Symphonic Power Metal pioneers Nightwish have left their fans with bated breath in recent years. One of the most eagerly watched groups in Metal history, the slightest disruption would often send the devoted scurrying, and for good reason. A lot of times, a single alteration anywhere often changes the group dynamics, thus affecting their output. The first major disruption was the firing of Tarja Turunen back in 2005, the same fate befalling her replacement, Anette Olzon, in 2012. This time around, some fans became acquainted early on with the third (and hopefully final) vocalist of the group, Floor Jansen, thanks to her project ReVamp, time as a former member of After Forever, as well as touring with Nightwish following Annette's termination. With a new vocalist in place, and Troy Donockley brought in to handle additional vocals, uilean pipes, and the tin whistle, the band went into the studio to record their eighth full-length album (ninth if you including the score version of Imaginaerum in 2012) a conceptual piece on evolution called Endless Forms Most Beautiful. But is this new outing everything Nightwish fans have come to fall in love with, or does it find the group slowly fading from what made them a household name in the first place?

Well, things start off on the right foot. "Shudder Before the Beautiful" kicks off with a very soft spoken narrative that kicks off the concept of evolution quite well, as if the silence before the big bang. What follows is a crisp, symphony-heavy piece with a decent amount of energy and glorious darkness, all until the chorus, which gradually gets more enthusiastic as the music itself builds to quite the dramatic conclusion. In a way, parts of the song seem reminiscent of the track "Dark Chest of Wonders", just without the mysterious atmosphere, and some bulkier guitars in the initial bridges that thin out heading into the chorus. There's also "Alpenglow" and it's glorious symphonic tendencies, but much of the track sounds incredibly familiar, as if recycling notes and chords from "The Poet and The Pendulum", not to mention comparable to recent Dark Moor recordings.

"Weak Fantasy" stands as a far more enthusiastic performance overall that greatly rivals the previous. The track has its folkish moments, such as the unplugged guitar work just past three minutes, as well as the start of the first verse, but this stands as one of the more operatic cuts in a largely cinematic universe. The dual vocal work between Floor and Tuomas really helps with the over-the-top chorus, but around four minutes in things do drag on for a bit as the pace slows down. While it seems a bit vital to the story behind the album's concept, it does hinder the fluid nature of the track itself. "Endless Forms Most Beautiful", thankfully, brings in more of those operatic elements once more, though only in short bursts. For the most part, it's a fairly standard Symphonic Power Metal cut with simpler riffs that have the bulkier distortion from time to time, as well as an open, bass guitar heavy foundation to the start of the main verses. It's a smooth progression from start to finish, channelling more of an inquisitive atmosphere that would best reflect the birth of a new organism or species in the theme of the release that happens to be feeling itself out and what it can do for the very first time.

Of course there's also the Folk heavy lead single "Elan", which is one of the more beautiful sounding performances of the album. The passion in Floor's vocals really helps prevent this lighter Rock cut from ending up more on the generic side, as do the additional folk instruments like the tin whistle and subtle symphonic builds from the keyboards. The abrupt cut off of the lyrics after "Come!" towards the end, however, just seems a bit too sudden, as if a rock were thrown in that very moment to disrupt the natural flow that, logically, would allow one more vocal refrain in a way that won't jar the natural calming progression the music takes. "Our Decades in the Sun" is another slower piece, which is reminiscent [to me at least] of "Don't You Cry" by Kamelot in the opening structure, lyrics, and even the vocals in a way. The pace does pick up after a while, only to drop back to an emptiness that finds additional choir voices from children fading in and out. While not the most powerful Nightwish performance, fans of Evanescence will embrace it a little more overall for its minimalistic and accessible approach despite some of the additional symphonic and folk elements thrown in for impact.

But, of all the songs, it's the nearly twenty-four minute long "The Greatest Show on Earth", one of the extremely few times Floor's beautiful operatic voice is actually allowed a chance to shine, that stands out the only truly awe-inspiring track of the release. Explosions mark the coming of age "opening our eyes" for the first time in the freshly forged universe theme quite nicely at first. However, by the half way point and the birth of the dinosaurs, the performance essentially becomes Imaginaerum reincarnated for a few minutes, though it tapers off by about sixteen minutes in. The other issue here is how it sometimes falls in line with The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck's concept and theme a lot better than it does this one, such as just past three-and-a-half minutes in, not to mention how the narratives, like about six minutes in, are executed.

Endless Forms Most Beautiful is a noble attempt at bringing Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to an audio landscape, weaving an entire conceptual piece around his book On the Origin of Species and, while it works out lyrically, it winds up a surprisingly bland release most of the time. Much of what made Nightwish stand out had begun unravelling over the years since Tarja's departure, and, no, this isn't a cry to bring her back. Floor Jansen's vocal presence is a nice touch, but the music simply cannot back it up, nor does it really allow her to show off what range she truly has. Everything sounds restrained compared to previous albums, not to mention incredibly generic for the Power Metal style as a whole. The only major redeeming factor is the dark intimacy nearly every track carries that, intentional or not, is a superb representation of the evolution of various species up to and including the dinosaurs since the dawn of time. It also helps to remind listeners that this is, in fact, a Nightwish album, even though it sounds more like one of their clones musically, greatly paling in comparison to even Imaginaerum, the band's most diverse and daring album of their discography.

Of course, this isn't to say Endless Forms Most Beautiful isn't at least catchy. The recurring atmosphere, strewn about infectious cuts, and gloriously powerful closing opus "The Greatest Show on Earth", are all that exist on this album that remind fans of the power and beauty that this band would normally bring to the table. Instead of proving themselves as to why they were the operatic pioneers that unleashed hordes of imposters, they continue their descent to sounding more like composers of cinematic blockbuster soundtracks. This new Nightwish album is simply not Nightwish, instead being more of a husk of itself in the attempt to do something smart and innovative. It succeeds in some ways, but fails in so many others, which is an absolute shame since it renders this band another drop in the bucket of female fronted groups. Endless Forms Most Beautiful winds up a creation stuck between the worlds of Tarja and Annette, leaving behind a struggle between mood and glam with little concrete direction to make it really stand out, leave listeners in awe, or even leave more than a few memorable songs in its wake. Instead, we're given something that sounds fairly safe and mostly like filler that Nightwish fans new and old will have a hard time sitting through it's near eighty minute length in one shot, or repeat visits.

Review originally posted at Apoch's Metal Review.