Review Summary: DVMB. :II: STVPID.
It's always depressing watching a band that was so important to your initial musical education completely implode over time. Nightwish was among the very first symphonic metal groups I ever heard, and their excellent mixture of bombastic orchestrations and Wagner-ready opera singing with legit well-written power metal immediately hooked me in. Even when they switched out the opera vocals for a more accessible, legible singer (even if she was greatly lacking in personality to the previous frontwoman) I was into it, because the music retained enough of the pulse pounding, energetic, and, most importantly, fun nature of the band's past releases. Sure, it wasn't as interesting or focused as the earlier material was, but it still was an adequate enough listen for an album. Then another album came out and it was starting to dip even further into uninteresting territory than the one that came before it, but overall it was still okay for the most part, and had enough energy of the prior record to warrant a pass here and there. Then the band separated from what was pretty universally considered a weak link in the singer, Anette Olzon, replacing her with Floor Jansen, a frontwoman everyone thought of as the perfect fit for a band like Nightwish. Unfortunately, the first album with her singing was somehow even more of a bore than what came before it, blowing its load in the first four songs and never recovering from there. Now here we are, five years later, and Nightwish have reached the culmination of this steady, sad decline with HVMAN. :||: NATVRE. (I am not writing it like that the remainder of this review, and you cannot make me), a feature length, bloated bore of a record that lacks the majority of what made this band such a joy to listen to for so long. What went wrong?
Well, I can tell you exactly what went wrong. The primary issue here is that Tuomas Holopainen, professional sad boi and self-styled "composer", very clearly has zero interest in playing metal music anymore. It's more than apparent throughout much of Human Nature that Holopainen does not care to make metal music at this point in time, but Nightwish is known as a metal band, therefore he must begrudgingly add metal elements to this music to satisfy those that'd freak out if Nightwish had made a straight up orchestral Celtic folk record like he obviously wants to make more of, and it's almost as if the metal parts of this album are good in spite of the intentions of the writer. Just look at the choice of opening number, the plainly titled "Music". Every Nightwish record up to this one had a pounding, energetic opening song that sets the tone for the remaining music perfectly. Even on the clearly-less good albums post-Tarja, this rule was never broken, with the possible exception of Dark Passion Play if you don't think an album should start off with a 13 minute tribute to a man's childhood. With "Music", we have to wait a full 3 minutes before Floor shows up, with all the time before then being spent on orchestra noises, and then another 100 seconds before the remainder of the band gets to make themselves known. The idea is to fill the listener with anticipation through this supposedly epic build up, but all it does it make you impatient and want the song to get to the point already. Most of the rest of the album follows the frame of "Music", consisting mostly of basic orchestra chords and incessant buildup to nothing in particular, all while the rest of the band sits around twiddling their thumbs and wondering if this is really what they want to be doing with their lives. It gets old very, very fast, and serves to make disc 1's 50 minute runtime feel considerably longer than 50 minutes.
I kid you not when I say that there's approximately 20 minutes of worthwhile music on this record, and, big shock, the majority of the worthwhile bits and pieces come from the more metal-centric songs on disc 1. "Noise" is the closest thing to a "normal" Nightwish song on here, with none of the Celtic folk or glistening symphonic "wonder" that dominates most of the rest of the album. It's much more like something that would have been recorded for Dark Passion Play, being a perfectly acceptable metal festival fist pumper, even if the ridiculous "PHONES ARE BAD, GUYS!" lyrics induce as much cringe as a viewing of swap.avi (Ironic considering that whenever the next time Nightwish gets to play live, I guarantee you most of the audience will have their phones out recording them playing this song about how phones are a bad thing). "Pan" is the one song where the extended introductory buildup actually works, with a massive layered chorus and one of the best (and only) guitar riffs on the whole album. It's the best of Nightwish at play, with everyone getting to shine simultaneously while playing genuinely good music. Even Kai Hahto gets to shine individually at the very end of the song with some brief blast beats. "Tribal" is another standout, being the angriest and darkest song past "Noise", and guitarist Emppu Vuorinen FINALLY gets to take center stage and be noticed by his Papa Tuomas for once, breaking out beyond just chugging along to whatever the orchestra is doing. The death growled ape chanting is pretty goofy, though. "Endlessness" is the one time Marco Hietala gets to sing by himself on Human Nature, and it's a breath of fresh air to hear him as the focal point of a song instead of being buried beneath endless layers of omnipresent Disney choir. Even then he still sounds like he's being deliberately stifled and held back, which is the case for the majority of the record's performers beyond Holopainen. Floor Jansen is very firmly in the same territory that Stu Block almost immediately reached in Iced Earth: An extremely talented vocalist that is made to do a limited amount of things by her band's boss. If Holopainen would just let her go nuts and sing to her full potential, that would at least make these modern Nightwish albums quite a bit less of a chore to sit through.
