Nightwish are perhaps the most famous symphonic metal band in the world. Formed in 1996 in Finland by lead songwriter and keyboard player Tuomas Holopainen, the band helped to pioneer the genre and went on to conquer it with seven studio albums, three different vocalists and four live DVDs. They have sold millions of records, inspired numerous other acts and even made a feature film. Almost 20 years later, they’re still going strong, with this new album and even a headline show at Wembley Arena on the way. It’s time to take a trip down the aeon path with Nightwish…
- Floor Jansen - lead vocals
- Marco Hietala - bass guitar, lead vocals, acoustic guitars, backing vocals
- Emppu Vuorinen - guitars
- Tuomas Holopainen – keyboards, piano
- Troy Donockley – uilleann pipes, low whistle, bodhran, bouzouki, lead vocals, backing vocals
- Kai Hahto – drums (filling in for Jukka Nevalainen)
- Featuring Professor Richard Dawkins – Spoken word on Shudder Before The Beautiful and The Greatest Show On Earth
- Shudder Before The Beautiful
- Weak Fantasy
- Yours Is An Empty Hope
- Our Decades In The Sun
- My Walden
- Endless Forms Most Beautiful
- Edema Ruh
- The Eyes of Sharbat Gula
- The Greatest Show on Earth
Endless Forms Most Beautiful is the eighth studio album by the band, and is the first to feature Floor Jansen (ReVamp, ex-After Forever) on lead vocals.
Shudder Before The Beautiful begins with a few words from Richard Dawkins before kicking off into a storming opener reminiscent of Dark Chest of Wonders. This song is like a musical summary of the band’s history, combining the orchestral grandeur of Once and the Anette era with the duelling power metal style guitars and keyboards of Oceanborn. It’s a strong start to the album, doing a stellar job of setting up the lyrical themes. Though it may suffer a little from overplaying, since almost everyone got the free download of the song a few weeks before the album release.
Weak Fantasy keeps up the pace, a heavy and angry look at extremist religion. The choir and orchestra are a big presence here again, but they never overshadow the band. There is a trend here that continues throughout the whole album, with Floor’s vocals used dynamically: starting off soft, and getting more powerful. We hear Marco properly for the first time in this song, though he’s quite quiet. The whole album is noticeably quieter compared to previous efforts, and the vocals can be hard to make out – those with good speakers/headphones that can be turned up very loud will be fine, but anything less than that and you may find your experience of the album disappointing. Volume issues aside, Weak Fantasy is a great track and surely one of the best heavy Nightwish songs.
After a song so intense, Élan sticks out like a sore thumb. Before it was chosen for lead single, it was originally slated to go further down the tracklist (after Alpenglow), which would probably have been a better fit. It’s a soft, sweet, positive song with folk elements and shades of the gentle songs from Tuomas’s solo effort The Life and Times of Scrooge. It doesn’t really compare to previous Nightwish singles – though others have suggested it’s a little like Amaranth or Nemo, it doesn’t come close to the heights or catchiness of those two songs. It gathers more momentum towards the end, but it comes across as something that can’t decide if it’s a ballad or an upbeat single.
But if Élan doesn’t do it for you, we’re thrown smack bang back into the heavy stuff with Yours Is An Empty Hope. Aimed at internet detractors of the band, this song calls Master Passion Greed to mind with a film score-esque opening leading into a very similar riff to those used in other angry songs by the band like Romanticide and Dead Gardens. The verses are excellent with melodic but powerful singing by Floor, leading into the chorus where Marco drones “Yours is aaan empty hope!” (a line from epic poem Paradise Lost). If you listen carefully, you can hear Floor’s harsh vocals underneath his. This song also marks the return of the children’s choir – used to a more subtle and creepy effect than on the previous album. A truly kick-ass number with a strong ending.
Then things cool off again with Our Decades In The Sun, a beautiful tribute to the band’s parents. This can be a bit of a tearjerker, with its’ touching lyrics and heartfelt performance from Floor. When the guitar kicks in, it’s pure perfection – proof that Emppu’s talents can be used simply and to great effect. Just when you think the song is about to end, it carries on, getting a bit jazzy in places and adding an unexpected layer to an already wonderful song.
My Walden is next. The first half of this song is a lot of fun: it begins with new official member Troy Donockley singing in Welsh, before jumping into a joyous guitar riff that will surely have fans dancing if they bring it out live. The guitar and uilleann pipes sound wonderful together, bringing back memories of I Want My Tears Back and Last Of The Wilds. The lyrics sing the praises of living as one with nature (the title refers to the book Walden, about a man who does just that) though they may prove difficult to decipher the meaning of if your name isn’t Tuomas Holopainen. Towards the end of the song it fades out, only to turn into a slightly darker sounding folk medley, with clear inspirations from English folk music. It sounds great, but it rather loses the happy, upbeat feel of the first half.
