With nearly 20 years of songwriting under their collective belts, Nightwish have transformed from an operatic symphonic power metal act to something in between that and a full-fledged symphonic folk metal band. That isn’t to say this band is the same as a traditional folk metal band, like Korpiklaani or Eluveitie, but the folk influences are shining through more prominently than ever. Though subtle, the transition from 1997’s Angels Fall First to this year’s album have come so progressively that longtime listeners would never notice such a stark contrast unless they listened to the discography bookends back to back.

With Endless Forms Most Beautiful, it seems Nightwish have their most ambitious album since 2004’s Once, an album that heavily introduced the orchestral sound that is associated with their music now. The first album as a sextet, officially welcoming vocalist Floor Jansen and multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley into the familial fold, Endless Forms Most Beautiful is something of a mixed bag, having combined the aggression that has always been present in the music, the soaring orchestration of the last decade, and the aforementioned folk influences that arrived not long after.

In many ways, Endless Forms Most Beautiful suffers from a lot of the more lackluster issues that 2011’s Imaginaerum had, in that the album struggles to find direction. Previous Nightwish works, especially in Once and Dark Passion Play, had a strong sense of bearing to accompany the thoughtful compositions by Tuomas Holopainen. With Endless Forms Most Beautiful, the compositions are attentive from track to track, but the album seems to meander without considering the juxtaposition of songs. One track will be an aggressive, power metal-centric piece where another immediately will have more folky qualities, guitars being a mere backdrop to an extremely Celtic sound.

To accompany this aimless endeavor, Floor Jansen is incredibly underutilized. To anyone that has been following the band since she took over vocal duties, it is quite clear that she can reproduce the operatic style that original vocalist Tarja Turunen brought as well as the more poppy edge that encompassed Annette Olzon‘s two-album stint. Jansen stands as the perfect center of a Venn diagram between the previous Nightwish eras, but all the songwriting on Endless Forms Most Beautiful seem to almost favor the era that Olzon came from 2007 to 2011. Since Jansen has been with the band since 2012, it would have made sense to accomodate the music towards her vocal ability, but with her lack of involvement in the songwriting process, it seems it was not meant to be. This raises an internal “issue” almost, in that the core songwriting team for Nightwish is Holopainen and Marco Hietala, and has been for many years, but with the addition of new dynamics in Jansen and Donockley, it would seem only right to receive at least a modicum of input from these sources.

The album is not bad, however. There is some really strong songwriting contained within. “Weak Fantasy” offers the “big” sound that Nightwish is known for, with some pretty elegant transitions in the song itself. The same could be said of “Yours is an Empty Hope” and “My Walden,” both of these tracks displaying that delectable fusion sound the band grew into. There is even a pretty slick groove on the title track, courtesy of guitarist Emppu Vuorinen that goes on for just the right amount of time only to fade into the same note progression on the lower end of what sounds like a grand piano. Leave it to Nightwish to lead with the weakest song on the album, as the only single to be released, “Élan,” is easily eclipsed by nearly every track here, except perhaps the instrumental build-up in “The Eyes of Sharbat Gula” to the 24-minute monster “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

More than anything, a lot of the songs on Endless Forms Most Beautiful strike as “standard” Nightwish tracks. Perhaps a lot of the songwriting is safe, because they were collectively venturing into unknown territories as a sextet for the first time. Perhaps Nightwish is merely stagnating with their sound and needs to draw inspiration from more sources. Tracks like “Shudder Before the Beautiful” and even pieces of the aforementioned seem like merely acceptable entries into the Nightwish catalog instead of rising above and beyond what we have come to know.

Kai Hahto (Wintersun, Swallow the Sun) is a revelation as a drummer, replacing Jukka Nevalainen for this album, as Nevalainen is currently suffering from bouts of terrible insomia. Hahto’s experience with Wintersun, Swallow the Sun, Rotten Sound, and more lend a hand to elevating the percussion parts of the album to new heights that Nevalainen’s work didn’t really quite reach, his sole band experience being Nightwish. Depending on future circumstances, Hahto would serve as an excellent permanent replacement for Nevalainen, but that remains to be seen.

There was a great deal of hubbub about the inclusion of Richard Dawkins on the album. The famed evolutionist has a few bits of narration on “Shudder Before the Beautiful” and “The Greatest Show on Earth,” but these pieces of spoken word do little to drive either of these songs upward. They don’t necessarily detract, per se, but they could easily be removed or Dawkins could be replaced by anyone else and the feel would not change. It is understandable that Dawkins’ research has influenced some of the themes on the album, but the generated buzz about his involvement was extremely fabricated for the implied nothingness that resulted.

To reiterate, Endless Forms Most Beautiful feels fairly “safe.” It is not a grand departure from previous Nightwish works, taking a lot of the good parts from throughout their extensive catalog, but also drawing upon some of the weaker moments as recent as Imaginaerum. The pieces are in place for the band to rise higher than they ever have with future work, but they certainly will not do it with Endless Forms Most Beautiful.

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Nightwish’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful gets…

3/5

-KG

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