First, a short clarification; if you’re after consumer reportage, you can find a just-the-facts-ma’am, is-this-worth-your-money write up of this record in plenty of other places. Here, I’m hoping you’ll stick with me a little longer, to cover different ground. If you truly can’t wait for the verdict, then go forth knowing that ‘Human :||: Nature’ is a surprising, strange, and excellent Nightwish album. If you’ve already long-since streamed it by the time you read this, you’ll probably know that already. Stick with me awhile, then, and help me unpick a record that might just stick with all of us for some time yet to come.
In the first instance, ‘Human :||: Nature’ is beautiful, just as a work of recorded art. The first track of the first side, ‘Music’, easily my favourite of the whole album, makes this wonderfully clear. Listen on the best sound system you can possibly get a hold of for the full range of textures, strange and beguiling effects, and Floor Jansen’s album-stealing voice, here pushed to its fullest extent. More than anything else he’s done before, this is a showcase for band leader Tuomas Holopainen’s considerable skills as a composer and arranger.
The crisp, clear production and uncompressed mix makes due space for a whole soundscape of natural and unnatural tones blending and blurring together – whole forests, plains, mountains and savannahs are evoked in the mind before the human element, electric instrumentation, is even heard. This sets the tone completely. This album will be big, like all Nightwish records promise to be, but for the first time, it will be so in scope rather than in scale.
The ‘Human’ half of the record begins proper with lead single ‘Noise’, about as heavy as the album will ever get. ‘Noise’ is not a belter, like ‘Nemo’ or ‘Storytime’, because it’s approaching its concept with more than visceral feelings of joy or melancholy; it is trying, and succeeding, to make the audience look inward, make them anxious, turn the “endless noise” of modern life against the listener. It succeeds. This ambition, and a far more confident grasp of its inspiration, carries over into ‘Harvest’, and ‘How’s The Heart’, two gentle jigs that seem to have been built from the ground up to celebrate the orchestral and folk instrumentation as resources, in the natural sense of the word, exploitable and/or appreciable.
‘Shoemaker’ is an utterly phenomenal piece, whose ululating, yearning outro vocals put me in mind not of any metal song, but the great work ‘Lacrimosa’ by Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner, written in commemoration of a dear friend, used to great effect in the film ‘The Tree of Life’ and a wonderful surprise to hear here on a song of celebration. ‘Procession’ and ‘Endlessness’ are all of a piece as songs about time; the distant past, stretched over aeons, and the far future beyond the apocalypse that is Change. The former I loved for the piano and keyboard lines alone, the latter for Marco Hietala’s only turn on lead vocals, and for its nod to the classic novel ‘The King of Elfland’s Daughter’, whose famous repeated line ‘the fields we know’ is perfect for a song about coming upon the limits of waking Life, and stepping across a border into the unknown, into Death.
Some things fall short, of course. ‘Pan’ is a tone shifter, a straightforward metal track, and straightforwardly filler. Emphasis on flashy playing, especially from guitarist Emppu Vuorinen, has diminished with every record made; how much you’ve appreciated the jump depends on how far you can follow the songwriting. But there are times when flash is quite definitively needed, and without it ‘Pan’ is hopelessly generic. ‘Tribal’ fares better; but its ideas fail to strike. Drumming is never the star turn on Nightwish records, especially in Kai Haito’s unshowy hands, but it needed to be on a track concerned with the syncopation and intricate rhythms of so much of the “tribal” music it’s gesturing towards. Another perspective was needed here – Eurocentric models of ‘classical’ music have served Nightwish well, but ‘Tribal’ is the sound of someone evoking a spirit with which they seem barely acquainted.
And then, the band’s contribution is over. The ‘Nature’ side begins.
“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods. There is a rapture on the lowly shore. There is society where none intrudes by the deep sea, and music in its roar. I love not man the less but Nature more.” - ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Lord Byron.
The second half of this album might’ve been composed out of sheer grumpiness. Nightwish albums always end on a grand, multi-part epic (‘Song of Myself’, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’), but besides ‘Ghost Love Score’ way back on Once, they are the tracks that one imagines a great many listeners skip over. Who has time, in the age of streaming, to sit down and engage with a 10, 20 minute long indulgence? ‘Human :||: Nature’ forces that engagement. With the ‘Human’ half trimmed to a compact nine songs, the ‘Nature’ side can take root and grow strong, becoming practically an album itself at 30 minutes in length. Beyond contributions from Jansen and multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley, no member of the core band makes an appearance, and we are left with an immense composition that demands our attention.
