Familiar Forms Most Beautiful: Nightwish’s Human. :II: Nature

George Costanza once famously said of our current season, “Spring. Rejuvenation. Rebirth. Everything’s blooming. All that crap.” Jaded cynicism aside, I think that’s how most of us view spring (well, at least it was before 2020 happened), with a notion of positivity, possibility, and general optimism. I don’t think its a coincidence that Nightwish chose to release their long awaited new album Human. :II: Nature. during these months, even when it might have been the smarter play to delay it to the fall given the state of things and the lack of ability to start touring on it right away. A spring release makes sense for this album because like its predecessor Endless Forms Most Beautiful, also a spring release way back in 2015, the artistic content here is meant to be unveiled during this time, at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere (if you’re reading this in Brazil or Argentina, just bear with me). These two albums are tied to the same season for more than just release dates however. Their collective sound is unmistakably far more bright-skied and sunnier than the Nightwish of old, a trait further reflected in their shared humanism meets environmental lyrical perspective. Nightwish’s distant past was filled with songs about loss and longing, and the dark undercurrent of isolation and depression that swirls around the yearning for childhood innocence. That was likely the Nightwish that most of their legion of fans fell in love with, or grew alongside as the band transitioned out of their very early fantasy steeped themes. The Nightwish of Century Child, Once, and Dark Passion Play then. But it seems the fall and winter of songwriter Tuomas Holopainen’s moods are long past, and with Endless Forms Most Beautiful and now Human. :II: Nature., we’re settling in for what looks to be a lengthy spring turned summer.

The question to determine here is whether this new era of Nightwish is as compelling as the Nightwish of old, given the stark differences in the very essence of the band’s music from then and now. Oh sure, it’s still symphonic metal, and it still sounds like Nightwish for the most part(ish), and of course Holopainen is still as ambitious as ever in regards to the grandeur of his scope. This is a two disc album, its second disc being a thirty-one minute long series of continuously flowing instrumental music (more on this in a bit), while the first disc is the new Nightwish album proper. My first realization after listening through it a couple times was, “Only nine new actual songs on an album coming out five years after the last one? Okay…”. Relatedly, in the gulf of time between Nightwish’s last tour and the release of this album, the phenomenon of YouTube reaction videos temporarily gripped the world in its trendy maw; and Nightwish’s version of “Ghost Love Score” from their Showtime, Storytime live album/Blu-Ray was one of those central songs that everyone simply had to make a reaction video to. Views for the Nightwish video soared into the millions for a song that was merely an old fan favorite, but now was becoming something of an outsider’s phenomenon —- and for the band, an unlikely “hit” despite being over a decade old. Out of this, Floor Jansen became a magnet for “vocal coach reacts” gushing adoration, not only from the reactors themselves but from the comments sections for those videos, and her profile has only risen thanks to her being a judge on the Dutch reality TV show Beste Zangers, even managing a number one single in that country with her take on “The Phantom of the Opera”. Indeed her rise in the public eye both as a member of Nightwish and a star in her own right mirrors Tarja Turunen. But where Nightwish really leaned into Turunen being the face of the band during the Once era until it reached its breaking point, there seems to be a deliberate move towards the opposite end of the spectrum on their part now.┬áCase in point is that she only delivers lead vocals on seven and a half out of the eight vocal-ed up tracks here (she shares split lead vocals with Marco Hietala on the final track “Endlessness”), with the album’s second single “Harvest” being sung entirely by the band’s multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley. Its a puzzling choice, and I wonder if other fans might not feel that she’s a little underutilized, or more speculatively, does she feel that way?

Jansen’s vocals on the songs she does sing on are firmly locked into that mix of lightly emotive fragility and full throated belting, which works for these songs, but certainly puts to bed any notion that the band would utilize her classical soprano abilities. She’s at her best on “How’s The Heart?”, a uilleann pipes accompanied slice of cheery, mid-tempo pop, a close cousin to Endless Forms’ “Alpenglow” and “My Walden”. Her emotive choices during the chorus make the song and I also enjoy Donockley’s audible harmonizing as well, their voices working well as easy on the ears contrasts. And you don’t need me to tell you that Holopainen is a talented songwriter, and he can pen memorable melodies for days and that’s certainly the case here and elsewhere. The string and piano driven “Procession” is another beautiful example, with Jansen’s hushed vocals rising and falling in a bittersweet crescendo that tugs at the heartstrings. The lyrical framework on those two songs is rather appealing as well, with Holopainen appealing to humanistic ideals of empathy and collectivism in the former and a widescreen, panoramic view of biological history as a living memory on the latter. He’s always been a talented lyricist, his clunkiness in diction and phrasing forgivable in the greater context of his thematic choices and poetic framework. Take the opening track “Music”, which is the most slow burn intro for a Nightwish album ever, featuring a three minute long passage to start with that combines tribal drumming, sounds of wild animals echoing in the distance, before culminating in a choir vocal dramatic crescendo that reaches its apex with a heavenly orchestral swell. The band and Jansen should kick into high gear at that point right? But unexpectedly, Jansen begins on a delicate, calm, almost reserved vocal melody that she gently rolls out and gradually builds into an exultant crying out in the refrain. And in fully committing to the music as a metaphor for humanity’s coexistence with nature, this is as dynamic and adventurous a song as Holopainen has penned in awhile —- a rather bold and daring way to open the album.

