Friday, April 17, 2015

Endless Forms Most Beautiful | Nightwish

It's finally here. Nightwish has released their very first studio album with Dutch legend Floor Jansen, Endless Forms Most Beautiful. Nightwish has had quite a variety of singers over the years, but fans have been especially excited for Jansen considering how versatile her voice is and how well she performed with them during their last round of touring when filling in for Anette Olzon. This is also the band's first album to feature Troy Donockley on pipes (or whatever exactly that instrument is) and backing vocals and Kai Hahto on drums. Expectations are high: Endless Forms Most Beautiful must be unique, heavy, and bombastic -  Tuomas Holopainen's genius must highlight the skills of new members and create something utterly ambitious.

Like with some of their older albums, I needed to listen to each song a few times before I truly can appreciate it, which is actually something both Jansen and bass guitarist/vocalist Marco Hietala suggested for this album specifically since the tracks are so thick, but there were certainly moments that stuck out right away. This album is just as heavy and beautiful as I expected... But Endless Forms Most Beautiful actually surpassed my high expectations in a few ways... Each song is so full of life, but the final track alone is enough to leave any listener utterly astounded.
"Shudder Before the Beautiful" kicks the album off with a softspoken narration by scientist Richard Dawkins for about seven seconds before all those expectations get thrown in listeners' ears all at once. The orchestration is thick and ambitious, and it's reminiscent of songs like "Dark Chest of Wonders," "The Poet and the Pendulum," and even a little bit of "Stargazers." The chorus is both deep and lighthearted as Floor Jansen essentially sings about the Romantic-era concept of the sublime - specifically the night sky and the universe in general, and how we are all humbled by the sight. The middle eight is filled with an epic choir and heavy riffs, and by the time the end has been reached, I felt rather refreshed as Floor and the band resolve and the orchestra sways. Nightwish makes some killer opening tracks, and "Shudder Before the Beautiful" is certainly one of them.

Even though we're only two tracks in, "Weak Fantasy" makes its mark as one of the heaviest songs. Once the strings and choir really get going, the overall sound is eerie. The verses and the beginning of the middle eight are different from other Nightwish material with its twangy acoustic guitar line, but once the full instrumentation comes in during the middle eight we're exposed to an incredibly catchy string line, and the chorus is a punch of adrenaline. I love this one.

Oppositely, the band shows their softer side with "√Član," which prominently features Donockley on his pipes to give it the folky feel Nightwish has always presented so well off and on throughout their discography. Jansen sings very softly in the verses, and as Jansen fans know, that's unusual for her, but she sounds great and her voice grows along with the song. The middle eight really helps the song escalate before the key change.

Along with "Weak Fantasy," "Yours in an Empty Hope" stands out as one of the heaviest tracks from the album. With guitar riffs that recall "Wish I Had An Angel" and dark atmosphere, both Jansen and Marco Hietala have room to show off. It will definitely please all the Floor fans dying to see how her versatility will be taken advantage of: Her vocals in the verses are rougher, and while Marco sings the melody in the chorus, she growls. One of the best parts is the middle eight, where Floor vocally just lets it all hang out - I'm not sure if it qualifies as a scream or a growl, but it's certainly a yell and its staccato rhythm will be a huge crowd pleaser when performed live.

The fifth song, "Our Decades in the Sun," is the only ballad on Endless Forms Most Beautiful. It took the longest song to grow on me, but ultimately I just love the vocal line and the way Floor handles it. As the song continues she generally gets louder and louder, and it's a song that takes its time. Something about it vaguely reminds me of "Meadows of Heaven."

"My Walden" displays Nightwish's fun folky side, kind of like with "I Want My Tears Back." Troy Donockley kicks off the song with his layered vocals quite nicely, and once again, Floor's vocals are really soft in the verses. I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about it at first, but anyone with a soft side for Nightwish's folk songs will be won over after that second chorus; it's like a hobbit explosion of happiness. The title track is also quite the jam session: Like "My Walden," it has more of a carefree feel. It demonstrates a love of life, a prominent theme on this album. And as much as I love the whole thing for its heavy riffs... Let's address the middle eight. The strings start with melody, then the band plays it back, and the they merge, building and building afterwards. Gradually, an epic choir part kicks in... It's awesome altogether.

Even though it isn't a bad song and I like the instrumentation a lot, "Edema Ruh" is my least favorite on the album. The vocal line is a bit corny to me. At first I got a similar mediocre vibe "Alpenglow," but I just had to listen to it a few times before it could grow on me. I like it much better now though it doesn't stand out as much as others; it reminds me quite a bit of Dark Passion Play, and I love that album to death. Both have a pretty instrumentation, with "Edema Ruh" adding delicate synth and "Alpenglow" being the more energetic of the two.

