Saturday, March 28, 2015

album review: 'endless forms most beautiful' by nightwish

Back when I reviewed Blind Guardian's most recent and pretty damn awesome album Beyond The Red Mirror, I made the comment that it was one of two bands that got me into metal, and without those bands, I probably would never have become a music critic. The second band was always more symphonic, more gothic, and a fair bit more complicated to talk about. Yep, it's time to talk about a band of which I've been a fan for probably over a decade, the first metal band I saw live, a band that has been around for less time than Blind Guardian but is substantially more difficult to talk about. Yes, folks, it's time we talk about the Finnish symphonic metal titan Nightwish, a band that began in a campfire conversations in the mid-90s and spiralled away into becoming one of the most successful acts of the genre. And for the purposes of this conversation, I'm going to divide their output into three distinct categories, categorized by their female lead singer: the Tarja era, the Anette era, and the Floor era.

Nightwish began more in the realm of acoustic-flavoured power and symphonic metal, and their late 90s output was a time of developing a refining a sound that would become iconic, buoyed by the sharply melodic songwriting of Tuomas Holopainen and the glorious vocals of Tarja Turunen. Tuomas was always the band's mastermind when it came to composition, and the choice not to go with a heavy rhythm guitar section meant that melody was placed to the forefront over groove. It wasn't until 2002 and the addition of bassist Marco Hielata that the darker gothic elements moved much closer to the forefront along with some of their best compositions like 'Ever Dream', but the metal landscape was shifting too, with the success of Evanescence suddenly opening up a window for similar sounding - and better - bands to break. Suddenly, the symphonic metal sound was commercially viable, and Nightwish rode that wave to their - at that time - biggest album Once in 2004. And going back to that album, while the seeds were planted for their later expansion, it's also a very compromised record in terms of the subject matter, and I'd argue only about half of that album is very good or up to their usual standard.

And that compromised vision certainly did bleed into the band, which fired frontwoman Tarja Turunen in 2005 and split the fanbase in two with the arrival of Anette Olzon, signalling the second major era for the band. It was a time that signalled even greater ambitions for the band, who ditched any pretense towards following trends and grabbed up richer musical influences wholesale for 2007's Dark Passion Play. And yes, while Anette was not as technically refined and powerful of a singer as Tarja, she balanced against the loose roughness and eclectic style of the album far better, which was able to get darker without needing gothic pretense. Where pretense did become a factor was in Tuomas' writing, which had always walked the line of being too clever and yet bitingly straightforward. And the while the symphonic element became more and more prominent, first with the inclusion of Troy Donockley on the pipes and second with the heavier usage of orchestras, inspired by Tuomas' love of film scores. So it almost seems logical that that their 2011 album Imaginaerum would be paired with a movie and feel even larger and heavier than the last. And it was, and while I could argue that the album was even more self-referential than usual in terms of themes and lyrics, it features some of Nightwish's best melodic compositions and was overall a fantastic release.

But the problems weren't over, and midway through the tour Anette was fired and replaced with Floor Jansen of After Forever. Now there's a lot of ugliness to that conversation and nobody looks good, but it led to Floor Jansen joining the band full time along with Troy Donockley for their next album. Unfortunately, drummer Jukka Nevalainen had to take a brief hiatus and his drums were instead recorded by Kai Hahto, of the melodic death metal acts Swallow The Sun and Wintersun. Also in that intervening time, both Marco Hielata and Troy Donockley participated on the progressive metal album The Theory of Everything from Ayreon, easily one of the best records of that year, and I had to wonder if any progressive influences would be creeping towards Nightwish, especially with Marco as a secondary writer. And then I heard Nightwish was going to be discussing themes surrounding evolution on the album, even quoting Richard Dawkins! Keep in mind that the majority of Nightwish's material seems to fit in its own universe, and the last time they came remotely close to getting political was 'The Kinslayer' back on Wishmaster in 2000! To put things in context, Epica spent almost a decade trying to refinne their political messages before getting it to work consistently - I had no doubts that Tuomas was a good songwriter, but he's playing in a very different ballpark here!

