Photo: © Tim Tronckoe / Courtesy of Nightwish

Nightwish Go in a Folk Direction on Their Double LP ‘Human. :||: Nature.’

In the curious case of Nightwish's Human. :||: Nature., the whole is ultimately less compelling than the individual parts it comprises.

Human. :||: Nature.
Nuclear Blast
10 April 2020

When your favorite band releases a new album, you want to love it. You want to be dazzled, to be moved, to feel goosebumps flicker across your skin ideally once per song (conservative estimate). You want to feel inspired to wrap yourself in all the new sounds and words, to draw constellations between these newest creations and to the songs that came before them, challenging yourself to envision how this new collection fits into a larger oeuvre. You certainly don’t want to sit over it for a month, unable to conjure up much of a reaction to most of the new material. And you certainly don’t want to wonder: Is that it? Was this really worth a five-year wait?

This caveat isn’t to say that Nightwish’s newest album, Human. :||: Nature. (stylized HVMAN. :||: NATVRE.) is necessarily a bad album, or that it doesn’t have any of the qualities that make Nightwish the foremost band in their (admittedly niche) genre of European female-fronted symphonic metal and rock, because that would be selling this latest effort short.

It’s a puzzle that continues to confound me even after multiple listens: what is it that Human. :||: Nature. is lacking? What just isn’t doing it for me, a fan of over ten years (and five-time concertgoer) who has found something to love in nearly all of their previous albums? I loved Endless Forms Most Beautiful, and sonically, Human. :||: Nature. is very clearly a continuation of that record. It builds upon Endless Forms‘ themes of nature and wilderness and wanderlust, suggesting love for the universe and its endless celestial bodies rather just the Earth itself.

So the curious case of Human. :||: Nature. may be that the whole is ultimately less compelling than the individual parts it comprises. After all, the elements that usually come together so fruitfully to make a Nightwish album are largely all there on Human. :||: Nature. There are the now-expected thrilling orchestral passages, the joyfully—even annoyingly catchy—melodies, the push and pull between charging epics and gentle ballads, the interplay among the various members of the band and their instruments.

While it’s something of a sport for Nightwish fans to fight over which of the now-three lead singers in the band’s history is their favorite, there’s nothing that current frontwoman Floor Jansen is doing on this entire record that is less than perfect. Her combination of control, tone, and emotion elevates even the most mediocre lyrics and repetitive musical themes, and she gets to demonstrate a much greater range than in Endless Forms Most Beautiful. Ultimately, I can only point to specific aspects of Human. :||: Nature. that strike me as creative missteps to describe the general feeling of tiredness and “meh” that was too often my reaction to its songs.

Human. :||: Nature. begins incredibly promisingly. “Music”, one of the two best songs on the album, acts as a musical continuation of Endless Forms Most Beautiful (2015)’s monumental closer, the 20-plus-minute “The Greatest Show on Earth”. “The Greatest Show on Earth” eerily transitioned from a celebration of life and biology to a warning of future evolution and destruction on Earth, creating a sonic trajectory from thrilling music to frightening, growly nature sounds. “Music” flips the script, suggesting a rebirth of humanity and its ability to create music as a step out of chaos and into enlightenment. The chorus is, of course, classically catchy Nightwish, and is one of the few moments on Human. :||: Nature. that sent the much-desired shivers down my spine. (The final chorus rose goosebumps on my arm.)

The lyrics are also some of the most evocative of the album, even if they are a little heavy-handedly self-referential. “Music / Fanning the flames of a mystery / Deepening the listening / Losing /Yourself to the endless symphony / Of now / Human / Singing the tale of another man.” The other album highlight, “Pan”, features a chugging, urgent melody that conjures up vintage Within Temptation—specifically, it sounds like a song from that band’s Mother Earth era, but with much better production values and instrumentation. Even Floor Jansen’s breathy, fragile vocal performance seems to nod to Within Temptation’s Sharon den Adel.

Aside from “Music” and “Pan”, however, the rest of Human. :||: Nature. fails to meet my incredibly high standards. Those songs work well on their own as compositions, yet for the rest of the tracks on Human. :||: Nature., it’s more about picking out the parts that work rather than wanting to listen to any song on repeat. “Procession”, the best of the rest, is a beautiful ballad reminiscent Endless Forms‘ “Our Decades in the Sun” whose lyrics take on the development of humanity from viewpoint an omnipotent metaphysical being. While the melody is not the most memorable, the lyrics are an interesting response to the repeated motif of “we were here” from Endless Forms. On Endless Forms, “we were here” seems to be from the viewpoint of a long-lost human race mourning its impact on the planet, while here it reflects the permanence of the forces that gave birth to life on Earth. “We will remember all the suffering / We wrote this in a tongue you will understand / Words and melodies with a touch of coloring / We were there and will remember mankind.”

“Shoemaker” is strong, with a syncopated rhythm and operatic ending, but not particularly unique when compared to even the less exciting tracks on Endless Forms Most Beautiful; its use of spoken-word comes across as particularly clumsy. “Tribal” has a haunting and memorable vocal melody, again demonstrating that without Jansen’s versatility, this album simply may not have worked that well at all. “Endlessness”, the only song that features bassist Marko Hietala on lead vocals, also fails to register, and Hietala sounds disengaged to boot. “How’s the Heart?,” a heavily folk-inspired track, resembles lead single “Noise” in that it is an adequate, competent song on its own. But it feels rote rather than fresh or invigorating—and recycled from better, earlier material.