Nearing the end, "The Eyes of Sharbat Gula" is the tenth track and the only instrumental piece on Endless Forms Most Beautiful. Tuomas Holopainen has said it was written about the girl on a1980s National Geographic cover and war in general, and the darkness of the song certainly seems to capture the essence of the subject. It's subtle, like something one would hear in a film score, but it definitely builds and has some of Nightwish's folk influences incorporated. Donockley has backing vocals and the song also features a children's choir, and they make the song more haunting. This song stood out to me right away.

At last, we encounter "The Greatest Show on Earth," a piece that clocks in at about twenty-four minutes long... Bear with me as I try to explain my thoughts coherently, but this is the best Nightwish song ever created - and without a doubt one of the best songs of the current age - no questions asked. It's about evolution and goes through its stages, and overall, it matches up that concept of the sublime as Nightwish described in "Shudder Before the Beautiful" but they truly accomplish it with this song. It's either extremely loud or extremely soft... It's so beautiful it's almost terrifying.

The first part of this monstrous track, "Four Point Six," is led by a resonating piano part interrupted occasionally by orchestral explosions (listen to the song and you'll know what I mean... it's loud and it's wonderful) that help this section build itself up a bit, and because of the tricky rhythm, it comes in when you least expect it. Floor fans will be more than satisfied with this song overall, especially since she has operatic vocals in this first part and they're spot on (of course). Donockley's pipe eventually finds its way into this section as Richard Dawkins narrates, just before the second section, "Life," comes crashing in with the full band. I nearly came out of my seat when I heard the verse vocals - Floor's multi-layered part is scary in the best way possible and the lyrics are just pure genius: "The cosmic law of gravity pulled the newborns around a fire / A careless, cold infinity in every vast direction." She belts her way through the section's chorus, and even though Nightwish has made a ton of fun choruses, none of them make me quite as happy as this one. The powerful middle eight is characterized by an adrenaline-filled choral section. Furthermore, "Life" is just so damn heavy!

"Life" cuts off somewhat abruptly to make way for ethnic percussion, and then Nightwish manages to do something I least expected: They added animal noises. It sounds like I entered a jungle and I love it. A lion's roar cues the band back in for "The Toolmaker," in which Marco and Floor sing back and forth in the verses. Here, Floor gets to show off her rock/metal style vocals in the verses as she and Marco sing about humanity's impact on Earth: "Gave birth to fantasy / To idolatry / To self-destructive weaponry." In this section's middle eight, Nightwish managed to incorporate different phases of music from around the world to tell humanity's tale, from tribal-sounding drums, to Gregorian choirs, a Victorian harpsichord... Then the band explodes (with Floor's operatic vocals overlapping) when we least expect it (which brought a big grin to my face), and there are traces of a banjo and synths. I didn't even notice it the first few times I listened, but it's a great way of summing up humanity phonetically. Eventually the feel-good chorus of "The Toolmaker" leads us to a hair-raising, gorgeous post-chorus, overlapped with piano. Marco and Floor repeat the profound expression "We were here," and once again, we're left with soft, orchestral instrumentation.

The fourth section, "The Understanding" crescendos as Dawkins comes back to narrate before we get to the final section, "Sea-Worn Driftwood." This last section is so beautiful and subtle. It's mainly a bunch of ocean sounds and light orchestra as Dawkins finishes up the Charles Darwin quote that Endless Forms Most Beautiful got its name from. Sea creatures splash and communicate, and the song fades to its end. "The Greatest Show on Earth" is perfect.

To say I reacted strongly to this song would be an understatement. Instead of feeling the typical rush that follows discovering a new favorite song, I felt exhilarated, as though I just embarked upon some galactic adventure. For the first time, I had to ask myself, "How will I listen to other music after hearing this?" Every time I listen to it I smile like a dumbfounded idiot; it makes me so happy.
One thing I have recently realized is that even though Nightwish is without a doubt one of my favorite musical acts of all time with its intricate songs and beautiful lyrics, I've rarely ever related to their music personally. Endless Forms Most Beautiful changes that a little. Holopainen said in the twelfth album trailer: "Hopefully we can illustrate with this album – that science can even be something profoundly spiritual."  I firmly believe in the connection between science and religion, and the concept of science and life appears throughout this album. Hence, I connected to this album very deeply - especially with "Shudder Before the Beautiful" and "The Greatest Show on Earth."

In short, I loved this album very much. Everything we could have wanted is there: Floor uses all of her styles at some point or another (although some complain they still wanted more of her 'big' moments), we get to hear plenty of folk influences, the songwriting is genial as ever, and it's quite heavy. Nightwish has a wonderful catalogue of albums and Endless Forms Most Beautiful stands on a sky-high pedestal with the rest of my favorites.

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