In other words... look, even as a fan, I had no damn clue what to expect from this. Nightwish aiming for an even heavier sound, stabbing outwards with new subject matter and with a good half of the band changed, I had no idea what to expect, especially considering I wasn't really in love with Tuomas' solo album he dropped in 2014, written around the same time as this record. But I'm still a fan and at the very least it'd be an entertaining record, so what did we get with Endless Forms Most Beautiful?

Honestly, we got an album that reflects not a lack of direction for Nightwish, but I'd argue a lack of fully realized potential. It's not a bad record by any stretch - Nightwish has certainly made worse records, and if we're avoiding comparisons to any of their discography, Endless Forms Most Beautiful is a fine enough release that'll easily satisfy most fans, especially those looking for more heavier instrumentation to come in after the more symphonic touches of previous albums. But for me... if I'm being honest I'm underwhelmed. The stakes are not as high, the drama is not as strong, and the execution is not as good as it should be. 

Now let me start before I get ripped to pieces by fans that if you're looking for the primary core of Nightwish's sound in terms of composition, you're going to get it - strongly melodic composition against thicker riffs, some of the stickiest choruses in metal, and a full symphonic backdrop that adds titanic swell and power behind it. Some have said the hooks take a little longer to fully click, but that's honestly because there's a much stronger band-focused progressive element on display: the drum progressions are more complex, there's a fair few more guitar and keyboard solos, there are plenty of electric-to-acoustic transitions that are well-executed, and the overall sonic blend is extremely well-executed in cultivating atmosphere, even if I do feel it's not as wild or untamed of a record as Dark Passion Play. There's two main changes that need to be noted, though, and neither work as well as they should, the first being the introduction of Troy Donockley. Now do not misinterpret this, I love the presence of his pipes whenever they show up on the album, they add a ton of melodic texture and a folk sound to Nightwish's symphonic metal sound that's decidedly unique. In fact, I'd argue he's underutilized - interviews suggested that there wouldn't be pipes on every song, but in this case I'd argue that's a net negative, because in terms of instrumental breadth and ideas, there's nowhere near the same experimentation as there was on the last two Nightwish albums. Sure, not all of those experiments worked, but considering this is a record exploring the vast forms in which life has spread across this planet, you'd think the instrumentation would have more variety, or at least have more of a wild edge. Instead, we get more heaviness, which leads to the much bigger problem I have with the instrumentation: a shift in focus towards groove over melody. One of the things I've loved about Nightwish's work is that Tuomas has always worked to have the melodies drive the songs, using the heaviness of the guitars to augment that. Here, there are songs where that balance is inverted - and this can work if the grooves have propulsive energy or the right vocal balance or enough supporting melody to drive momentum. And if I'm being painfully honest, we don't often get that - the closest of the heavier songs is the title track, but they've written better.

And this would be less of an issue if it wasn't for the production. Now of course we get the little issues I've always had with Nightwish production, mostly that the cymbals can be a little muddy at points, but the much bigger issue comes in the vocals. And I'm not blaming Floor Jansen for this: if you listen to the subtler moments in her delivery, she's working her ass off here to deliver an emotionally effective and driving performance - which is not easy with this subject matter, we'll get to that. The problem is that her vocals are mixed too low against the heavier grooves - if you increase the heaviness in the low end, you're going to drown out quieter elements in the midrange if you don't increase the volume or add more multitracking or operatic vocals, especially when you're dealing with Floor's delivery which contains nuance which can be drowned out. And that's not even touching on the male chorus and Marco's vocals, because I don't know what the hell happened, but it feels like his wilder lower range and howls feel gutted on this record, and the male backing vocals don't have that same bass presence to balance the riffs or build contrast with Floor's vocals. If we're looking for a Nightwish record to have growled or screamed vocals in a death or black metal variety, it'd be this one, and yet they don't really happen. Now there are moments where things come together instrumentally - the lead-off single 'Elan' with its multiple key changes, the heavier symphonic power of 'Shudder Before The Beautiful' that knows how to slow to a quiet moment, the creeping atmospherics of 'Our Decades In The Sun', the layered pipes on 'My Walden', the more aggressive pace of the title track and strong guitar-driven melody, or the very Century Child-inspired 'Edema Ruh'. And of course there is the final track 'The Greatest Show On Earth', a twenty-four minute epic celebrating evolution and life that probably could have been cut down by about six or seven minutes and it wouldn't have lost its impact.