In fact, the one member of the band beyond Holopainen that does get used to his full potential is auxiliary musician Troy Donockley, who, when he appears, showcases his prowess with the Uilleann pipes and other folk instruments of the sort to wondrous effect. His lead lines on "How's the Heart?" and "Procession" are genuinely well done and fun to listen to, even if the latter makes me want to go blow out my voice doing karaoke to the Titanic theme song. He even gets to sing lead on "Harvest" ("Into the orchard I walk peering way past the gate..."), and although his singing voice is nothing spectacular, it's totally fine. You can just about skip the first half of "Harvest", with all its Lion King-wannabe Africa-as-viewed-by-white-people hoohah, and go straight to the extended instrumental section, where Troy and Emppu lead in unison and provide a little bit of light to this otherwise turgid mess of a record. That's to say nothing of the miserable second disc, a 31 minute long, fully orchestral piece that has literally nothing to grab onto the entire time. It's basically Holopainen's Scrooge McDuck album all over again, only even more of an uninteresting waste of time than that one was, consisting almost entirely of gossamer thin strings and twinkly pianos, occasionally broken up by rising orchestral swells that seem to have come right out of Alan Menken's discarded notes. It even ends with a voice over reciting Carl Sagan's famous "Pale Blue Dot" passage, as if this somehow became the musical equivalent to Ferngully all of a sudden and now we're gonna have cartoon bats sing to us about how we need to protect the planet from whatever bad stuff might threaten it, as if we didn't already know that. Tuomas really needs to just drop the pretense of Nightwish still being a metal band and convert the group into a solo endeavor to write film scores, or just let the rest of the band write music alongside him and keep all this Aladdin music to his actual solo project.
The most similar case I can think of to modern Nightwish in terms of a once excellent band that clearly has lost their way is fellow symphonic metal pioneer Dimmu Borgir, who, much like Nightwish, were actually really good once upon a time, helped create an entirely new fusion style of metal, and slowly degraded over time, eventually descending into self-parody with the few good bits of music to be found occurring seemingly on accident. They too have desperately tried to stop being the one thing that they're able to be, to the great detriment of the overall product, and listeners who once anticipated greatness with each new release now anticipate disappointment. Human Nature truly is a disappointing release, but not in the immediate sense of a band releasing a bad album. It's disappointing in the sense that Nightwish were once a thrilling, wonderful band to listen to, and steadily over the last decade-plus have chipped away at the elements that made them such a great band in the first place, replacing them with infinitely less interesting songwriting and musical accouterments, and pushing what metal that does remain in them down into the dirt, surfacing periodically to remind you that there are better albums by this band from 20 years ago that you can go listen to, right now. Human Nature has some stuff that does work, but it works in spite of what was intended by Holopainen, and merely proves that this band should either seriously consider changing up their writing process, or straight up not be called Nightwish anymore. I have no faith that either of those things will happen.
P.S. Amongst the other nonsensical lyrics in "Procession", there's a line about how "We remember, as along came acorn", which I'm going to believe from now on means that the song is about squirrels doing squirrel things. That's my story, and I'm sticking with it.