Welcome to 'Human. : II: Nature.’, the ninth studio album by Nightwish, which used to be a metal band.
While the metal contribution this time might be relatively petit compared to previous albums, no-one can say this isn’t a Grand Projet from the band which is in its 25th year, having started out playing acoustic folk ballads before opting for the metal sector and eventually moving on to establish its own unique version of symphonic metal. So ‘Grand’ indeed as to feature copious references to interstellar giants like Carl Sagan and Eugene Shoemaker, who are quoted, along with Shakespeare. They haven’t quoted God yet, but it’s surely only a matter of time.
There is literally nothing in the contemporary music firmament to compare with this, though that isn’t a value judgement, just an observation. In parts it is magnificent; in others a little less so.
We have the benefit of some thoughts on the 17-track album from a recent interview with its creator, the band’s chief composer, Tuomas Holopainen. He said “the first nine songs are all about humans telling stories about humanity, human nature, about other humans, with a human voice. Then, after that, you flip the disc and go into the nature for half an hour for some instrumental escapism. So that's the 'nature' part of the album."
He continued, "I wouldn't use the term 'concept album,' but there is a little theme that's running through all the songs, so in a way, it is a thematic album. At some point through the song writing process, I realised that the word 'human' appears in all the songs, and these are all somehow connected. Then I kind of realised that, 'Okay, this song is about the power of human imagination,' 'This song is about the power of human empathy,' 'This song is all about music descending on mankind,' 'This song is about human versus technology.' So, 'Okay, let's call this album 'Human'.' But that doesn't sound quite right, so the last song, it's all about the beauty of planet Earth. The last song is kind of like Nightwish's love letter to planet Earth. So that's nature — human nature. That's how we came up with the title of the album."
To do justice to the album, I’m going through it track by track in order, rather than offering an overview.
Tuomas Holopainen likes film scores and this could be one – it hits you straight away. ‘2001, A Space Odyssey’ or something like that, complete with vocal grunts. The drums make a churning sound like factory engines. An instrumental/choral section references past opuses. “Music fanning the flames of a mystery…the endless symphony of man” – and that’s what it is, a symphony.
Then suddenly, the first solo from guitarist Emppu Vuorinen, he’s still there but it somehow seems a little out of place. In fact, the track does become more ‘metal’ towards the end and with a similar riff to that on the following track, ‘Noise’. A very powerful opener, and with a similar overall theme to the final track, ‘Ad Astra’. At times it makes you think of Yes meets Sandy Denny. Presumably it refers to how music has been omnipresent through the ages, something they highlighted on ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ on the previous album, but with its climax coming in the middle.
This track had been pre-released as the first off the album, with an extravagant video (see below). Possibly the most metal track, with some powerful guitar/bass riffs, but with a pop melody too, as Tuomas Holopainen and his band throw scorn on smart phones, modern technology in general (while never completely rubbishing it of course, this album is only released initially as an online streamed version for logistical reasons, they need that technology) and a host of other things.
I thought this song made reference to Shoemaker Levy 9, the comet which split apart and collided with Jupiter in 1994, which figures in the video. Lines like “on the stellar sea but in little stars” do hint at that but apparently it pays homage to the geologist Eugene Shoemaker, after whom the comet was named and who remains the only person buried on the moon. It has all the bombast required, but is utterly magnificent.
It opens with a harpsichord sound, an instrument I wish they made more use of. It’s a fast-paced bass/drum-led folk song with an appropriate vocal from Floor Jansen/Troy Donockley beefed up with metal riffs. Then suddenly, after a short spoken passage from ‘Romeo & Juliet’ which could be read by Paloma Faith but it is actually Holopainen’s wife, Johanna, it veers off in the last minute into a fabulously stirring operatic section voiced mainly by Floor (is there anything she can’t do?). Believe me, Tarja Turunen would be proud of this. It’s right up there with M83’s Outro in the spine tingling, goose bump department. Can they carry this off live? Apparently Tuomas Holopainen thinks not, which is a shame. It is the only time on the entire album they try an operatic vocal; something that 20 years ago was de rigueur for them.
…is different again. A middle-of-the-road 1960s pop song on the face of it with guitarist and pipes player Troy Donockley taking lead vocal and others harmonising and which, according to the band, points to the meaning behind the entire album. I’ve attempted to unravel the lyrics but I’m none the wiser. The mid-section introduces the Irish jig they’ve used successfully before, and should be a huge ‘live’ favourite.
The Greek god of the wild, nature, fertility, wild irrepressible life, rustic music and companion of the nymphs? Yes, he could be putting in an appearance on this track which, as before, bears no reference to anything before it on this album or there could be no connection at all. It yo-yos between fundamental thumping metal riffs and a musical, delivered in the lightest voice Floor Jansen has found to date.
I find the lyricism to be annoyingly obscure and indistinct as well as somewhat pretentious on this track. If Tuomas Holopainen has a fault it is that he tries too hard to be clever lyrically, and it isn’t. Take for example, “the sea lady, snow, glass, apples/it is stories that built cathedrals”, then “Enter the wood, Tir Na Nog, and bring back the good”. What? Oh come on, what is this, a MENSA test?
How’s the Heart?
