NIGHTWISH – Sticking A Finger In The Eye Of The Beholder
April 1, 2015, 5 years ago
For long-time Nightwish fans, namely those of us that were around five or six years before the 2004 commercial splattershot explosion of "Nemo", the "Élan" single from the band's new album, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, was something of a letdown. Not everyone felt that way, but for many folks the song came off as painfully soft-handed after months upon months of new vocalist Floor Jansen being touted as the perfect in-your-face successor for both former Nightwish singers, Anette Olzon and Tarja Turunen. Countless hours of bootleg YouTube footage and the Showtime, Storytime DVD fuelled this widespread opinion, pushing expectations that Jansen's studio debut with Nightwish would be something bold and brash. First impressions don't paint the entire picture in this case, however, and once inside Endless Forms Most Beautiful fans will discover - for better or worse - things most certainly aren't what they seemed when "Élan" crooned its way out of the latest Nightwish branded box of tricks."I haven't really listened to the album in a couple of months now," keyboardist/mastermind Tuomas Holopainen admits, "but one of the most common comments I get from people is that the new album has this old school Nightwish vibe, like going back 10 years in time. I've heard it called more band oriented, more organic, more like Once and even Oceanborn, and I have to agree."
Comparisons to Nightwish a decade past are warranted with new material like "Shudder Before The Beautiful", "My Walden", "Endless Forms Most Beautiful", "Yours Is An Empty Hope" or, yes, "Élan", but primary songwriter and musical director Holopainen deftly avoids a complete rehash of the band's well worn orchestral bombast-laden trademarks. This is perhaps best exemplified by their decision to bring the new record to a close with an obnoxious epic track, "The Greatest Show On Earth". Originally 35 - 40 minutes long, the band decided to cut it down to a more respectable 24 minutes (!) that, much like Dream Theater's now legendary song "A Change Of Seasons", doesn't feel nearly as long as it looks on paper. It's a rare feat that very few bands can pull off."I don't like originality for the sake of originality," says Holopainen. "I hear many bands doing this sort of thing just because it's artistic and cool and all that. When you want to tell a story about the evolution of life, go back in time 4.6 billion years, you can't really do a four minute song (laughs). It was the same thing with 'The Poet And The Pendulum' (from Dark Passion Play); it takes some time to tell the story, but you really need to have a reason to do a long song. The same thing with the use of orchestra, choirs and guest musicians; don't do it because it's trendy and looks good in the album booklet. You have to have a reason for it."
Endless Forms Most Beautiful is ultimately about change. Thematically it was inspired by Charles Darwin's theories on evolution as presented in his book, On The Origin Of The Species, but the Nightwish collective went though some important and influential growth during the making of the album. Jansen's move from the Nightwish stage to the studio is the big focus, but the addition of multi-instrumenalist Troy Donockley to the ranks, the seemingly reduced vocalist role of bassist Marco Hietala, as well as the (temporary) loss of original drummer Jukka Nevalainen are all noteworthy in the final result.
On working with Jansen, Holopainen has only positive things to say. If he sounds like a hippie, blame it on his good nature and humble demeanour."It was easier and even better than I'd anticipated. Floor was so dedicated and so motivated, and she had done her homework so well, that we never had a moment of desperation. She nailed all the songs perfectly. I think it took her less than a week to sing all the parts. The only 'problem' we had was during 'Our Decades In The Sun' because she and everybody in the studio was quite moved by the atmosphere and the lyrics of the song. We heard a little bit of sobbing behind the microphone every now and then, but stuff like that is just a wonderful thing."
"Floor did a wonderful job, and Marco was there all the time during the recordings coming up with these beautiful harmonies. They would go over the harmonies together to figure out what worked best... it was so easy and so smooth. Everyone was motivated all the time. I had all the vocal lines written and an idea of how Floor should sing them, but she brought a lot into the songs herself. She came up with some harmonies that I never thought of, there were a couple of songs she sang in a different way from what I originally had in mind. Floor went through the songs again and again in the rehearsal room in order to find the perfect approach. Talk about dedication..."
