The title says it all! Opinions expressed here are those of the authors. Personal tastes may vary, and we are cool with that.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

CD Review: Nightwish's Endless Forms Most Beautiful (Eric's Version)

Reigning as the world's most famous symphonic metal band, Nightwish is back at it again with another album entitled Endless Forms Most Beautiful.  The album is named after a quote used in the Charles Darwin book On the Origin of Species. Knowing this much, it is safe to say that the theme of this album will be primarily about the origins of life, evolution, and all of that fun scientific stuff that creationists hate so much!  They even got Richard Dawkins, a famous evolutionary biologist and writer, to do some voice work on the album!

Along with the release of this album, Nightwish had quite a few lineup changes that greatly affected the outcome of the final product.  On October 1st, 2012, former lead singer Anette Olzon was let go by Nightwish and was immediately replaced by metal veteran Floor Jansen for the rest of the Imaginaerum tour at that time.  Jansen was just a session vocalist when she filled in for Olzon, but the band quickly realized that she was the right person for the job.  On October 9th, 2013, Floor was named the official lead vocalist for Nightwish.  Her experience as a lead vocalist in several other bands (most notably the now defunct After Forever, and Revamp who most recently went on hiatus due to Floor being in Nightwish) gives this band that edge they have desperately needed ever since they fired vocalist Tarja Turunen ten years ago.  Her voice is impeccable and in my opinion she is the best and most versatile female vocalist in metal today.

A promotional photo of Nightwish for their new album

A few other lineup changes occurred since the last album as well.  Drummer Jukka Nevalainen was forced to sit out of the recording sessions as well as the following tour due to insomnia.  He was replaced by friend Kai Hahto from the bands of Wintersun and Swallow the Sun.  His skill at the drums are quite impressive, so Nightwish really could not have asked for a better replacement!  The other important change was the decision to make Troy Donockley a permanent member of Nightwish.  As a uilleann pipes player, Troy has been playing with the band since Dark Passion Play, bringing to life songs such as "Last of the Wilds" and "I Want My Tears Back".  Now as a permanent member of the band, Troy's presence will be even more prominent than before as he brings out the folk sounds that Nightwish always seemed to have had ever since their inception.  

With this star-studded band now in full gear, will this new album be as good as everyone had hoped? Let's find out in my track by track portion of the review:

1. "Shudder Before The Beautiful"-  At the very beginning, we get a poetic reading from Richard Dawkins himself.  After that, the symphonic elements come into full gear in a frenetic pace.  The main riff sounds like a fusion of "Storytime" and "Stargazers".  It's a bit recycled, but it works nonetheless.  The chorus is also a bit reminiscent of "Dark Chest of Wonders". Though not as compelling of a chorus as that track had, the backing choirs and the inspiring lyrics help give the chorus a much needed boost to the track.  The highlight of this track is the dueling guitar and keyboard battle just before the bridge. This is the first time I have heard Nightwish do this sort of thing since their Wishmaster album, and it sounds glorious indeed!  My biggest complaint here is that I feel like Floor's voice is mixed a bit low.  I can still hear her, but there is so much going on that it is sometimes difficult to understand everything.  However, this is more of a technical complaint and it doesn't affect the scoring of the song.  Overall, this is a very good opener to the album.  This isn't the most creative song by this band, but it's something you would expect them to produce.  (4/5)

2.  "Weak Fantasy"-  One of the heavier tracks.  The intro section of the song centers around from what sounds like a movie score, which gives way to a pretty cool main riff that you can hear if you listen closely.  The verse sections have nice sounding acoustic guitars that accompany Floor's voice well.  Unlike the previous song, Floor is able to show off more power in her voice, but it's only during the chorus.  We also get to hear Marco Hietala's voice on this track more predominately. Sadly, this is one of the few times we get to hear his voice up in the mix.  Not the best track by far, but it's good for what it is. (3.5/5)

3. "Elan"- I have already reviewed this track previously here, but I will further analyze it. "Elan" is the first single released for the album.  Like most songs in this affair, it sounds like the typical accessible and radio friendly Nightwish single, perhaps even less inspired than other tracks like "Nemo" or "Storytime".  I just don't find myself listening to this all that often personally.  It's only saving grace are the lyrics.  That is a department in Tuomas' songwriting which hasn't weakened in the slightest.  Overall, it's dull and boring and it fails to bring out the talent of the band.  The alternative version is a little better, but not by much. (2/5)

