By: Dave Cooper
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Released on March 30, 2015 via Nuclear Blast Records
It’s all change for Nightwish. Since the acrimonious and very public departure of original vocalist Tarja Turunen following the Once tour, the Nightwish camp has seen one drama after another – so much so that some fans seem positively blasé about every new piece of turmoil, as if they have lost the ability to be shocked or surprised. There was great excitement as Turunen’s successor, Alyson Avenue’s Anette Olzon, joined the band; however, it’s hard to imagine that the band could have picked a more different vocalist, stylistically speaking, to her predecessor, and Olzon’s recruitment sharply divided the opinions of fans. There followed a succession of publically expressed misgivings and on-stage meltdowns as the talented, but clearly overwhelmed Olzon fought to put her stamp on a legacy that seemingly could not be wrested from the hands of Turunen, whose long shadow dogged the band as they strove to move forward. However, the band certainly didn’t suffer creatively: they recorded two extremely well-received albums, 2007’s Dark Passion Play and 2011’s conceptual Imaginaerum, with Olzon at the mic, and it seemed that Olzon and her bandmates might finally lay the ghost of Turunen to rest.
It was not to be. Early on in the Imaginaerum tour, Olzon fell ill. Rather than cancel a lengthy list of outstanding dates and put the promotion of Imaginaerum on hold, the band elected to forge ahead by drafting in Dutch vocal legend Floor Jansen (previously of Dutch symphonic metal legends After Forever) to take Olzon’s place. Whilst it’s difficult not to have some sympathy for the dismissed Olzon, it was clear that the teaming of Olzon and Nightwish wasn’t working outside of the studio: Olzon was an evident talent who was simply overwhelmed by expectations. A change was needed, and the band needed a safe pair of hands to give them time to fulfill their touring obligations whilst they regrouped.
What the band may have hoped for but couldn’t predict was just how well Jansen took to fronting the band. She was instantly all things to all people: she had Olzon’s versatility, but also the operatic power of Turunen, meaning that she was able to handle songs old and new with increasing confidence. Whilst Jansen’s posting was publicly a temporary one, it can’t have taken long for Nightwish as a collective to realise that Jansen was actually the perfect person to fill the void left by Olzon’s departure. And so it proved, as following the tour Nightwish made not one, but two permanent additions to their ranks: Jansen was named officially as Olzon’s replacement, and multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley – who had guested on the band’s previous two albums and joined them on the road for the Imaginaerum tour – was named as an additional sixth member. After all the uncertainty and controversy, it seemed the band was ready to begin a new chapter. However, fate was to deal one final personnel-related blow. As the band assembled to begin work on their new album, long-term drummer Jukka Nevalainen – who had struggled for years with extreme insomnia – was forced to step aside as his condition worsened. Nevalainen suggested his friend, the Wintersun drummer Kai Hahto, who ultimately replaced him for the album sessions, and continues to deputise for the unfortunate Nevalainen until he is able to resume his post.
So: after all the drama, the band’s eighth album, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, is finally here. Described by the band as “a tribute to science and the power of reason”, it is more loosely conceptual than Imaginaerum was, but nonetheless contains threads that run through the songs: songs about evolution, nature, science, and “the beauty of existence”. Nightwish have always written songs inspired by nature – they are well-known for regularly featuring an owl in their artwork that has become a totem of sorts for the band – so this theme seems like the logical extension of what they’ve been doing since their inception in the mid 1990s.
Opening with a brief narration from evolutionist Richard Dawkins, opening track ‘Shudder Before The Beautiful’ seems designed to reassure fans that it’s business as usual for the band. Built from a sturdy riff and the swirling orchestrations that have typified the band’s more recent work, it’s a blast of symphonic metal with the anthemic tendencies of the band’s more power metal-oriented past. Jansen and Hahto both make an immediate and very positive impression: Jansen’s vocals are extraordinarily powerful and Hahto nails the thundering power of Nevalainen’s style with aplomb. There are even hints of the band’s more obviously technical bent, a side of the band that has been used less and less as their sound veered towards symphonic bombast: Nightwish supremo Tuomas Holopainen launches into a dazzling keyboard solo at the middle eight, whilst guitarist Emppu Vuorinen delivers a speedy solo that would have fit perfectly onto Oceanborn (and it can’t be coincidence that a line early on in the song reads “Awake Oceanborn / Behold this force“), before the two dig into a brief but exhilarating unison part. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Nightwish have brought some of the progressive element of their sound back.