Often times though, that progressive songwriting mindset completely overloads some tracks to a point where melodies suffer, and as a result that expected Nightwish emotive tugging of the heartstrings never materializes. The most egregious examples are “Pan” and “Tribal”, the former of which is as aggravating a Nightwish song as I can remember, with its attempts at dynamic quiet-loud tradeoffs doing more to grate on my nerves than anything else. And while “Tribal” has some surprisingly headbanging moments in its middle passages where drummer Kai Hahto and guitarist Emppu Vuorinen crank up the intensity with a tribal drumming + aggro-riff barrage, those rhythmic moments don’t make for a memorable song, particularly when lacking a memorable melodic motif. It’s also striking just how lackluster the first single “Noise” really is in comparison to previous premiere Nightwish singles, with Holopainen’s keyboard melody being the closest thing to a hook in a song built on rhythmic, alliterative vocals during the verses. Here Jansen’s abilities in the chorus seem a little wasted, with nothing in the way of a memorable melody even offered to her —- it all results in a song that sounds a little unfocused, or rather unfinished. I felt the same way about “Shoemaker”, which has so many little interesting micro-moments but nothing that collectively ties it all together, and I’m left wondering how Holopainen’s songwriting style has changed to favor this wild, throw everything in the blender approach as opposed to how he usually writes —- with focus, honing carefully designed melodic structures and discernible song structures. If it wasn’t clear before, it should be clear now that he’s at his best when he allows himself to write in a pop songwriter mode first and foremost, and then colors in the details with metallic elements, with film soundtrack music, and with ancillary elements like the aforementioned tribal drumming or folk music.

I haven’t mentioned bassist/co-lead vocalist Marco Hietala that much here, mostly because he’s hardly given any vocal parts on this album to shine with. His lone solo vehicle is “Endlessness” where he splits time with Jansen, and it’s not a bad song by any means, but it’s long, drawn out tempo makes a potentially epic melody simply tedious. Troy Donockley fairs better in the utterly bizarre but somewhat effective “Harvest”, arguably the most controversial Nightwish single since Anette Olzon’s debut with “Eva” in 2007. Simply taken as it is, in all its jangly poppiness, it’s an effective song with a memorable hook, and a decent melodic thru-line paired with some intriguing instrumentation, but it’s all just a little twee for Nightwish isn’t it? I think more people will wonder why Jansen wasn’t given lead vocals here, and its a good question. You can hear her vocals in the harmonies layered here, and she sounds like she could have handled the job on her own, which is not to suggest that Donockley isn’t a fine singer in his own right. I just think that having him handle lead vocals results in the song coming across as more Rusted Root neo-hippie zeal than anything I’d associate with Nightwish, where we were accustomed to male vocals only in the form of the tortured anguish of Hietala’s inimitable style. And then there’s the second disc, which is actually enjoyable on its own as background music for studying, working or whatever. I’m not going to break it down as its all instrumental (aside from its voiced-over moment reading from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot), and mostly because it’s all one homogenous whole. And besides, it’s more of a Pip Williams with his magnificent orchestra and choirs than anything Nightwish in nature. I’m sure that Holopainen wrote the backbones of melodies here and there, but Williams has been his longtime classical collaborator, and is here credited with arrangements alongside two other professional classical composers/conductors as well. There are as you’d expect, a lot of musicians who played on the instrumental works here, professionals all of them, and it certainly sounds like it. I don’t really know what else to say about this side of the album because its just so… much, and so strange at the same time. I guess its fine?

When I take a step back and consider the thematic similarity of this album to Endless Forms Most Beautiful, its clear just how much the latter is superior in every way, with it’s Oceanborn invoking blasts of keyboard driven symphonic metal married to (at the time) a new and refreshing concept. The Dawkins meets humanism of that album really worked as a singular concept, it was an album that had some rather convincingly shimmering, optimistic melodies —- but the key word there is singular. It’s kind of incredulous to consider that five years later, Holopainen stretched the concept out to encompass a sequel, albeit one that’s more bogged down by trying too hard with overly proggy song structures. I think Endless Forms worked well because at its heart it was kind of a throwback Nightwish album, coming on the heels of the wildly experimental (and I’d say successful) Imaginaerum. Its song structures —- barring the 24 minute mistake at the end —- were relatively straightforward, pop-drenched symphonic metal; and that style paired well with Holopainen’s sharp right thematic turn from childhood innocence and nostalgia to something entirely different and unexpected. It seemed like a natural place for the band to explore, given Holopainen’s publicly admitted interest in the writings of Dawkins and Sagan, but what he’s done on Human II Nature is essentially repeat himself in the most unfocused, rambling way possible. And frankly, he’s just not as good at mining this particular thematic vein for inspiration as he was at the old introspective, inner turmoil stuff. I can’t hold that against him persay, because everyone changes as they get older and maybe he just has emptied the well of everything he’s had to write about from that source, but what this new album clearly shows is that he needs to consider something else in the future for artistic inspiration. Green Day made a mistake in putting out 21st Century Breakdown, the lukewarm sequel to American Idiot that arrived five years earlier. Sure it had a few good songs, but it lacked the urgency, freshness, and creativity of its predecessor, all while trying to utilize the same thematic concept and lyrical inspiration. It feels like Nightwish made the same mistake, and time will tell if Holopainen is self-aware enough to realize that he’s not quite meant to be a spring/summer guy all the time.

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