Then we have second single Endless Forms Most Beautiful. In some ways it seems good for a single, with the familiar verse-bridge-chorus structure, but on the other hand it’s a song that takes a lot of listens to grow on you. At first it comes across as a little dull, sort of by-the-numbers Nightwish with a stuttery opening. It doesn’t really cover any new territory, as it has much the same lyrical theme as other songs on the album: evolution, appreciating the grandeur of life (though it could be seen to be summarising these things into a more accessible package). But after a lot of listens, you might find yourself humming the chorus and singing along, and the bombastic interlude towards the end rather makes the whole thing worth it – it could be a sleeper hit.
Edema Ruh is Tuomas’s tribute to the wandering tribe of musicians of the same name in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle books. The content might go over the heads of those who aren’t fans of the books, but it’s still sweet and enjoyable. The ethereal opening with soft drums is a little like Sleepwalker, and the lyrics are beautiful. It was originally slated for lead single, but is quite understated for that (then again, so is Élan). Once again the soulful guitar from Emppu is used very well. The final bridge is a little cheesy with Troy singing in a jaunty way, but it does at least add to the travelling entertainer vibe of the song.
Next is Alpenglow (named for the red glow of sunlight on the Alps, though it does sound a bit like a cereal). It’s a very Nightwish track, and it sets up the lyrics about the history of humanity that continue in The Greatest Show On Earth. There’s a catchy chorus and a rare guitar solo from Emppu, plus it has an unexpected, Scaretale-like bridge that adds to the fun, though it might seem out of place to some listeners. Like many of the other tracks on the album, it gets better as it goes along, and features what has to be the greatest key change in symphonic metal history. We’ll be hoping to see this one live.
The Eyes of Sharbat Gula falls flat by comparison. The title references the famous Afghan girl with the striking eyes who featured on the cover of National Geographic, and the song itself was intended to be a sad, moving tribute to the children of war, inspired by the photograph. The decision to make it an instrumental (Tuomas was struggling to find the right lyrics) was perhaps not the right one – it ends up being six minutes of melancholy without really conveying the message it was supposed to. It does, however, provide an interlude before the album’s colossus…
The Greatest Show on Earth. Where do we start with a song about the entire history of the planet, all (roughly) 4.6 billion years of it? It could almost do with a whole review of its own. At 25 minutes, it’s the longest Nightwish song ever. The first section, titled 4.6, starts with a simple piano (keyboard) motif that reoccurs throughout the song, before the Big Bang kicks in. After some more earth-shattering collisions and more piano, Floor finally brings out her “operatic” vocals. And it’s wonderful. The sound is hauntingly beautiful, and really makes you wish the band had used this aspect of her voice at least a little more elsewhere.
A spoken intro by Richard Dawkins kicks off the next section, Life. Almost like a whole song in itself, it’s a truly grand experience with a singalong chorus (provided you can pronounce things like “scions of the Devonian sea”). Floor’s vocals sound truly strong again for the first time since track 4, and it’s like this song is really making use of her voice in a way that a lot of the others don’t seem to quite manage. There are echoes of something like Symphony X here, particularly their long track The Odyssey. This section is nothing short of epic, and you wonder how they can possibly top it (spoiler: they can). It fades into some unnerving animal noises that really make you feel like you’re being hunted through a vast forest…
And then a galloping riff brings us into The Toolmaker, the section that deals with human life on Earth. Marco and Floor are both giving it their all here, describing the history and inevitable fate of mankind. All the lyrics in this song are brilliant, but the chorus here is one of the stand-out parts. This section is more metal, but it gives way to sorrow, with both singing “WE WERE HERE!” at the tops of their lungs, a profound and heart-breaking statement on humanity’s desire to be remembered, to matter. It’s intensely powerful.
The Understanding is the penultimate part of the song. After the tremendous and epic journey we’ve just been on, Richard Dawkins reads his speech over a gentle piano theme. It’s hard to describe just how empowering and important these words are – even those who dislike the man himself should be able to appreciate Nightwish’s choice of his words here. It might bring tears to your eyes or send shivers down your spine. This is about something much bigger than music. The orchestra swells, and it’s like the end credits music for an incredible film.
The final section, Sea-Worn Driftwood, is soft, quiet, the musical equivalent of watching a sunset over the sea. The final words from Dawkins are the quote from Charles Darwin that the album is based on. “Endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” We return to the sea, the birthplace of life and (metaphorically) of Nightwish. The haunting song of a whale and other sounds of the wild play us out, before the curtain is finally drawn on one of the most ambitious songs ever recorded. Whatever points the album may have lost earlier on, this song alone is pretty much worth the price of the whole record.
To finally summarise, Endless Forms Most Beautiful is not quite perfect, although it does come close at times. But it’s a deep, complex grower, and if you give it time to reveal all its secrets, you will reap the rewards. An ambitious and powerful effort from our favourite Finns – this might just change the way you look at the world.
Highlights: The Greatest Show on Earth, Weak Fantasy, Alpenglow, Yours Is An Empty Hope, Our Decades In The Sun
Author: Sophie Cleverly-EdwardsRead the full story