The majority of Nightwish fans will indubitably have their favourite era of the band - be that characterised by their preferred singer; favourite album; best ever tour/show, etc. However, sweeping nostalgia to one side for a moment so that it doesn't compromise comparative judgements, I'd like to talk about the here and now. I know the here and now is a grim and anxious time for the whole world, but thank fuck for bands like Nightwish and the currently much needed escapism their music provides. 'Human. :II: Nature.' is, in my opinion, amongst their finest works, and their 2020 lineup is the band's strongest. Sure, I still listen to 'Oceanborn', 'Century Child', 'Wishmaster' and 'Dark Passion Play' (my favourite four Nightwish albums, for the record, in that order). Now, I'd add 'Human...' to that list. It's a phenomenal work.
Floor Jansen, now fronting the band for eight years, is, for me, Nightwish's best vocalist and, here, she solidifies herself as such. I adored After Forever (still very sadly missed), and her voice has transferred and translated perfectly within the context of Finland's finest. The depth and range of her voice, from style to pitch to timbre, has brought a whole other dimension and diversity potential to Nightwish’s output. Likewise with the super-talented Brit in the band, Troy Donockley, who'd been bringing his Uilleann pipes and tin whistle to the party for five or so years before being hired as a permanent member at the same time as Jansen. Now, Donockley's been permitted to unleash his full multi-instrumentalist and vocal force and, like Jansen, has widened the palette from which mainman Tuomas Holopainen has been able to paint from.
It's fair to say that Nightwish have now realised their full diverse potential on 'Human...'; an album comprised of songs that provide instant gratification, mixed in with growers that I've found require multiple plays to fully connect with their less immediately obvious emotional depths. And it’s an emotional allure that becomes more and more attractive with each new listen through. Lengthy-ish opener 'Music' is neither grower nor instant hit, but rather has a beautiful, slow build-up which is pure Nightwish magic. Sublime melodies, beautiful vocals, and all climaxing in a more traditional band arrangement during its final three minutes... which segues perfectly into 'Noise', by far the album's most paradigmatic Nightwish fodder (melodically, compositionally and in the general arrangement).
'Shoemaker' evokes the traditional trade titling from 'The Carpenter' on their debut album, and the song harks back to a Nightwish sound of yore, where innovation took priority over hit potential. 'Harvest' is innovative folk bliss, Nightwish style, that edges towards 'Last of the Wilds' level of sublimity during its second half, but with Donockley's smoothly delivered, folked-up vocals during its first half and outro. 'Pan' is epic in its progressive twists and turns and sense of lively grandeur, and provides the album with some of its heaviest moments, as does 'Tribal'. The latter is perhaps the album's most innovative number, complete with some great vocals from bassist Marco Hietala, and it's almost as if guitarist Emppu Vuorinen has reconnected with his fretboard in ways that have been missing from Nightwish for some time.
Elsewhere, there's 'How's the Heart', a pop-folk-rock-metal amalgam and 'Procession', which is characterised by some delightful keyboard melodies and perhaps Jansen's most heartfelt vocals on the album. Then there's 'Endlessness', the album's most down-tempo track with a Hietala lead vocal, which is the one I was unsure about for a while - undoubtedly the biggest grower on the whole record. Multiple listens remedied my uncertainty. I adore it now and understand its place on the album.
And then we have the second platter of music in this double album set, which is bookended with a little spoken prose (courtesy of Geraldine "Bitty" James), but is largely an instrumental affair. Eight tracks of orchestral magnificence is what we have here, under the banner ‘All the Works of Nature which Adorn the World’, and adorned the music most certainly is, with a variety of instruments, courtesy of The London Session Orchestra and beyond, with choirs, ethereal vocalisations, pipes and keys, etc. And it's with this second suite of music that Holopainen truly shines with his artistic sublimity. There is some serious compositional skill at work here, on a series of tracks that range from stirring ambient minimalism to emotionally hard-hitting epic crescendos. While it could be construed as the soundtrack to an unmade movie, if you let your imagination loose to flourish through the listening experience, then I'm certain your mind's eye will be conjure all kinds of visual accompaniment of your own, in whatever way the music inspires you to do so. Those of you with a wide knowledge of film music will no doubt be able to identify idioms inspired by certain composers but it's ultimately Holopainen through and through.
Ultimately, for me, Nightwish have delivered one of their very finest works with 'Human. :II: Nature'. Diversity and innovation balanced out with the familiar and accessible, on an album that holds many surprises, not least of which is the 31 minute orchestral film-score finale. Press blurb that accompanied this promo describes the album as “a musical bag of magic”. I'd agree.
HUMAN. :II: NATURE.
Review by Mark Holmes
10th April 2020
1) Music; 2) Noise
3) Shoemaker; 4) Harvest
5) Pan; 6) How's the Heart
7) Procession; 8) Tribal
9) Endlessness; 10) Vista
11) The Blue; 12) The Green
13) Moors; 14) Aurorae
15) Quiet as the Snow
17) Ad Astra
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:
"Diversity and innovation balanced out with the familiar and accessible, on an album that holds many surprises..."