Second track ‘Weak Fantasy’ appears to criticise the indoctrination of the young with religion – “Behold the crown of a heavenly spy / Forged in blood of those who defy / Kiss the ring; praise and sing / He loves you dwelling in fear and sin“, snarls Jansen against a backdrop of chugging guitars. Even in this song, though, there are seeds of the thread about nature, as Jansen laments our mistreatment of the planet: “From words into war of the worlds / This one, we forsake, we scar / From lies, the strength of our love / Mother’s milk laced with poison for this newborn“. Bassist and vocalist Marco Hietala also makes his mark here, and it must be said that he and Jansen make a formidable vocal pairing, here and elsewhere. Certainly songs like this one will go some way towards placating fans who felt that the the band were becoming too symphonic and/or too mellow over the previous two albums.
The first single from the album, ‘Élan’, is an almost perfect showcase for the six-piece band, allowing Jansen to display the more restrained side of her vocals – it’s easy to imagine Olzon singing this song – and giving Donockley ample space to provide vocals alongside his array of Celtic instrumentation, giving the track a folky, easy-going feel that nicely contrasts with the song’s motivational spirit. It’s a low-key entry in a slightly more anthemic way than previous more folk-oriented tracks like Dark Passion Play‘s ‘The Islander’ or Imaginaerum‘s ‘Turn Loose The Mermaids’, but it breaks the tension between two more full-blooded rockers very well indeed.
‘Yours Is An Empty Hope’ feels like it would have fit perfectly amongst the up-tempo material on Dark Passion Play, its wordy, twisting, turning lyric and chugging riff – itself reminiscent at times of Once‘s ‘Romanticide’ – dovetailing into a brief atmospheric section before Hietala and Jansen take turns at screaming out their lyrics; it’s a treat to see Jansen given free rein to vocally deliver both barrels like this, a further indication of her versatility.
Ironically perhaps for a metal band, one of the finest tracks here is the limpid ballad ‘Our Decades In The Sun’. Quite simply, it’s one of the most beautiful things the band have ever recorded. Jansen’s hushed, emotive vocal is the heart of the song, but everyone underplays deliciously, building a wonderful tension throughout the track – even the orchestrations are remarkably restrained until the inevitable coup de grace. The addition of a children’s choir is particularly inspired, imbuing the track with a wistful innocence that contrasts exquisitely with the song’s meditations on mortality. It’s a sensational achievement, and further evidence that Nightwish have heart to spare. The band’s tendency towards grandiosity makes them an easy target for those who don’t grasp the emotional content of their material, but even the most cynical listeners may well find their hearts melted by this song.
‘My Walden’, by contrast, is a triumphal rocker given a Celtic swirl by Donockley’s pipes and a half-speed section that amps up the folk aspect still further by including pipes, low whistle, mandolin and bodhran. With Donockley now a full member of the band, it’s not a shock to hear the band include more material in this vein, but it’s always fascinating to hear just how perfectly it dovetails with their ‘classic’ sound. The fact is that the band started out very much in this vein -their first album Angels Fall First is full of that fireside folk vibe – and this is perhaps just the logical conclusion of the path they have travelled.
The title track is next up; musically, again, there’s more than a hint of Dark Passion Play about it, it’s sturdy riff contrasting effectively with a soaring chorus. In short, it’s classic Nightwish – predictable in its own way, but melodically utterly irresistible. It swaps churning riffery for orchestral and choral stabs, dialling up the intensity before returning to the gloriously memorable chorus once more. Perhaps the most atypical thing about it are the numerous brief keyboard filigrees; another indication that Holopainen is enjoying the visceral fun of more technical playing once more.
If the band are looking at candidates for another single from the album, they need look no further than ‘Edema Ruh’. It is in some ways the most perfect single they’ve ever written, it’s memorable chorus and playful, tinkling keyboard pattern utterly mesmerising – all this despite containing one of the least obvious lyrics of the entire album (the Edema Ruh being a travelling minstrel folk featured in a series of books by Patrick Rothfuss: their mantra is that they are part of “One family”, a mindset that Nightwish – who refer to themselves as a ‘vehicle of spirit’ – clearly embrace themselves). This is a song that you will likely find yourself humming after your first play of the album: it manages the difficult task of being both haunting, joyful and irresistibly memorable. It showcases the band perfectly, too, allowing Donockley to sing the middle eight and provide some Celtic colouring with his whistles and pipes, yet also giving all the other band members space to put their stamp on proceedings.
‘Alpenglow’ again has a classic Nightwish feel as it opens, albeit given a twist by the use of a dissonant bridge with Jansen roaring out her vocals, which gives it an edge all of its own. However, it’s not long before – like ‘My Walden’ – it becomes a showcase for the band’s more folk-infused side, its chorus a mere maypole away from an outright Celtic jig at times. Still, it retains the band’s gift for a memorable, sing-along chorus, and serves as light and joyous relief before the album delivers its most introspective, thoughtful pieces.
