Wednesday, January 29, 2014

album review: 'hydra' by within temptation

I've mentioned in the past that when I leaped from pop music into symphonic metal in my teens, I primarily listened to acts like Blind Guardian and Nightwish, at least initially. But it wasn't long before I discovered the act that was often considered Nightwish's primary competitor in the realm of symphonic metal, as they both started in the same year and had uncannily similar album release schedules. 

That band was Within Temptation, a band I've consistently liked for the past decade and one that I've always held up as the necessary rational counterpart to Nightwish's turbulent insanity. Where Nightwish dove into wildly imaginative yet bloated excess, Within Temptation toed the line a little closer to the mainstream with tighter lyrics and riffs, Sharon den Adel's beautiful vocals, and a sound that would be more easily accessible from the crowd that took the wary step away from Evanescence into something heavier (and eons better).

And yet, as much as I like Within Temptation's consistent high quality, they aren't a band that has ever surprised me, and they've only had moments of pure transcendent awesomeness. Don't get me wrong, all of their albums are definitely worth your time, but as a band I wouldn't quite say they've stepped out of their comfort zone - heavy enough to be considered metal, but not too heavy or weird enough to be inaccessible to a casual fan. In fact, if you're looking for a great entry point for symphonic metal, Within Temptation would be a fine start, but on the other hand, while lead singer Sharon den Adel might have begun her career collaborating with Arjen Lucassen (of Ayreon), her most recent release prior to this was an album of metal covers of pop and rock songs that included David Guetta, Bruno Mars, and Enrique Iglesias.

And thus, I was skeptical going into their most recent album Hydra. I did like their previous major release The Unforgiving, an attempt at a pulpy urban fantasy tale than worked more often than it didn't, but the delays and bizarre list of collaborators on this album gave me a fair bit of pause. And while some were saying Within Temptation was returning to their 'heavier' roots and showing 'the many different sides of their music', I had to wonder that at what point would Within Temptation lose all their unique personality altogether. I prayed for the best, but I expected the worst - what did I get?

Well, you can all relax, because Hydra by Within Temptation is a very good, possibly even great album, and most of my fears were put to rest, especially with regards to their collaborators. But on the other hand, as a fan of this band, I can't help but feel this album should have been better, and most of it is linked to a strange problem I never saw coming but remained a persistent annoyance all throughout the record.

But first, let's get the good pieces out of the way, because the core of what makes Within Temptation a great symphonic metal band is pretty much still here. The band has a knack for great melody lines and even better crescendos, and Sharon den Adel's voice has somehow only gotten better, as she mostly avoids her lower range and sticks with her ethereal upper range which sounds even more gorgeous and effortless than usual. And all of the musicians are on great form here, as the stylistic shift towards a heavier direction requires some pretty serious playing from everyone involved, and they deliver. In particular I'll single out Mike Coolen's drumming, because there's a layer of texture, diversification and presence the drums have that really stuck in a good way.

And the next big surprise is that all of the guest stars on this album deliver in a big way. Tarja continues to sound phenomenal and her interplay with Sharon shows that if the two of them wanted to make a collaboration album I would buy it in a heartbeat. Former Killswitch Engage frontman does better than expected on his track, and Dave Pirner (formerly of Soul Asylum) provides a great counterbalance for Sharon on the final track 'Whole World Is Watching'. Even Xzibit - yes, the rapper - actually steps up his game and delivers a solid and completely cohesive rap verse on his track 'And We Run', which I honestly didn't think was possible and the track is one of the highlights of the album!

So what about the lyrics? Well, let's all be brutally honest here for a second and admit that the lyrics are not the main reason anyone listens to Within Temptation (you know it's true) - but they're actually pretty solid here. Not great or anything close to important, but they rarely become a hindrance and the poetry is perfectly acceptable for a Within Temptation album. And while there are points they do become a little too simplified ('Dog Days' is a perfect example of that), they do accomplish their purpose and even manage to roughly follow a cohesive theme, in this case the the wild exuberance and necessity of trying new things and taking chances. Hell, there are even hints of nuance where the songs show the pressure of testing new ground or the hesitation one might have when they know the world is watching. Most of the songs, however, are focused on the experience, the heightened adrenaline you get when leaping into the void, and they match the instrumentation damn near perfectly in that regard.

Now some of you are probably wondering that if I have so much praise for this album, where's the problem? Well, it's two-fold, half speaking to the band's production and half speaking to the band's overall instrumental direction for this album, but they both have the same root cause. The first problem is subtle, but once you hear it on this record, you won't be able to not hear it: there's a very sharp 'crispness' to the production that makes all of the sounds in the mix rougher. The guitars have more crunch, the vocals sound more ragged, every element of classical instrumentation doesn't quite sound compressed but the sound never fully swells. And coupled with the reverb and backing choruses, you can tell that every element is trying to 'sharpen' the sound, to lend it more edge. And considering this is easily Within Temptation's heaviest album in years, it becomes quickly apparent that the production was intended to emphasize and accentuate that raw heaviness.

But I don't think the production choice works, and here's why: some of the grander symphonic elements (which feel even more pared back than on The Unforgiving) lose their dramatic swell and texture, and without a grander symphonic arrangement, the music loses something for it. Coupled with the choice only have a solitary ballad, the entire album feels lacking in musical dynamics, which means the crescendos lose some of their weight and the tracks feel a little less epic - which is bizarre, considering how damn hard they're trying to evoke that emotion. And on that note, the record definitely feels overproduced - the overuse of vocal effects, the added electronica pieces that feel extraneous, and so many points where the mix just feels overstuffed. And the worst element is that some of the band's best elements are suffering for it - the guitar solos, in particular, often sound swallowed up by the rhythm guitar segments and don't have full presence in the mix, which strikes me as detrimental.

Now the overproduction doesn't surprise me and this leads to the hypothesis I made earlier: for as much the band are saying they're taking bold risks and chances, this band doesn't really step out of their comfort zone. Sure, there are surprising collaborations and occasionally the percussion gets interesting and the album is heavier, but at the same time I don't feel they went far enough to justify the lyrical focus. On top of that, with the overproduction and rap verses you can tell Within Temptation are moving ever closer to the mainstream and while they're doing it well and still holding onto some personality, their choices are not placing the spotlight on all of their strengths in favour of catering to a larger audience. And while I'm not saying Within Temptation 'sold out' or any ridiculous like that, I will say that Hydra reflects a band that doesn't really have a unique direction of their own to take their music. Which, if you go back through their discography (especially The Silent Force), that makes a certain amount of sense.

Look, let me stress that I like this album - it's a credit to the band that I can get as worked up as I do and still highly recommend this album. And make no mistake, Hydra by Within Temptation was a great album that I really enjoyed, and it's getting an 8/10 from me. It's heavy, it's powerful, it's epic, and the performers are better than ever across the board - but it didn't quite hit me with the same impact and all of their 'bold new steps' don't sound that bold to me. I wanted to love this record, not just like it, and while it's not their worst album, it's not their best either. Either way, it's a strong symphonic metal album that the fans will love, and if you're not a fan, go ahead and take that chance and give it a listen - because on Hydra, it seems like Within Temptation are willing to meet you halfway.

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