For some the NIGHTWISH name remains synonymous with gothic high-fantasy, bardic storytelling, and orchestral pretensions bordering on bombastic – but, for over a decade, the band have been in the process of slowly refining or ridding themselves of these easy clichés.
The arrival of Anette Olzon signalled that change was afoot. There is a distinct and irresistible pop-appeal to the transitional albums Dark Passion Play and Imaginaerum as well as an increasing conceptual and lyrical sophistication – the latter being produced in tandem with a film of the same name. After the band had completed the extensive and exhaustive Decades world tour, in which well-worn classics were re-imagined by the new line-up, the band announced that a new album was on the way and finally, some five years after their last, Human. :||: Nature. is here.
Human. :||: Nature. is an album conceived in dualities. Firstly, and foremost, the album is divided into two halves. The first half, Human, contains distinctly NIGHTWISH fare, in which they blend symphonic metal and folk rock in increasingly equal measure, while the second half, All The Works of Nature Which Adorn the World, is a fully-realised orchestral suite, composed as Tuomas Holopainen’s “love letter to our world”. Musically, the band continue to explore the duality of heavy and light, as Floor Jansen’s soaring melodies sit comfortably alongside Kai Hahto’s double kick drums, and Troy Donockley’s Uilleann pipes chirp mildly amidst Marco Hietala and Emppu Vuorinen’s metallic guitar work.
The album’s artwork, which features Sumerian cuneiform glyphs, invokes the duality and division of ‘human’ and ‘God’, or ‘nature’. Lyrically, Human. :||: Nature. is rich in dualities: noise and music, the ancient and the modern, technology and art, the human and the natural; these themes are timeless. Music, Harvest, Procession and Tribal each treat of features of human existence which are as relevant now as they ever have been, albeit in increasing abstraction, and it’s this parallel of the old and the new which makes Human. :||: Nature. conceptually engaging. The album does not function as a critique of modernity, so much as a reconciliation between the beauty of the past and the peculiar vanity of the present.
In a decisive and potentially divisive move, the album’s first half features no orchestral elements whatsoever. Instead a string quartet is used sparingly throughout, and accordingly, Human contains NIGHTWISH’s heaviest material to date, fore fronting the guitars and drums, and focusing on the metallic core of the band’s sound in an unprecedented way. Opening track Music acts as an aural history lesson, as it slowly incorporates increasingly modern patterns and textures to lead seamlessly into Noise. lead Jansen’s tonal versatility has been pushed to ever-greater extremes throughout, but nowhere is her skill more apparent than on Shoemaker and Pan, which contain exceptional melodic and harmonic work on her part.
In fact, the vocal talents of the whole group have also been brought into sharp relief, with Hietala and Donockley each presiding over their own songs and appearing throughout to complement Jansen’s commanding voice. Hahto also proves himself to be a flexible fixture of the band, bringing traditional drumming patterns and textures into the fold, and anchoring the ancient atmosphere of album highlights Tribal and Procession. Donockley wields an impressive arsenal of acoustic instruments, and constitutes the folk component of the group as such: Uilleann pipes, low whistle, bouzouki and the bodhran all have their part to play in Human. :||: Nature.’s textural menagerie. Holopainen’s talents are for the most part reserved for the album’s closing orchestral suite, a picturesque tour of the natural world through his eyes, and brought to life with The London Session Orchestra.
That there is a connection between the album’s two halves is by no means obvious, and if there is meant to be one, then it must be purely conceptual. NIGHTWISH have built their brand around the concoction of heavy metal and orchestral music, and straightforwardly divorcing those two elements might prove to be a step too far for all but the most ardent of fans. The risk, and it seems inevitable, is that the first half of the album is co-opted, and the second half is simply forgotten. No doubt NIGHTWISH are among the few heavy metal bands to have cultivated a fan-base willing to listen to a half-hour orchestral suite, but one has to imagine that they are very much in the minority. Just listening to Human would leave you with plenty of NIGHTWISH, fifty minutes in fact, but releasing a double album with the expectation that most people won’t hear the second half more than once in spite of its quality is a brazen artistic statement, and questionable from a listener’s point of view. Human is a fantastic NIGHTWISH album, and All The Works of Nature Which Adorn the World is a superb orchestral suite, but Human. :||: Nature. as a whole feels somewhat disjointed.