Sound — 8
Nightwish is probably the most popular band to come out of the Scandinavian heavy metal movement. With platinum sales in multiple countries, the band was domestically successful starting with their first album and internationally successful from their second. With a soothing symphonic tone as well as soaring lead vocals, the band has managed to get that mainstream, foreign following which eludes so many Scandinavian metal bands. The title of this album, the band's eighth, is related to a line from Darwin's seminal work, "On the Origin of Species," which proclaimed the theory of evolution.
The first thing I noticed about this album was its bass heavy mixing, something I have noticed on many Finnish metal releases. The result is that the guitar can feel drowned out at times and I have more trouble than usual listening to the album on my iPod when there is outside noise. Of course, there is the pleasant trade-off that the album has a rather soft feel that can feel like laying your head on a pillow before bedtime (a rather ingratiating effect). On the other hand, I believe it is this production that is responsible for dulling my first listen of the album, making all the songs blend to the point that I could barely tell the difference between them.
However, after multiple listens I have found that this album is a grower. The dynamics and the differing chord progressions are only now beginning to shine through. One aspect that has remained constant throughout is the catchiness of the melodies. "Alpenglow" is the best song from this perspective because it has numerous catchy riffs, one of which borrows quietly from "Live and Let Die." Meanwhile, the fast-paced "Shudder Before the Beautiful" is the perfect opener for the album. The vocals come out in full force and the synth-driven melody is sure to rope you in at least for another song or two. The next song, "Weak Fantasy" builds off its predecessor well by beginning with another heavy, fast metal riff that transitions beautifully into an offbeat tempo that slows the music down and sets up the rest of the album, most of which is slower than the first two songs.
It may have taken me a day or two, but now I can't stop listening to this album. Each song alone is great, but together they form a synergy that is sorely missed from most albums. This album is definitely an album in the traditional sense of the word and not the collection of singles that most releases have become. There is also a more than decent mix of metal and folk sections to make the album seem varied. In addition, that bassy production I mentioned before hides some of the intricacies of the music that are then revealed upon subsequent, more critical listens. This aspect gives the album immense replay value.
For guitar, the highlight comes during the breakdown for the song "Endless Forms Most Beautiful." The riff keeps repeating on itself, but because it is so good, it never gets boring. The synth is dispersed throughout the repetitions of the riff, adding a good deal of texture. And just for good measure, once the guitar has gone through the riff a couple of times, a piano repeats it a few times and though it does not seem like the most exciting thing, the feeling is actually surreal. Otherwise, the guitar is mostly a support instrument, chugging the main chord progression when called upon. There are a couple of guitar solos, but they aren't very notable, just a little bit of shredding over some modes.
The only thing that seems slightly overdone with this album is the chorus effect from the synth that sounds like people singing. It makes sense in certain areas, but in others, it seems to overtake the sound in an unpleasant way. Also, the over twenty minute long epic, "The Greatest Show on Earth," is defined enough into sections that it should be separated into shorter tracks like Rush's "2112" for the sake of easier sorting. However, for such a great album, these criticisms are nitpicking.
Lyrics — 10
The star of this album is Floor Jansen. Some reviewers comment that she did not stretch her range as far as she could have. From my perspective, she must have a truly astounding vocal range if she did not use it all here. In reality, Floor uses a varied approach to the songs, sounding harsh or soft when the music calls for it. Her voice fits the music much better than how Tarja Turunen's voice would have. Tarja's voice fit the band when their sound was heavier and rawer, but now given the large folk aspect of the group, Floor is a great fit. More than anything else, her voice gives the album its soaring feel.
Tuomas Holopainen's lyrics are well developed and fit the music well. There are some instances where the lyrics become cliché, but overall they are at a level above what is considered normal in today's musical world. What makes the vocals truly spectacular though is how Floor Jansen adapts her voice to fit the theme. There is some narration done by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, but it sounds very plain. The whole time he is speaking, I am just waiting to get back to the music.
Overall Impression — 9
This album is probably the most complete, well-written album in Nightwish's catalog. It has a tremendous deal of variation, from the headbanger title track to the much more benign "The Eyes of Sharbat Gula." Troy Donockley's presence is felt throughout the album to marvelous effect. And while "The Greatest Show on Earth" sounds as pretentious in title as One Direction's "Best Song Ever," it is as close to the truth as Nightwish has gotten ever before.