Once again, I feel compelled to review a bit of media. In particular, it’s an album. Call it a sign of the times, I guess.
I first discovered Nightwish in 2004, based on a recommendation from…Slashdot, I think. If I recall correctly (for something that long ago, I can’t say I do), it was the same “smart kids like metal” article that got me interested in the genre as a whole. But I kept seeing them at the top of a few favorites lists, so I checked out Once.
I was blown away. This was the kind of music I never knew I’d been looking for. My only real experience with symphonic metal before then was Metallica’s S&M live album, which was actually really good. Too bad the band immediately lost any goodwill by suing its fans, but I digress. Once left me hooked on not only a band, but an entire subgenre of music, and that hook has stayed in me for a generation.
Last week saw the release of Nightwish’s ninth studio album, cumbersomely titled Human. :II: Nature. (For the sake of clarity, I’ll discard the extraneous punctuation for the rest of this post.) Naturally, I’ve listened to it a few times already, and now I’d like to talk about it.
This one’s actually 2 CDs, not that “CD” means much when almost everyone is going to listen to it in MP3 or Youtube video format. The first disc leads with “Music” as its opening track. We get a fairly long symphonic intro—always a nice touch, in my opinion—before what I see as a fairly traditional Nightwish track: upbeat, with lifting vocals that mix with the orchestral and metal music to create something that overpowers your ears while still sounding beautiful.
“Noise” follows, and it’s a sharp contrast. Where “Music” is almost soft, “Noise” is overtly harsh. The singing is closer to screaming, and there’s more…shredding. Which fits the lyrics, full of references to Black Mirror and allusions to the cacophony that is our modern life.
Farther down the line, “Harvest” is the 4th track, and I would call it a masterpiece. Poetic lyrics, a melodic sound, and a general feeling of goodness permeate the song. Between its content and the chorus of band members singing, I have to admit that I was, for some reason, reminded of “Baba Yetu” by Christopher Tin, the theme song of Civilization IV. “Harvest” just struck that same chord within me.
“How’s the Heart?” is another that left me feeling better. In a way, it’s kind of a sequel to the previous album’s “Elan”. (A common theme, as Human II Nature as a whole seems to be envisioned as a sequel to Endless Forms Most Beautiful.) But it stands alone just fine, and I see it as one of the most meaningful tracks on the album. My interpretation of the lyrics is simple. We’re all human. We all have needs, and ranking high among them is the need for socialization. In these times where that need, like so many others, has been forcibly suppressed, “How’s the Heart?” asks a question I can only answer in one way: it could be a lot better.
“Procession” immediately follows, and I look at it as another “sequel” to a song on Endless Forms Most Beautiful, this time “Edema Ruh”. There seems to be a common theme in these two albums of…watchers. Call them ancestors, angels, aliens, or animist spirits, but someone is watching humanity, as though we were performing for their benefit. They were here before us, they’ll be here when we’re gone. Above all, though, they’re curious. They want to see what we’ll do next. In “Procession”, they sound as though they’re getting tired of our petty squabbles and lack of inspiration. And I agree.
Disc 1 concludes with “Endlessness”, the only track with primarily male vocals. That’s one of the downsides of the album, in my opinion, but I understand. The band’s always been more female-fronted in its singing. Although I won’t say this is the best song on the disc, it holds its own, despite being fairly long. It’s a grand finale, and it does succeed at that. You feel like you’re at the end of a journey when it begins to fade.
But the journey is only halfway done.
The second disc is technically a single song, divided into eight parts collectively titled “All the Works of Nature Which Adorn the World”. It’s entirely instrumental, apart from the occasional choral vocals and a spoken word section at the beginning and the end, and…it’s a metal symphony. There’s no other word for it. “Vista” and “Aurorae” are stirring, “Moors” makes me long for…something. I’m not sure what, but it’s there. “Anthropocene” is a term I generally loathe, considering it a pejorative, but here it comes off as inspiring—if this be the age of humans, let us make it ours. (To top it off, this movement of the symphony even includes a version of the Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal, the world’s oldest known musical work.)
“Ad Astra” closes the book on Human II Nature, and let me tell you this right now: nothing could have prepared me for it. Not only does the music build to a perfect crescendo, creating the sense that, while this story is done, ours hasn’t even begun, but the spoken section is moving, inspiring. It’s a passage from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, where he muses over the picture of the same name, a photograph of Earth as seen from billions of miles away.
Our whole planet doesn’t even take up a whole pixel of the image. Everything we know, everything we are, is nothing more than a dot, “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” For Sagan, that’s a call to protect and cherish what we have. For me, it’s something different. Yes, we must ensure that our environment continues to support not only our lives, but also (and this is where so many environmentalists go wrong) our livelihoods and our standard of living.
To me, the pale blue dot is the beginning. It must be, because otherwise it would be our end. And that, I think, sums up my feelings on the meaning of Human II Nature. We were born of nature, yes, we are of nature, but we have outgrown it. Tsiolkovsky said it best:
Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.
“Ad astra,” the song’s title says. To the stars. At a time when tens of millions of Americans aren’t even allowed to leave their homes, we can yet dream of better times to come. We don’t have to be chained to the indignities of the present, the ghosts of our past. We can make a future that is greater.
Why? Because we’re human. We’re not the disease. We’re the cure.