Monday, 4 May 2015

Nightwish's 'Endless Forms Most Beautiful' - Album Review

When it comes to symphonic metal, no band has been as influential or as successful as Nightwish. Since being formed in 1996 by keyboardist and songwriter Tuomas Holopainen, Nightwish have been a true force to be reckoned with, constantly evolving and improving their sound with each album. From the low-key folk metal of their 1997 debut album Angels Fall First; through the full-on power metal of following albums Oceanborn and Wishmaster; the Nightwish we recognise today arguably 'began' in 2002 with fourth album Century Child. While the symphonic elements of the band's sound had always been present, on Century Child they were emphasised further, leaving behind some of the power/speed metal trappings of the past. This was further developed on 2004's Once which was the band's first album to make use of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. After the spectacular firing of original singer Tarja Turunen at the conclusion of the following tour, Nightwish went quiet for a while, until the release of Dark Passion Play in 2007 with new singer Anette Olzon. Her rockier voice was different to Turunen's quasi-operatic delivery, something which made Dark Passion Play stand out from previous Nightwish albums. Dark Passion Play is probably still my favourite Nightwish album, and this is partly down to Olzon's honest delivery and Holopainen's angrier, heavier songs. Olzon shined once more on 2011's Imaginaerum which is probably the band's 'greatest' album. The orchestral elements of the band's sound now take real preference and dominate the sound. It is still probably the band's most ambitious work, with an accompanying feature film, and a diverse range of sounds. However, Olzon left/was fired (delete as appropriate) mid-tour and Floor Jansen (After Forever; ReVamp) was brought in to finish the dates. The band liked her so much that she was made a full-time member in 2013 which makes Endless Forms Most Beautiful the first album to feature her vocals. Long-time sessions player Troy Donockley (Iona) has also been made a permanent member of the band, although he already contributed his magic to both Olzon-era albums. His role has been greatly expanded here, and he has added vocals and bouzouki to his arsenal. While possibly not as initially impressed as Imaginaerum, Endless Forms Most Beautiful is another fantastic album from the band. Once again, the orchestrations are stunning and come to dominate the end of the album in a way they had not done previously. It should also be pointed out here that original drummer Jukka Nevalainen decided to take some time off from the band to recover from his insomnia, so the drums on this album (and on the ongoing tour) are handled by Kai Hahto (Rotting Sound; Swallow the Sun; Wintersun).

After opening with a spoken word section from biologist Richard Dawkins, the album's first song Shudder Before the Beautiful gets underway with a dramatic string-led riff that brings back memories of the overall style of Dark Passion Play. Jansen's delicate vocals also evoke that album here, and she eases into this album with her trademark class and control. This song is classic Nightwish, with crunchy guitars from Emppu Vuorinen and a really melodic chorus that sees a large choir employed to back Jansen up. The song's middle sees a great instrumental duel between Vuorinen and Holopainen, as the two swap solos with ease which harks back the band's power metal roots. While this song breaks no new ground for the band, it does well to introduce Jansen officially to the Nightwish fans and contains enough melodies to make the song instantly memorable. Weak Fantasy is heavier and is the first time bassist Marco Hietala is heard vocally on the album. His vocal contributions are always excellent, so it is disappointing that he is used less throughout this album. However, his songwriting contributions have increased significantly here, which maybe adds to the overall 'metal-ness' of the album. The verses here are a little more laid-back with Donockley's bouzouki taking the lead, but the song's intro and chorus are seriously powerful with heavy guitars and gothic orchestrations. It does well to merge the metal and folk elements of the band's sound together too, and shows what a great asset Donockley is to the band. Lead single Élan is a much gentler song. Again, Donockley weaves his magic with his whistles and Jansen uses simple vocal melodies that actually evokes Olzon's style in places. It is a catchy, folky song that shows the band doing something a little different. Yours is an Empty Hope gets back to the metal of the opening two numbers and features a really groovy riff from Vuorinen that is in his recognisable style. Despite the fact the song sounds a little like Dark Chest of Wonders in places, this is still a powerful song that has a furious energy. Jansen's slightly gritty verse vocals fit well with the riffing, and Hietala's howls during the slower chorus are equally fitting. The instrumental section about two thirds of the way through shows of Holopainen's skills as a composer, as the song builds up towards another riff and some seriously heavy vocals from Jansen - which shows how diverse she is. Our Decades in the Sun is a beautiful ballad with hints of bluesy lead guitar and mournful piano that cuts through the delicate strings to add some excellent atmosphere. This song is a grower, and only shows all it's beauty on repeated listens. The swirling instrumentals towards the end are perfect, and just show what the band can do when not relying on huge metal arrangements. My Walden opens with some vocals from Donockley, and soon opens out into another folk rock number like Élan. Uilleann Pipes and guitars mix well throughout, and the jaunty chorus will put a smile on your face. Donockley is all over this track, from his gentle backing vocals to extended pipe sections. He brings a lot to the band, and it is great to see him being used so liberally.

The album's title track gets back to the metal and reminds me of the simpler moments of Imaginaerum due to Jansen's playful vocal melodies. I really like Vuorinen's riff in the verses that has a real groove to it that sits well with the vocal melodies. The chorus has some really strong melodies that make this song one of the early stand-outs on the album. Towards the end, there is section that sounds like Pantera-meets-Therion with a really grinding riff and heavy orchestrals. This is a powerful, yet accessible song that is sure to stay in the band's live sets for years to come. Edema Ruh is another gentler song, that features lots of sparkly keyboard patterns and lots of melodic guitar lines. It is great to see Vuorinen given more chance to breathe on this album. Recently he has basically just been restricted to crunchy riffs, but on this album his playing is much more diverse and interesting. He even gets to solo here too, which is something that is rarely used by the band. The next song Alpenglow really screams single, and I am surprised the band have not made a video for it yet! The song's chorus is huge, and the almost clichéd orchestral opening is similar to songs found on Century Child. In fact, the whole song has a bit of that vibe with it's accessibility and stark melodies. Vuorinen and Donockley trade off instrumental sections well part-way through, with the heavy guitars mixing well with the delicate whistles to create something very dynamic. As I said before, the song's chorus is the best part of the song, and Jansen uses all of her power to make it so. The instrumental The Eyes of Sharbat Gula is the only song on the album that I do not really get. Maybe it is the fact that lots of the next song is also instrumental, but to me this song just drags a little. There are some good sections though, that feature some nice wordless vocals from Donockley, and Holopainen's piano throughout is really atmospheric. Perhaps if this song were to come earlier in the running order I might appreciate it more, but sat where it is it just seems to break up the flow of the album. The album's final song The Greatest Show on Earth is easily the most ambitious piece the band have done to date. At over 24 minutes in length, the song is a lot to take in. As I mentioned before, large portions of this song are instrumental. There is a band section in the middle, but it is bookended by two sections of orchestrations and (sometimes) narration - again from Dawkins. The song slowly builds; through piano, strings, and wordless vocals; to another great slab of metal that is surprisingly simple compared to the epic, extended introduction. The chorus is full of power however, and sees Jansen and Hietala mix their voices together well. A heavier section follows that is dominated by Hietala, and is the final full-band section on the album. The final, instrumental section as a kind of coda to the album as Dawkins' readings close out the album with surprising power. Overall, Endless Forms Most Beautiful is another fantastic album from Nightwish, who have survived another singer change with ease. Chock-full of memorable songs, and daring progressive instrumentation - this is a triumph.

The album was released on 30th March 2015 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Élan.

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