As for Hietala's perceived absence as a vocalist for much of Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Holopainen says that simply isn't the case."That's something I hear all the time and I do understand that because he only has three solo vocal parts on the whole album. On the other hand, Marco sings much more than ever before because he sings backing vocals or harmonies in every single song on the album. There are all kinds of little voices here and there, so he's more involved than ever before."
"It's really simple in the end," he adds. "You have a bunch of songs and then you do the best you can to bring them to life in the best possible way. Sometimes it requires Marco's voice or a solo, sometimes it doesn't require one or either of those elements. Never do things just because you can or because you want to show off. You have to be really humble all the time, and it really is as simple as that. We get a lot of comments and questions saying 'Where's Marco?' and 'Where's Floor's operatic voice?' and 'We need more solos...' and 'We need less solos...' but this is just our way of bringing these songs to life in the best way possible."
Holopainen acknowledges Donockley as a major influence on his creative energies without missing a beat."We all love the Celtic sound and we knew this time we had a person with us that could play all of those instruments: tin whistle, uilleann pipes, the Irish bouzouki. He also has a really nice singing voice so he brought a lot into the band. I'm thankful for that every day. Maybe for some people it looks like he's an outsider, but Troy is very much a part of this band. He did every show with us on the Imaginaerum tour, he did a lot of playing on the previous two albums (Imaginaerum and Dark Passion Play) so he was part of the band before we made it official."
"I have a wonderful bunch of people around me and there are absolutely no restrictions when it comes to songwriting. I never think 'I can't write this part because nobody can sing it or play it.' In that way I feel truly blessed."
The flipside to these positives is the loss of drummer Jukka Nevalainen, who stepped down of his own accord due to a debilitating battle with insomnia."He was with us in the rehearsal room for the first four-and-a-half weeks of working on the album, but then he informed us that he couldn't do it anymore because of the insomnia. We saw that he wasn't doing well for the last two weeks; he was like a walking zombie. We would rehearse a song, and after three or four hours he would tell us that he had no idea how the song went. His limbs simply wouldn't work, he couldn't coordinate, and he actually made the decision that he had to leave. He's the one that called Kai Hahto (Wintersun, Swallow The Sun) to ask if he had the time and the motivation to fill in."
"Jukka still a part of the band," Holopainen clarifies, "and in the booklet it actually says that Jukka Nevalainen is the Nightwish drummer but the drums were performed by Kai Hahto. We're still hoping that after two or three years Jukka will come back, but at the moment we need to let him be. He's still the CEO of the band's company, he still takes care of all the merchandise, so Jukka is still a member of this band, absolutely."
As for choosing to shelve his well known love for art and literature as musical inspiration in favour of science fact this time around, it turns out Holopainen didn't have to go in search of a spark. He freely admits to being a science nerd for life."I've been a biology and nature freak since I was a kid and I've always been open about that. I studied biology in university for six months, so it has been there all this time. When it comes to doing music and lyrics I've always been more fantasy orientated but for some reason the biologist in me popped up doing this album. There was the realization that the actual real world has equally beautiful stories to tell as fiction does. So, I thought maybe it was time to do an album about those stories."
"You need to make music about things that really inspire you and interest you. For the past five years I've been absorbed in the books by Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins, all these Cosmos and Universe series; they've been at the top of my bookshelf the whole time so it felt natural to create an album based on these stories. In addition to that, it was fantastic to see that all the other band members were equally intrigued. It's no secret, for example, that Marco wasn't always so hyped about the overly romantic topics that I've had for some of the lyrics in the past. This time he was full-on for all the new songs; he said it's our best stuff ever. The whole band had a lot of long and interesting conversations by the campfire about these issues. In that sense this was a really good time to do an album like this."