Pyre Of The Black Heart’ is an album that has been created because that’s what Hietala wanted to create, not because he felt he had to. This is clearly a labour of love, not a vehicle to pay the bills. And ultimately, it is this authenticity that shines through the compositions most clearly of all. Marko Hietala believes in this music and you can hear that at every stage, via every stylistic change, and with every twist and turn.
My personal favourite track tends to fluctuate, such is the overall strength of the record and the consistency of the material. However, always fighting for the honour is the barnstorming opening song, ‘Stones’. It is a heavy rock number, full of energy and intent, plus it benefits from a catchy, upbeat chorus that’s addictive and impossible to dislodge from my head once I hear it.
But I’m also a fan of the slow burning beauty of ‘The Voice Of My Father’ which erupts at its conclusion but until that point is a more gentle, positive-sounding track with what sounds almost like an oriental melody. ‘Star, Sand and Shadow’ opens with a surprising electronic effect that I wasn’t ready for before eventually settling into a song that delivers one of the more groovy and stomping riffs on the record, complete with a delicious pinched harmonic or two.
Another favourite is the seven-minute ‘For You’ which has a dark undercurrent during its introspective length, but which delivers some of the most arresting vocals, underlining the fact that time and success has not dimmed Hietala’s ability or performance. ‘Runner of the Railways’ by contrast, is a straight-up energetic rock ‘n’ roll track with an old-school feel, not to mention plenty of folk stylings and a retro synth solo for good measure.
‘I Am The Way’ is another quality song that wonderfully utilises a piano and vocal duet, before more intriguing electronic sounds emerge. It grows as it develops with some killer riffs and has a genuinely epic feel to it; it’s just a very good song that demonstrates the songwriting prowess of Hietala and his bandmates, acting as a microcosm of the album as a whole thanks to the varied nature of the track.
The more I have listened to ‘Pyre Of The Black Heart’, the more it has had a positive impact upon me. Those quirky idiosyncrasies that I initially either didn’t like or was unsure about, have gradually made more and more sense and, whilst still being a varied, rather eclectic blend of styles, it begins to make much more sense. More than that, it starts to speak to me in ways that I wasn’t expecting. It may have taken much longer than we al might have wanted for Marko Hietala to deliver his own personal music vision, but it has been well worth the wait. It might not be what we were anticipating, but it is all the better for it; more interesting, more authentic, more genuine and undeniably more personal.
The Score of Much Metal: 90%
Check out my reviews from 2020 right here:
SWMM – Trail Of The Fallen
Into Pandemonium – Darkest Rise EP
Bonded – Rest In Violence
Serious Black – Suite 226
Darktribe – Voici L’Homme
Brothers Of Metal – Emblas Saga
A Life Divided – Echoes
Thoughts Factory – Elements
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: