“There is a darker side of us all…Every one of us, we have a darker side that we should probably just appreciate that it exists…I believe it’s a beautiful darkness…The Shadow Self, it is a creative force in all of us.” –Tarja
Those familiar with Tarja’s solo work, or with the symphonic metal genre, will find much that is familiar in ‘The Shadow Self’. There are plenty of metal/hard rock guitar riffs, lots of low end, a smattering of strings and choirs, and lyrics that mostly sticks to discussing darkness, anger, love, and the natural world. Tarja has been headed in a single artistic direction since 2007’s ‘My Winter Storm’, and her latest album continues on that path. However, while some artists make a familiar-sounding album due to lack of inspiration or personal comfort, Tarja is clearly perfecting her craft, and ‘The Shadow Self ‘makes up the ground between past efforts and the ideal for what a symphonic metal album can be.
Lifted from an Annie Lennox interview, the album title provides a thematic focal point; indeed, ‘The Shadow Self ‘is the most thematically and musically cohesive album of Tarja’s career. Starting from the premise that each of us have a darker side, and that it’s best to face this darkness head on, the songs here move between introspection and explosive expression.
The singles from the album focus in on the positive, creative force of the shadow self. On No Bitter End, Tarja encourages the listener to engage the darkness on its own terms.
“Blackout the sun/Light nowhere/Tell me you don’t need it anymore…”
To say that we each have a darker side is not to say that we are evil, but merely points to the fact that much of our inner life is a mystery, is unknown, is a void even to ourselves. But perhaps it is in this very darkness that we will find hope, strength, love, and freedom.
“Open up your inner eye/Let hope save the day…To be there with all you need/And nothing left to prove…..”
The chorus and bridge sound a bit like the best of the 80’s power ballads, musically emphasizing the ultimately triumphant outcome of this introspective journey.
Similarly, Innocence maintains a cautiously positive tone in the lyrics.
“Inside of me doors will stay open/A thousand lives to live/Waiting like universes do without an end/Love break into my innocence…”
However, the video version makes it clear that the innocence of the title may very well be that which has been lost, and the album version of the song features an alternate, extended instrumental break that suggests much the same. A solo grand piano picks out the melody, gradually builds in intensity, meanders into pounding and resounding bass chords, then calmly returns to the melody before being joined by a full string section and choral vocals.
The effect is unsettling, occasionally jarring, but finally invigorating. Tarja has done this sort of staggering of classical and hard rock within a song before (Anteroom of Death, Victim of Ritual), but the classical component is more adventurous and thematically cohesive here. As album opener, the song also announces that Tarja is breaking new artistic ground whilst perfecting old standbys.
Even if our inner darknesses contain a positive creative force, they surely also possess immense destructive capabilities. On those who have hurt and abused us, the shadow self seeks self-expression of our most violent impulses. The album explores this aspect of the shadow self as well, showing how even these impulses may be channeled in a properly creative direction.
(Picture credit: Jaromir Zajicek)
In Supremacy, a Muse cover and one of the album’s high points, the target is an oppressive institution.
“Policies have risen up and overcome the brave…Embedded spies brainwashing our children to be mean…”
Instead of fear or angry fantasy, the song expresses a resolve for action.
“You don’t have long/I am on to you/The time has come to destroy/Your supremacy…”
The cover doesn’t stray too far from the original in terms of structure, but it does feature truly heavy guitars, cinematic John Barry-esque orchestration, and stratospheric vocals from Tarja to drive the hook home.
Diva relishes the poetic justice awaiting those who try to diminish our sense of self, if we only walk away and leave them to sink in their own rotten ships. The song may also serve as a personal response to Tarja’s dismissal from Nightwish and their subsequent song Bye Bye Baby. Once again the orchestration is cinematic in scope, carnival sounds and spoken vocals add a layer of creepiness, and Tarja’s vocals highlight both her range and her finesse.
Indeed, Tarja’s vocals are, as they should be, the main feature throughout the album. On Too Many, what could have been an extended fadeout instead gradually drops out instruments until only Tarja’s vocals remain. Whereas another artist might have ended the song with a whisper, or cut the song off after the first line once all other instruments were silenced, Tarja continues to sing until she has completed the chorus. The result is powerful, both in its presentation of the lyrics and in its completion of the album’s theme of a personal journey into the darkest corners of one’s own soul.
“Not too many facing their tears/When sunrise outshines the grey/Many too many living their fears/Only few won’t fade away…”
The repetition of this chorus takes the form of a lament, but is transformed by the choice to drop out instruments and leave Tarja’s voice as the final musical statement. In this closing moment, Tarja is expressing neither pity nor regret for others, but rather resolve and defiance on her own behalf–there are many too many living their fears, but she is one of the few who will face their tears and not fade away.
Befitting its thematic cohesion, ‘The Shadow Self’ also comprises Tarja’s most unified musical statement thus far (in her rock albums, anyway). Tarja has stated that she wanted the album to have more of a band feel, and this does sound more band focused, with fewer orchestral and choral overlays than some of Tarja’s past work. The riffs are little heavier, and Tarja’s lead vocals are kept to the fore, with minimal choral backing on most songs. This makes the ‘classical’ components more powerful when they do become the focus on songs like Living End and Diva.
It also makes room for more musical flourishes and nuances than is typical in the symphonic metal genre. Living End features beautiful acoustic guitar and pipes, while Demons In You begins with a half-minute funky jam before transitioning into a heavy piece spotlighting Alissa-White Gluz’s vocals. Even here, Tarja eschews the generic set of growls in favour of using both growled and melodic vocals from Gluz, allowing these to interplay with Tarja’s own melodic leads.
‘The Shadow Self ‘is unmistakably a Tarja album. It sounds much like other Tarja albums. It’s just a better Tarja album, one that displays a clear artistic vision as well as the skill and confidence to push forward with the arrangements and production.
Oh, and it also includes a bona fide hit song. You’ll know it when you hear it.
- Innocence [6:03]
- Demons In You [4:44]
- No Bitter End [4:26]
- Love To Hate [5:57]
- Supremacy [5:03]
- Living End [4:41]
- Diva [5:45]
- Eagle Eye [4:36]
- Undertaker [6:41]
- Calling From The Wild [5:13]
- Too Many [7:47]
‘The Shadow Self’ was released on 5th August 2016
Craig E. Bacon