4. "Yours Is An Empty Hope"- The heaviest track on the album by far, but it is also one of the weaker tracks as well.  The main guitar sounds like a variation of "Dark Chest of Wonders" and the orchestral parts remind me of "Master Passion Greed".  We even get to hear Floor growl in the chorus!  Indeed, that was a surprise to hear!  The one thing I do like about this song is that Marco gets to sing through a good portion of it!  Sadly, his voice feels a bit wasted here because this is a forgetful song.  Overall, this is just not a very creative or inspiring track. (2.5/5)

5. "Our Decades In The Sun"- The album's only ballad.  It starts off with that children's choir that Tuomas used during the bridge in "Storytime" and that sounds rather nice here.  It's a heart-filled ballad with good lyrics but it isn't anything mind-blowing or memorable to write home to. (3/5)

6. "My Walden"- Looks like we have a successor to "I Want My Tears Back"!  Beginning with singing the chorus in Welsh by Troy, we are greeted to a very folksy sounding track with his pipes being the highlight.  The chorus will have you humming it for days!  It is so crazy catchy!  The last section of the song is where the folk instruments take over.  It almost reminds me of the way "Beauty and the Beast" from Angels Fall First ended except with folk instruments.  Indeed this is one of the stronger tracks on the album and I could see this being a possible single in the future. (4/5)

7. "Endless Forms Most Beautiful"- The title track and one of the heavier songs on the album.  I find this to be primarily a filler track with only a few highlights.  The bridge section with the choir and guitar is actually the most interesting part of the song.  Not terrible, yet not that great. (3/5)

8. "Edema Ruh"- To me, this is the best song on the album.  The keyboard intro gives off a "Come Cover Me" vibe and it also has this 80's rock feeling that is hard to describe.  I love the way the verses give off a very tranquil feeling and the chorus sounds very inspiring as well.  Troy gets to sing during the bridge right before the final chorus and it somehow feels right in place with the rest of the song.  Of all the songs on the album, I would probably go back to this one the most since this song feels the most "old school Nightwish".  This is also a potential future single as well. (4/5)

9. "Alpenglow"- This song begins with a nice orchestra/guitar riff that really sounds like it could be in an awesome movie soundtrack.  The chorus is catchy and impressive, especially toward the end of the song.  The guitar/pipes solos are interesting and really helps give this song more power.  So overall this is a good track, even though Nightwish has clearly written better.  It is still enjoyable nonetheless. (3.5/5)

10. "The Eyes of Sharbat Gula"- The instrumental track of the album.  The usage of the children's choir is very nice here, but overall I think this is a boring song with very little to offer.  It isn't "terrible", but I do not find myself coming back and listening to this one. (2.5/5)

11. "The Greatest Show On Earth"- Okay, so this is the song that we all wanted to hear for so long! Clocked in at an impressive 24 minutes, Tuomas really wanted to create his own "creation of life" epic through this song.  The name of the song is actually taken from the title of the Richard Dawkins' book, which interestingly enough Dawkins actually speaks a lot here on this track! The song is actually divided into 5 parts and from what I can hear this is how I think it got broken off into:

I: "Four Point Six"- The title of this section is based on "4.6 billion years ago" when the Earth was formed and new.  Tuomas opens this one up with some inspiring piano melodies that really fit well with the atmosphere of what he wants to bring out in his music.  Floor also gets to use her operatic vocals during this part as well.  Then we hear Richard Dawkins speak a narrative much like how we heard it in "Song of Myself", although it is not quite as long as that.  Thus, we begin with the next section of the song.

II: "Life"- The rest of the band finally kicks in with the kick drums and guitar going into a 16th note fury, which reminds me of " The Poet and The Pendulum" in some ways.  Then the verse section kicks in, with a very familiar sounding riff.... hmmm.. where have I heard this before?  Oh yes!  It's "Bye, Bye Beautiful"!  At least I am pretty sure that is what it sounds like!  The chorus then kicks in and this is the most that we hear the potential and power in Floor's voice as she is really hitting some VERY high notes with her chest voice.  Then it bridges out into a furious orchestral section that really sounds great with the drums and guitar accompanying it!  So the song winds down and what do you think we get to hear?  Do we hear a guitar solo?  Do we get more singing?  Nope!  Instead, we get to hear animal jungle sounds like monkeys and dinosaurs on a Nightwish record!  I am not kidding.  It actually goes on for a while and drags on a bit!  I never thought it would happen but it did.  But thus, life is created apparently which leads us into the next section.