Much of this, tied together under the banner title ‘All the Works of Nature Which Adorn the World’, is incredibly beautiful music. As a writer submitting to an extreme metal-centric webzine, it is also music I am not much qualified to write about, either (somewhat) experientially or (completely) technically; the vocabulary just isn’t there, and I will not belabour the point trying. But Holopainen helps me out, through framing. The excerpt from Byron, above, is the first sound on ‘Human’, and a far more famous set of lines close us out:
“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” - ‘Pale Blue Dot’ - Carl Sagan.
There is something these pieces do to me that I am having such difficulty articulating (and your patience, by now, is much appreciated). Something is here that is rarer than we might realise. Think of what metal music has done with the theme of ‘nature’. As a genre whose origins are in vast cities blackened and scarred by modern capitalist industry, it has either sidestepped the topic, or hopelessly lamented the death of nature in thousands of songs about neglect, pollution or nuclear cataclysm, or allowed engagement to become worship, with many extreme acts tying praise of the land they stand upon to nationalism, and worse. This genre has either ignored the natural world, fantasised about its end, or claimed it as the “birthright” of whoever is currently waving the biggest stick in the woods.
Perhaps that is what has struck me - ‘Human :||: Nature’, especially ‘Nature’, has none of this. It is not fatalistic. Unlike past Nightwish records, it is not twee, either. It is hopeful. Byron opens on a note of solitude and emptiness, at the micro level of woods and lonely shores, and Sagan closes on the macro, an encompassing of all of humanity into a single sphere. Both are about the people we have been, are, and will be, and the world that was, is, and will be. These are not divisions, but connections. ‘Human’ is driven by human creations; electrical power, digital spaces, literal and figurative metal. ‘Nature’ is built from the world, from skin, wood, gut, string, its instruments solely the materials of the animal, vegetable, mineral spheres. The whole effect, the complete impression the two sides create, is music that celebrates and grieves what we have been, and looks forward to what we have yet to do.
Why am I telling you any of this?
The sad fact is that ‘Human :||: Nature’ is an uncommonly timely record. No doubt it doesn’t feel like that to Nightwish, prepared as they surely are to take this album on the road, now stymied completely from doing so. It certainly wasn’t written in response to or in anticipation of a crisis, but it arrived in the middle of one, and that tends to force the hand of anyone trying to look at art “objectively.” You look through the lens you have to hand.
COVID-19 has changed things. It’s not the first time virulent disease has caused global upheaval; it won’t be the last. But it is the first such limbo in the age of instant communication, misinformation, endless noise. For the sake of survival – our own and our communities’ - we are all stuck, and as we wait who knows how long for one aspect of nature to let us go, we are forced to face the impact we have had in turn. Had I heard this record in the free and happy and not-at-all-nightmarish and demonstrably unsustainable state of late-capitalist living three months ago, I likely would’ve raced through it, sorted, praised, dismissed, given a thumbs up or down, thrown it on the pile, just heard it as another piece of, say it again, endless noise. Now, I have had to actually listen, to think about the themes presented, and deal with my own thoughts. This is not limited to Nightwish, nor art of any kind or quality being made right now. To be forced to slow down, to really appreciate the art that is made in celebration and defence of life, and to be made to envision real change in the future, to hope, is no small thing.
Not one word of this is intended to tell you if you would love ‘Human :||: Nature’, or even if you should buy it. It is not a ranking of the album against Nightwish’s other material (and if pushed, I would still say I much prefer the joyful and matchless ‘Endless Forms Most Beautiful’). It is simply all that I have felt and thought about, as I sit here quite alone listening to this record, surrounded and trapped by nature. For that, this album succeeded, as great metal music, as great symphonic music, as art. If you have the means to listen to it, do so. Perhaps you won’t hear a single thing I heard. Perhaps this review is too much of a muchness about a mere double album for you. But you have time now, to stop and to listen, and to think. Take all the time you now have with ‘Human :||: Nature’, and see where it takes you next.
'Human. :||: Nature.’ is out now on Nuclear Blast