Reviewed by Jade
With plenty of haunting music in her repertoire, it comes as no surprise that Tarja has taken classic religious material and turned it into an album for even the least festive soul. If you have worked retail every holiday season and cringe away at even the faintest hint of Christmas music, worry not. from Spirits and Ghosts: Score for a Dark Christmas won’t find children dancing up and down an aisle or cheery carolers running door to door. If you feel particularly sad or alone during the Christmas holiday, then this is a great album to keep yourself company with. And with James Dooley as the composer, listeners can expect all symphonic and no metal. A tactic which just works.
To kick the album off, we start with O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. We’re starting off gloomy right from the beginning (something we should expect with Dark Christmas in the title). The strength of this song is the slow beginning that rises up into a more melodic melody that never fails to lose the overall tone of the song. There are a couple of crescendos paired with Tarja’s voice that may lead some to forget that they aren’t listening to the original (which sounds totally different, but this version may sound more authentic to more modern-day lovers). Clocking at 4:56, it doesn’t feel too long, and it goes through a nice beginning/middle/end flow. A satisfying song.
Next, we have Together. If you’re sitting there wondering why you’ve never heard it before – you’re not alone. I did the same. This is actually an original song by Tarja herself, and it fits so well with the album that it could actually be mistaken as a classic rewritten if you’re not expecting an original song. We lose a bit of the gloom we started with in the first track and pick up a bit more melody, and Tarja’s vocals really lend to the intensity and passion behind the lyrics. The notes she hits in this song are impressive to say the least. At a 3:21 run time, Together doesn’t disappoint.
We Three Kings is the third track on this album. So far, this track feels the most genuine in terms of storytelling; we’re hearing a tale being told through the lyrics, and she’s making us believe that story. A more symphonic tone carries the listener through this song, and we still have a bit of a break from the dark gloom of the first track. The only major flaw in this song is that the lyrics have always been corny in just about every way possible. If you can look past that, however, fans of the original that appreciate symphonic music will be happy with this 3:54 track.
The more traditional Deck the Halls follows We Three Kings. Here we return to the dark and gloomy feel the album started with, vocals haunting the originally cheerful tune. In a few parts of the song, the listener may get confused and think they’re listening to Lost Northern Star off of Tarja’s solo album: the melody is very similar in some places, as is the way she begins a verse. However, this doesn’t much matter amongst the impact of this rendition of the famous track. At 2:44, it’s simple and straight to the point, and yet still delivers an entirely different atmosphere. Fun fact: Tarja’s daughter features on this track.
Fifth up is Pie Jesu, originally written by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The most impressive part of this song is that it’s in Latin, and Tarja nails every pronunciation. A beautiful piece clocking at 3:28, we can hear the plead in the way Tarja delivers the vocals. For those who don’t know the English translation, Google Pie Jesu by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and then compare your impression to Tarja’s cover. You might surprise yourself.
Another major classic – Amazing Grace. Such a dark atmosphere for such a strong song. At 4:42, it comes off very well rounded and goes through surprising transitions throughout the piece. The dark atmosphere softens up a bit; beauty settling over it and translating through to the listener. We’re treated to another beautiful crescendo midway through, lending to gorgeous vocals. It’s safe to say it does more than enough justice to the original.
O Tannenbaum is next up on the track list. This track manages to be somewhat cheery while still retaining the haunting feel of the album. For those who don’t know, O Tannenbaum is a German Christmas carol which those of us in the English-speaking countries know as O Christmas Tree. About halfway through this rendition, we almost feel like we’re heading into a fantasy adventure; the orchestra picks up its pace without ever hitting too high of a peak. Tarja’s voice in German is beautiful. Once again, her pronunciation is spot on. 3:37 of satisfaction.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas seems to have a different edge than the rest of the album. The vocals and music don’t quite stay on melody with each other, though this is certainly a creepy version of this classic. In terms of strength, Tarja’s vocals are, as always, on point. The orchestra has the right idea, and the backup vocals are a nice touch – even if they do follow the theme of not quite matching up with the melody. The plus side? Things seem to smooth out about three minutes in. The melody starts to make sense, and Tarja’s vocals shine. So, all in all? Not a waste of 3:40.
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. If you haven’t heard the original, this might be a little hard to keep up with. Tarja’s vocals in the beginning are quick and melodic, and a bit hard to understand if you don’t know what you’re listening for. As someone who hasn’t listened to the original, I can’t compare them as a reviewer. I can, however, say that this rendition definitely has another fantasy feel to it. Give it a listen. Even if the beginning is a bit quick, it smooths out and feels genuine.
Third from last is Feliz Navidad. This song is VERY DIFFICULT to cover and find a pleasing middle ground with. It’s a haunting version, but it doesn’t quite hit its stride. It doesn’t fail as a song at all – it’s listenable. It picks up a bit about halfway through, but overall it leaves a bit to be desired. Perhaps the run time could have been shortened – at 5:48, it stretched itself.
What Child is This makes up the penultimate track. While the music is certainly noticeable, Tarja’s vocals are more prominent here, and they fill the spaces beautifully. At 4:55, this makes up for the drop off Feliz Navidad incited.
The final track on this album is We Wish You a Merry Christmas. This started out the most cheerful of any track on here, then quickly plunged into the haunting atmosphere we’ve come to expect. Within thirty seconds, trembling starts when it sounds like this could be a demented track for a horror movie. That feeling remains through the song. If you don’t get chills and a sense of foreboding, you’re one lucky listener. This is a huge classic, and at 4:07, it works.
Overall, it seems like Tarja Turunen paired with the right people to produce this album. It’s definitely the darkest and most chilling Christmas album out there, and Tarja managed to make it work beautifully. Even the flaws are made up for by all the positives.
Another little fun fact for all of you: Tarja does all of her backup vocals. Meaning everything that sounds like a choir is her voice layered together. Talk about impressive – she could fool the best ear with that.
Overall Rating: 4/5.
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