III: "The Toolmaker"-  Toward the end of the jungle animal sounds, the symphony builds up again and we get what sounds like a variation of the riff from "Endless Forms Most Beautiful".  Marco sings again and it is great to hear!  So with that, we get an epic chorus where Marco and Floor sing in unison with one another.  Toward the bridge of this section, we get another break in the action, but thankfully it doesn't last too long and once again we get to listen to that epic chorus!  It then reprises with Marco and Floor singing "We were here" with a buildup of epic choirs and orchestral arrangements.  And thus this section ends with silence after that climax.

IV: "The Understanding"- This section begins with some soft piano playing by Tuomas along with accompaniments from the strings section of the orchestra and pipes being played by Troy.  Then the drums kick in and Richard Dawkins starts talking in a narrative yet again.  This time it's a bit longer than it was in "Four Point Six" and yet it still isn't nearly as dragging as it was in "Song of Myself".  Once he stops talking, the orchestra takes over and it gives off this worldly sound that's found on such movies as 2001: A Space Odyessy for example.  Then the last part of this section begins with ambient keyboard and sounds of the sea.  Then Dawkins talks for one last time right before the final section.

V: "Sea-Worn Driftwood"- The beginning of this begins with..... well... the sounds of a whale!  Yep, it ends with just sounds of the sea as if you are listening to a mood relaxing CD!  Finally, the song slowly fades out and thus we conclude this monster of a song!

I had to listen to this at least 5 times in order to truly understand everything that is going on in it.  The more I listened to it though, the more I got the structure down and the song really grew on me through each listen.  It is only in parts II and III where we actually hear the full band playing along and that is also where we get to hear Floor and Marco sing with what I think are the best written vocal parts of the album.  Is the song well made?  Absolutely!  But I think it is actually, well, too long to be brutally honest!  Some parts really needed to be shorter for the listener to really get through this beast of a track!  Nonetheless, this is very thought provoking and anybody who is into evolution or science in general really needs to listen to this song.  Also, repeating some riffs from previous tracks also loses some points on the final score here as well.  Like I said, there are great parts in this song, but it took me at least 5 listens to fully appreciate it for what it is.  This is indeed the standout track on the album and it needs to be heard a few times in order to understand everything.  (3.5/5)

Bonus Track: "Sagan":  This wasn't on the official tracklist, but I will review it anyways.  It is a pretty forgetful song with rushed lyrics throughout.  Troy has a cool solo in this but it isn't enough to help this song get out of mediocrity.  I can see why this was left out of the album.  (2.5/5)

So that is my review of Nightwish's Endless Forms Most Beautiful!  Here are my overall thoughts about this album:

-Much more band oriented than the previous two albums.
-Emppu, Tuomas, and Troy all got to shine with their respected instruments at times.
-Catchy songs and choruses.
-Great and amazing lyrics throughout.

-Most of the songs aren't using Floor's true potential in her voice.
-Some tracks seem uninspired and not very creative.
-You can hear some repeating riffs and melodies from older songs.
-The drumming could of been a little more diverse, especially with the talent behind the drum kit.
-Marco's lead vocals got used sparingly.  He was only dominant in a few songs.

So was this the masterpiece that we had hoped for from this band?  Not exactly.  I would not say that this is a "terrible" record, but this just comes across as average to me.  That's right, it's as average as it possibly can be on a Nightwish album.  I am a bit disappointed with the outcome because knowing the talent that this band now has, it just wasn't nearly as great as I had hoped for.  The previous album was actually better so this is actually a step back in my opinion.  This seemed like a very "safe" album to me with very little experimentation to be had while at the same time it brings nothing new to the table. There were also a lot of tracks that sounded like older songs and for that, there really wasn't any song on this album that really "shocked and awed" me like some of the older material did.  Let's keep in mind that this isn't a young band anymore!  Honestly, no one should expect them to make anymore masterpieces like Oceanborn or Wishmaster anytime soon, but we can only hope that day will come again!  To sum it up, Endless Forms Most Beautiful is a good symphonic metal album to add to your collection, but to call it a masterpiece is a little far-fetched.

Overall rating: 3 out of 5 stars