They’re in the Tir Na Nog (the Celtic Otherworld) on this track, which reprises ‘Harvest’ in a way with that same Celtic style, interwoven with what is simply soft rock. What is a highly melodic band doesn’t quite hit its normal mark in that respect on this track, it sort of stumbles its way through and the most impressive part of it is the subliminal orchestration in some sections, which might have been mixed up a notch or two.
The Procession referred to in the following track appears to be the procession of evolution, a subject they’ve already touched on at length in another album, and the procession of species we are in danger of wiping out, one that the band has attached itself to recently. Floor returns to her traditional vocal style for this powerful track which needs several hearings before it begins to bite home, and it will. And there is a wonderful line, “We wrote this in a tongue that you will understand”, which must be ‘tongue in cheek’.
Tribal is a drum-led four minutes of controlled mayhem, with a return to the metal riffs and a prominent grunting vocal platform for bassist Marco Hietala. It steps up a gear in the last minute or so as Kai Hahto introduces a more complex driving beat and Floor soars.
Endlessness, which completes the first side of the album, has ‘epic’ written all over it from the very first minute, in a sort of ‘November Rain’ manner. The vocals are shared between what have become a trio of singers on this album – Floor, Marco and Troy - as it builds relentlessly to a thumping beat then backing off to start all over again to emphasise its own apparent endlessness, at the same time applying the aggregate of all the orchestration they’ve used in eight previous albums. Only the very top bands can do this and ‘Endlessness’ will probably lift the roof off most venues.
The second side of the album consists of eight tracks of “instrumental escapism” as Tuomas Holopainen described, except that Floor Jansen’s voice is in evidence. All are entitled ‘All the works of nature which adorn the world’ and subtitled, ‘Vista’, ‘The Blue’, ’The Green’,’ Moors’, ‘Aurorae’, ‘Quiet as the snow’, ‘Anthropocene’ and ‘Ad Astra’ respectively. I’ll deal with these collectively.
‘Vista’ is a deep orchestral piece, heavy on strings and woodwind, while ‘The Blue’ follows it on in a similar manner, becoming a particularly heavy piece, the sort of soundtrack that would accompany the build-up to battle in a war film. ’The Green’ is lighter, more relaxing, uplifting. The end of a sci-fi thriller, when everything is resolved. ‘Moors’ introduces Troy Donockley’s pipes for the first time then sees a change of direction again towards ‘build up to battle’ music, then changes again to the final theme (‘Ad Astra’) which will finish the piece. ‘Aurorae’ is a more overt, shorter, dynamic
instrumental/choral piece. The sixth track is literally ‘Quiet as the snow’, a solitary violin piece then opening into a symphony befitting a musical western set in the prairies. ‘Anthropocene’ is a powerful lament played mainly on violins.
The finale, ‘Ad Astra’, is a much lighter piece which, culminates in a poignant, thrilling ending. While it takes the form of “a love letter to planet Earth” they have used it to highlight the danger to disappearing species. The band pre-released this track to mark their association with The World Land Trust Partnership and it contains the same voiceover.
While the second side of the album contains some very relaxing orchestral music – you’ll think you’ve tuned into Radio 3 by mistake - it is isn’t immediately clear just why Tuomas Holopainen chose to devote an entire disc side to such a production. Perhaps it is indicative of an orchestral path that he intends to take in the future.
To conclude, a few observations on the initial impression the album makes after a couple of hearings, both positive and negative.
It is by far the most ambitious prospect Tuomas Holopainen and his band mates have tackled to date. It will undoubtedly lose them some of their early supporters from the metal fraternity but should equally attract, probably more, followers of other genres, particularly progressive rock, in which there exists a void to be filled by a contemporary ‘super group’, as well as some crossover followers from mainstream classical music.
In many ways the album represents what the 1970s progressive masters might have been doing now were they still going. There are some touches of Yes and Genesis in their work already but the band I’d liken then to most here is ELP, possibly King Crimson.
The album is supposed to represent various aspects of Human Nature but too often we’re left guessing what they are.
Lyrically, brief snatches of both words and ideas are employed successively, and often in divergence with each other rather than ‘sentences’ with ‘verbs’. This is hardly unknown for Nightwish but it does often leave the listener clutching at straws for meanings.
Floor Jansen gets through more vocal styles than most singers will manage in a career.
The value of having Kai Hahto as full-time drummer now is evident as he has the technical ability to handle some demanding requirements.
As with all their other albums there are sections of this one which will leave you dumbstruck.
All artists and bands can be overtaken by events, especially if they do not delay albums. The previous one contained a huge ending to one song, even more so than ‘Shoemaker’, ‘Endlessness’ and ‘Ad Astra’, in which Floor Jansen exuberated “we were here” (i.e. the Human Race) before the professional atheist Richard Dawkins stepped up to the mic to intone funereally “we are all going to die”. They must be thanking their lucky stars there’s no repetition of that on this album, or it wouldn’t be selling many copies.
On the other hand and speaking of film scores, I’ve heard several pieces of music recently that would be appropriate to the soundtrack of the Hollywood film which is undoubtedly being written already about what is happening. One of them is Marte Eberson’s ‘Corona Toccata’, which I believe is being recorded this week. There are several tracks on this album that would fit that particular bill as well.
‘Human. :II: Nature.’ was released digitally on 10th April 2020 but some of the physical versions have been postponed for a week. As things stand there are two live dates in the UK, in December.
Nordic Music Review 8/10