The songs after “Pan” tend to blend together, without the benefit of a particularly unique guitar solo or especially long song length—an epic in the vein of “Ghost Love Score” (Once, 2005), “Beauty of the Beast” (Century Child, 2002), “The Greatest Show on Earth”, “The Poet and the Pendulum” (Dark Passion Play, 2007)—to distinguish them. Even after a five-year span, which included a hiatus and various band members releasing side or solo projects, the creative momentum hasn’t returned in full.

Certainly, I was predisposed to be somewhat cautious towards Human. :||: Nature. as a whole, given the frustrating mediocrity of “Noise”, which represents a band at the height of its powers running on autopilot. “Noise” churns riffs and rhythms from older, better songs like “Wish I Had an Angel” (Once), “Storytime” (Imaginaerum, 2011), and “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” (Endless Forms Most Beautiful) into a stew with the most uninspired, downright cranky lyrics I can remember hearing from bandleader/main composer and lyricist/keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen. To indulge in some internet slang: it’s incredibly “banky”—an unsubtle and cliched screed that has as much elegance as those anti-technology graphics that show people’s faces being absorbed into their smartphones. If the meme “what if phones, but too much” were a song, it would be “Noise”, which uses the phrase “feed the beast” about social media interactions more than once in different verses, name-drops Black Mirror, and has Floor Jansen sneer the lines. “Now you’re a star / Vain avatar / Feeding the beast / In your loud Egoland.” (What is this, a recent Muse single?)

The accompanying video manages to elevate and sink the song further. Its production values are top-notch, and the implied criticism of greenwashing reputations by environmental polluters is depicted interestingly, only for tired whining over women posing sexily for Instagram to undo that more nuanced goodwill. Some issues have arisen in society that are linked to technology. But to write a song that seems ripped from a contrarian Atlantic Monthly take from the year 2011 that doesn’t grapple with the bad actors and institutions that have made this technology indispensable and harmful is surface-level engagement at best. That’s assuming there has to be a Nightwish song about “what if phones, but too much” in the first place.

The fact that Human. :||: Nature. has unfortunately been released during a worldwide quarantine means that a song valorizing the pastoral over the digital is a case of poor timing, certainly; not all of us can enjoy the beautiful pristine Finnish wilderness even in the best of circumstances. But part of what makes “Noise” so infuriating is that its lyrics are incredibly shallow and un-Nightwish-y: “Revere the screen / Zoom in for flak and misery / Bleed some pixels.” Meanwhile, its musical themes are the kind of thing the band could do in their sleep—and yet it is still an earworm that has me humming it even on days when I haven’t listened to it. Bravo, Tuomas. Bravo.

The second single from Human. :||: Nature., the simple, sweet, and ultimately skippable “Harvest”, was also not exactly the most thrilling harbinger for what the album would promise. It hints at a pattern that Human. :||: Nature. would (unfortunately) bear out to be true. For this go-around, Uilleann pipes player Troy Donockley would essentially be the band’s male vocalist, and the shift from bassist Marko Hietala’s bombastic voice to Donockley’s calmer style would be mirrored in a larger stylistic turn away from heavier metal (for a given value of heavy) and towards folk. Nightwish has dabbled in the folk-inflected for several albums now; Donockley first appeared on Dark Passion Play, where he provided guest instrumentation on the Celtic-inspired “Last of the Wilds” and “The Islander”. Donockley became a full-time member of the band in 2013, turning the quintet into a sextet, and has played a gradually larger role in each successive album, though Human. :||: Nature. is the first album to give his vocals a starring role.

Taking Nightwish’s discography into consideration, it’s striking just how much Donockley’s voice on this album, both in a leading capacity in “Harvest” and a supporting role in songs like “Pan”, sounds a bit like a more tuneful version of Holopainen’s. Holopainen has not sung lead vocals since the band’s debut album (Angels Fall First, 1996), which also has some gentle, folksy moments in songs like “The Carpenter” and “Once Upon a Troubadour”. In retrospect, then, Donockley’s prominence on Human. :||: Nature. signifies a potential circular turn in terms of how Nightwish draws inspiration from what came before.

Human. :||: Nature. is a double album, meaning that there is, in theory, more to love. However, that potential is squandered by the entire second disc being a multi-part orchestral composition titled “All the Works of Nature Which Adorn the World” that, in a practical sense, functions as a sort of vocal-less film-score version of the first half of the album. The idea is certainly intriguing: the clearly delineated songs of the first half explore human impact on the universe, while the instrumental second half probes aspects of nature and the Earth as different parts of one larger whole. I imagine “All the Works of Nature” will find a second home as background music in my daily life, rather than something I will purposefully decide to listen to. Which I regret even having to say about a Nightwish song, let alone half of an album. Nightwish’s instrumental tracks have not all been as excellent as those with sung vocals, but they’ve never felt like such a slog until this one.

There are parts of
Human. :||: Nature. that belong in the mid-upper tier of Nightwish moments, even if only a few of the songs, if any, may eventually stand alongside the band’s classics. The increasing integration of folk influences into the band’s music—to the extent that Donockley is full-time and no longer a guest artist—represents a direction that will surely appeal to other fans more than it does to me. Perhaps, like with Imaginaerum, I will come to find more to appreciate in Human. :||: Nature. over time. Ultimately, in the overall sweep of Nightwish’s rich and varied discography, Human. :||: Nature. comes across as more of a minor note than a magnum opus.

RATING 5 / 10