Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Hair Band Generica: Endless Forms Most Beautiful Is Still Orchestrally Interesting!

The Good: Music, Some decent lyrics
The Bad: Collaborative vocals are far less distinct than on earlier works
The Basics: The latest album by Nightwish, Endless Forms Most Beautiful is one of their stronger albums, but I found myself enjoying the music-only disc more than the statements they made on the primary disc!

It is a rare and pleasant thing for me when I choose an Artist Of The Month and during the month I am focused on them, they come out with a new album! March, however, is just one of those rare occurrences and this week sees the release of the eighth studio album by my Artist Of The Month, Nightwish. The album is Endless Forms Most Beautiful and it is instantly intriguing to me as one who has been studying the music of Nightwish for the month in that it is a significant vocal departure from where the band was for the bulk of their career. Instead of having a strong and distinctive overall sound, Endless Forms Most Beautiful is notable for being one of their best-composed albums with vocals that are hardly as distinct as on many of their past works.

Found on both a single-disc and deluxe two-disc presentation, I found the two-disc version was worth the investment for one simple reason: the music is better than the vocals. Floor Jansen, who leads the vocals on Endless Forms Most Beautiful might have a wonderful voice with a lot of range, but it is not evident on this album. The result is a symphonic rock album that is more notable as a modern "classical" album than a rock album with lyrics and vocals that are making an actual statement.

With eleven songs clocking out at 78:36 (twice that for the two-disc version, which duplicates the album with an instrumental-only disc), Endless Forms Most Beautiful is very much the work of Nightwish, even if the band has evolved from its original incarnation. All of the songs are written and composed by bandmembers Tuomas Holopainen and (when not writing on his own . . .) Marco Hietala. The band plays its own instruments and provides all of the lead vocals - though writer Richard Dawkins contributes some narration late on the album. The album is produced by Holopainen, so this is very much the creative vision of Nightwish as it is now.

Instrumentally, what that means is a lot of thrashing guitars, bass, and powerful percussion. Songs like "Shudder Before The Beautiful" are cacophanic and exactly as noisy as one might expect from the genre "symphonic metal." When the album is not being loud and chaotic, it is surprisingly melodic. The classic sound underlying Holopainen's compositions is evident when he actually gives the keyboards and strings something to do other than being pounded on. On "The Greatest Show On Earth - V. Sea-Worn Driftwood" there are hints of "Thus Spake Zarathustra" or Mussorgsky's "Great Gates Of Kiev." Perhaps that is why I enjoyed the second disc more than the first.

Vocally, Endless Forms Most Beautiful seems like much more of a collaborative work than other Nightwish albums. Backing vocals are more frequent and forceful on Endless Forms Most Beautiful; Floor Jansen seldom sounds like she is out singing on her own on much of the album. To Jansen's credit, though, her singing is very clear so when her (and the accompanying vocalists') vocals can be heard, they can be heard very clearly.

Much of Endless Forms Most Beautiful is a concept album by the lyrics. Much of the album is about evolution, genetics and the strength of eros (the drive for life). While some of that is disturbingly overt - like monologue that includes "We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of those stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?" ("The Greatest Show On Earth - IV. The Understanding") - much of the album is more subtle in its exploration of the wonders of life.

That is not to say Endless Forms Most Beautiful is entirely a departure from the fantasy music songs Nightwish built its fanbase on. With lines like "I will taste the manna in every tree / Liquid honey and wine from the distant hills / An early morning greenwood concerto / Greets my Walden with its eternal voice" ("My Walden") there is still a sense of magic and movement to a few of the songs. Floor Jansen's vocals do a decent job of reminding listeners of the potentially enchanting nature of Nightwish.

As well, Nightwish succeeds because of the band's use of imagery in its lyrics. It is easy to get a strong mental image when Jansen sings "The meadows of heaven await harvest / The cliffs unjumped, cold waters untouched / The elsewhere creatures yet unseen / Finally your number came up, free fall awaits the brave / Come / Taste the wine / Race the blind . . . Come / Surf the clouds / Race the dark . . ." ("Elan").

Ultimately, Endless Forms Most Beautiful does a decent job of keeping Nightwish relevant and interesting, but it is not as distinct or powerful an album as it could have been.

For more Nightwish albums, please check out my reviews of:
Angels Fall First
Century Child
Highest Hopes: The Best Of Nightwish


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for a comprehensive, organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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