Review Summary: More focused and ambitious than their previous releases, Endless Forms almost breaks the familiar walls of mediocrity Nightwish have been trapped in. Almost.
Nightwish have certainly gone through some adjustments during their almost twenty year-long career. They shifted away from their acoustic folk origins to synthesizer-driven power metal on albums like Wishmaster
, before eventually adding a full orchestra and settling into their own dark, cinematic brand of symphonic metal. Singers changed, fans were split, but Nightwish endured and still remain paragons of the surprisingly crowded genre. However, outside of this narrow fanbase, Nightwish have always broken little ground. They remain beset on all sides by self-imposed barriers that stunt their growth as a band and stifle their ambition. It is apparent they have built an appetite for grand concept works but lack the execution to fully realize them, as seen on 2011’s Imaginaerum
. That being said, there are moments when the planets align -- brief flashes of brilliance, like the heroic lead into the finale on Once
’s Ghost Love Score or the remarkable use of the orchestra for effect on Dark Passion Play
’s Poet And The Pendulum. However, more often than not, they tend to resort to tired formulas, exhibit a disappointing penchant for unremarkable instrumental performances and rely on one-dimensional songwriting as a crutch.
So, with the promising recent lineup changes, an 80 minute runtime, and a mammoth 24 minute closing track, the question stands: Is Endless Forms, Most Beautiful
a game changer? The answer is a resounding and disappointing ‘no.’ Still, the album is a small step in the right direction.
Taking care to avoid the minefield that is comparing the band’s new vocalist to their previous ones (there has certainly been enough digital ink spilled on that topic), it is safe to say that Floor Jansen’s performance on Endless Forms
is one of the stronger elements to the album. From a technicality standpoint, she clearly demonstrates that she is more than proficient; with soaring highs, explosive belts, and seemingly effortless control between different stylings. Her soft, melodic delivery on Our Decades In The Sun is equally as effective as her dark and imperious intensity in Yours Is An Empty Hope and Weak Fantasy. Her sinister side in the second movement of The Greatest Show On Earth is a great example of how she adds some extra ‘oomph’ to this album’s overall heavier vibe. While there are instances where her lines sound rushed or bereft of proper inflection during the verses, her performance overall is well-rounded and compliments the band nicely. Still, it stands to question, why keeps things on the conservative side? Anyone who has heard Jansen’s more impressive moments in other musical acts, or even live ones from her touring with this group, will get the impression that she’s a bit of a caged bird here.
As with any Nightwish record, Tuomas’ keyboard parts are prevalent throughout -- dancing in tandem with the orchestra, while the guitar and bass create the metal half of Nightwish’ signature bipartite sound. But, much like in the vocals, there are few, if any, standout performances. With the exception of the power-metal throwbacks in the opening track’s bridge, solos are kept brief and contained. To further this theme, the rhythm section is utterly agoraphobic. The bass keeps its head down and refuses to step out from behind the curtain; swallowed by the surrounding guitar riffs, left-hand keyboard parts, and the orchestra’s booming low end. Unfortunately, this also brings us to the drums on this record. Now, the drumming in Nightwish’s records has never been particularly awe-inspiring by any means. However, due to Jukka Nevalainen’s health issues, Kai Hahto was brought in within weeks of the album’s recording to take over. Fans of Hahto who are looking for anything rivaling the speed he displayed in Wintersun or his power and intensity in Swallow The Sun will be sorely disappointed. Hahto relegates himself to Nevalainen’s parts and continues the band’s long legacy of bland and uninspired drum performances. While it is certainly true that there is merit in restraint, a band that plays metal, (or at least a subgenre of it), should seek to engage their listeners on some level with each and every instrument in their arsenal.
Perhaps the most unfulfilling aspect of Endless Forms
is when Nightwish plays it safe and treads familiar waters. Tracks such as Elan and Alpenglow feel thin from a songwriting perspective. Their lack of depth or character gives off the impression that Toumas simply microwaved up some hooks he wrote on his keyboard, served them into binary verse-chorus pairings, and repeated them with different instruments, ad nauseum, until a ‘song’ was created. On top of that, some of the post-production effects are inexcusably amateur in execution, such as the tacky decrescendo at the end of Weak Fantasy's bridge that distracts from the otherwise enjoyable piece.
That’s not to say there aren’t some decent -- or even solid, tracks on this record. The album’s opener is certainly multifaceted enough to keep listeners on their toes, and My Walden’s playful melodies and folk ending make it a fun ride. The uplifting Edema Ruh still fits the AABA structure, but its soaring chorus and well-crafted bridge section make it a memorable song in its own right. The Eyes of Sharbat Gula is perhaps Nightwish’s most well-composed instrumental in years. While originally written to have vocals, it speaks volumes on its own. Somber and contemplative in tone, it manages to be richly evocative and subtle at the same time. It’s a promising development for the band in terms of compositional growth, and the atmosphere it sets is a palate cleanser for the monster of a track that follows.
Clocking in at 24 minutes, The Greatest Show On Earth is the band’s longest track to date. While Nightwish did not go about crafting this ludicrously long piece with the same eccentric or diverse approach that, say, Dream Theater would take, the performance is commendable. As expected, it is broken into different movements -- ranging from atmospheric, to melodic, to heavy, to… dinosaurs, before bursting into a triumphant explosion of horns and strings. It finally closes with a heart-wrenching piano part, a quote each from Richard Dawkins/Charles Darwin, ocean sounds, and then… whales. The sound effects and samples do come off as a bit forced, and effusively waxing lyrical on the wonder of life and the primordial forces that spawned it on our planet might be a little much. But in comparison to the band’s previous subject matter that typically panders to your local dungeon master, it may even come off as refreshingly mature to some. Warts and all, it contains some admittedly stunning sequences, and the track captures the album’s theme of natural selection/finding spirituality in science quite well. It also reveals that the band can flourish when given the time to build atmosphere and mood. It is only then they seem to fully realize their orchestral accompaniment, rather than reducing it to the novelty found on other segments of the album.
In essence, the hit-or-miss quality of Endless Forms
captures the embedded frustration that comes with a band like Nightwish. With stylistic posturing that ranges from ballads, to straight-ahead rock, folk sections, metal, and cinematic pieces with orchestral parts, it is clear they are a very versatile group. At the same time, though, they also seem incapable of leaning in one particular direction hard or far enough to make much of a statement. The hooks on their radio-friendly tracks like Elan aren’t quite infectious enough to merit their lack of depth. The riffs in their heavier sections are more prominent this time around but still adequate at best. And lastly, their speed and virtuosity is still not going dazzle those in the power or prog metal camps. Of course, it’s entirely possible Nightwish doesn’t want any of that. They may be perfectly content with sitting on their throne, rife with wasted potential and missed opportunities. It is cruel, and perhaps, unfair to dwell too long on that line of speculation. But frankly, one would be hard-pressed to find someone whose mind about the group has been changed by this record.
Instead, the bittersweet truth is that Endless Forms, Most Beautiful
lives up to its theme with an uncanny accuracy: It marks slow -- almost glacial, headway for the band. Let’s just hope their sound’s evolutionary progress takes place over a shorter period of time than the album’s subject matter does.
Endless Forms, Most Beautiful
gets 3 Deoxyribonucleic Acids out of 5.