On that note, let's talk about themes and lyrics. Now it's been stressed by the band that the themes surrounding life and evolution and science have been kept loose, and that's definitely true, and I will commend Nightwish for mostly avoiding the temptation to get preachy. I say 'mostly' because 'Weak Fantasy' is a pretty obvious broadside against religion, and not exactly a technically well-written one at that, and 'Yours Is An Empty Hope' falls into a similar position of being a slap against online haters, especially with the lyrics in the first verse. And while I can appreciate the venom and directness in which they're delivered, it's a decidedly weird fit. More of the themes and motifs of this album comes in the observing and being one with nature and the world around you, especially on 'My Walden' calling back to the novel by Henry David Thoreau and 'Alpenglow' - hell, even the inclusion of the instrumental track 'The Eyes Of Sharbat Gula' is thematically related to the glorification of the human spirit in the face of an uncaring universe. And while the album takes a long time to get there, I do like Richard Dawkins' final spoken word thesis on 'The Greatest Show On Earth', emphasizing how lucky we are that through the wonders of evolution and science we have a scant chance to have life in the comparison to the infinite potential. It's very reminiscent of the speech Dr. Manhattan gives on Mars in Watchmen surrounding the scarcity of life in this vast universe, and it's got impact. 

But here's my issue: most of this album is designed for contemplation of a larger world with a decent environmentalist streak - and thus the choice of the album to opt for much heavier and not as diverse instrumentation is odd, especially when it only emphasizes the savagery of animal spirits on the final track. What's all the more frustrating is that the majority of this record is watching and marvelling at the world, not actually doing things to savour that life in the same way. That's why 'Elan' and 'Edema Ruh' are easily my favourite tracks on this album - not only is the composition strong and the melodies well-balanced, but they feature the characters hunting for ways to savour and enjoy the life they are given in whatever small way they can. The problem with more philosophical albums in this vein is that if you can't create the vistas of jaw-dropping wonder or the emotional human element to draw them in or a strong populist common cause, you're left with material that can be intellectually engaging but distant. And maybe that's the big reason why this record just isn't resonating for me in the same way.

Look, when I first heard Imaginaerum back in 2011, I was honestly concerned Nightwish would not be able to top it - I mean, that album was an extended treatise on Tuomas' writing and creative process, incredibly self-aware and probably his magnum opus as a songwriter. After that kind of record, it's hard to follow it, and I appreciate that they tried. But between the issues in production, themes, and experimentation, it just feels a little underweight and distant to me. I'm reminded a lot of Century Child with this album in terms of its sound and position as a transitional record - and that'd normally be a good thing, it's my favourite Tarja-era Nightwish album, but there's no song as good as 'Ever Dream' or 'Bless The Child'. Now I can still recommend this - if you feel all of Tuomas' experimentation during the Anette-era was indulgent or pretentious and you just want a good, hard-hitting symphonic metal record, Endless Forms Most Beautiful will probably work for you. For me, though, it's a light 7/10 and a recommendation, but I can't deny I'm disappointed. Thankfully, though, the problems I did see are not insurmountable, and they do have all the pieces for another classic record - they're just not quite there yet.

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