‘The Eyes Of Sharbat Gula’ is the album’s penultimate track. Originally a song about the horrors of war as seen through the eyes of a child, Holopainen struggled so much with the lyric that it was ultimately abandoned, and the track left as an instrumental. At times this change is somewhat evident, as there are sections of the track that are left doing very little in the absence of an overlying vocal, but it has to be said that atmospherically it’s incredibly strong. It builds a potent, almost tangible sense of dread and despair, leavened by the trusting hope that the young demonstrate in the face of danger that their more cynical elders dare not employ. Its almost funereal pace makes it all the more haunting. As Nightwish tracks go, it is perhaps one of their more experimental recordings – which in its own way makes it all the more special. Unexpected, moving and sumptuously arranged, it makes you wish that Holopainen and the band were routinely given soundtrack work.
Then, finally, there is ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’. Twenty four minutes long, this is unquestionably the most ambitious and complex single track the band have ever attempted to record: it’s nothing less than the complete natural history of the Earth, examined with a marvelling eye, dazzling in its passion for its subject matter. Broadly, it falls into five sections: the first, ‘Four Point Six’ (a reference to the age of the Earth, estimated at 4.5 billion years) is a largely orchestral piece that opens with simmering strings and Holopainen at the piano and closes with the introduction of choral voices, led by Jansen herself in operatic mode. ‘Life’ , by contrast, is a heads-down rocker, its dark, riffy verses interspersed with glorious choruses that showcase the band in pure power metal mode, all thundering drums and fists-aloft life-affirming joy. It’s utterly head-spinning in its impassioned praise for nature and the cosmic accident that made the Earth what it is, and it’s very hard indeed not to get caught up in the band’s obvious excitement.
There follows a minute or more of nature sounds: pigs, apes, gorillas… probably all of the above and then some. Then in crashes ‘The Toolmaker’, detailing the rise of man and the double-edged sword that he has been to both the Earth and its creatures and indeed man himself. It’s not new philosophical ground even within the confines of an album, but it’s quite powerful nonetheless; Holopainen’s scorn for the human race’s self-absorption is clearly evident. It’s also plain by this point that the band really are throwing everything at the wall here, as sound effects and even a few brief bars of thumping techno percussion pop up before being submerged into the bulldozing riffing. The section closes with massed voices – choir and band together – repeatedly singing “We were here!” It’s a triumphal and moving moment.
In some ways this is really the end of the song, the remainder forming a postscript to the album in much the same way as the closing poem and orchestral track do on the Imaginaerum album. Both the remaining parts of the track are essentially instrumental pieces overlaid by narration from Richard Dawkins. ‘The Understanding’ talks passionately about how fortunate the people who have been born really are, given the staggering odds against their existence, and how, given those facts, we should not fear our ultimate dissolution. Combined with Pip Williams’ highly effective orchestrations, it makes for stirring stuff. The final part, ‘Sea-worn Driftwood’, is almost an anticlimax by comparison, its relaxed soundscape of strings and rolling surf supporting Dawkins talking of the inevitable and continuing function of evolution, before the album fades out to the sound of whalesong. By this point, on your first listen, you will most likely be stunned and dizzy by what you’ve just heard. There’s certainly no faulting Nightwish’s ambition; whether or not that ambition has succeeded in its aim is very much down to personal preference. The presence of Dawkins has proved to be somewhat troublesome for some listeners, but the wary should be reassured: what is being discussed here is evolution and the natural systems that support and promote it, not Dawkins’ established and militant atheism.
Once again, then, Nightwish have not so much served up a sumptuous meal as an entire banquet. Clocking in at a weighty 79 minutes, there is a lot to take in here, and whilst it may not be incredibly dense or especially ‘difficult’ music, it will likely take several listens before the various musical and lyrical threads of the material really begin to coalesce. For established fans of the band, it will feel much like business as usual: there are echoes of past glories here as well as some new or enhanced elements, alongside the inevitable flourishes that Jansen and Donockley provide. Newcomers to the band will likely react with either delight or horror. Such is Nightwish’s wont: they’ve been polarising the opinions of listeners since their first record, and only seem to get better at doing so. Agent provocateurs supreme, as uncompromising as ever, Nightwish retain all their ability to delight, dizzy and dismay. Long may it continue: this is a wonderful, beautifully wrought record that barely contains an explosion of ideas. They’ve seldom sounded more potent.