Sunday, February 3, 2019

album review: 'resist' by within temptation

Well, this has been long-overdue.

And I do get the feeling that I'm not the only one who thinks this - it has been about five years since we last heard from Within Temptation, and coming off of a somewhat controversial release, that did strike me as surprising. And yes, I do consider Hydra a little polarizing, especially in comparison with the massive but relatively straightforward symphonic metal Within Temptation released beforehand. Maybe some of it was incidental and linked to the album of covers they released close to it, but it was also their cleanest, most electronic, and most accessible project to date coming from arguably symphonic metal's most accessible act still working - hell, they had a song with Xzibit on it that was later released as a single, and I don't think anyone was expecting that! And while I did like Hydra a great deal back in 2014, I will admit the more streamlined and uniform tone didn't always match their more experimental work in the 2000s, or hit with the huge punch of 2011's The Unforgiving.

So after several extended tours, the band opted to take some time off - frontwoman Sharon den Adel cited exhaustion and writer's block, and the material she did compose translated into an indie pop solo project released last year - which didn't surprise me, I expected that solo project to come a decade ago. The band also switched labels from Nuclear Blast to Vertigo and Spinefarm, which didn't prompt much concern until I heard the band was opting not only for even more electronic elements, but also were taking more of a political angle in their writing. And look, I've been a Within Temptation fan for comfortably over a decade, and yet I can say this was the sort of direction that raised some concern - this is a band that's never been all that deep, and while they've been more willing to play to a mainstream audience, there is a part of me that wishes Within Temptation had taken the Nightwish route with more creative, off-beat experimentation. But since we're not getting another Nightwish album until at least 2020, what did we get off of Resist?

...and this is awkward. Folks, I'll freely admit I had compromised expectations when it came to this album, but the thing with that is how quickly it can change if the album turns out to be awesome. And yet Resist is very much not awesome, the sort of project that seemed to confirm a lot of my fears about this album going in - which is exactly the last thing I want to admit! And between the slightly muted critical response and mixed fan reaction, it doesn't look like I'm alone in this - and as a fan, that's the last thing I want to see, especially as the critical alchemy was here to make this work. Within Temptation still have the same lineup, the same producer they've had for over a decade, this was their longest break between albums, they clearly had faith that this could connect - and thus it's a little heartbreaking to say it just doesn't, especially when you can hear the component parts of the band you love still here, just not meshing the way they should. And that's the other thing: if this album was an outright disaster that would be easier to dissect, but it's good enough in pieces to show how it could have been great, and that's all the more disappointing.

And again, pinpointing why this is can be frustrating, so let's go back to what made Within Temptation albums and songs great in the first place beyond just Sharon den Adel's voice - and this is relevant because Charlotte Wessels has a beautiful voice and that doesn't make Delain any good, so there's definitely more going on here. For me this is always a conversation that circles back to melody: as it's the most accessible genre of metal and Within Temptation don't shy away from a pop focus, I'm listening for hooks, usually with the main instrumental melody carried in the guitarline with the harmony on keyboards or vice versa, and with the bass driving a propulsive groove with percussion as accents. And while albums like The Unforgiving and Hydra got some complaints for being a bit one-dimensional in this formula, it was one that worked. So why doesn't it seem to work on Resist?

Well, this is where we have to talk about production, namely that Resist might be the most overcompressed victim of the loudness war I've ever heard in symphonic metal, especially in the most grainy upper range. And what's alarming is that this is pretty much uniform, so whether it's making Sharon's voice sound even more synthetic - and why in the Nine Hells would you want that - or added to the drum machines and even trap elements that slipped in, all of which makes the mix seem that much artificially 'busier'. And then you run into the next problem, in that the percussion, synthetic or otherwise, has been cranked up in the mix to sound more dense and heavy - and it was done at the expense of melody carried in the guitars or keyboards or even arranged elements. So yeah, there is thunderous presence to some of these songs on aggregate, but if you're looking for a distinctive tune in the instrumentation to compliment the main vocal line - and Sharon and her guest stars could definitely use it, especially given how much she slips into her operatic classical register - you'll be lucky to hear it! And this doesn't even account for the bass, which often supplements melody but is so buried beneath the drums that the songs manufacture a stiffness that makes them feel really overweight and clunky. I'll say this bluntly, if you subtract Sharon's vocal leads from this mix, many of these songs are so much overweight bombast but utterly lacking a distinctive melody or much in the way of dynamics - the reason I haven't referenced any individual songs is that so many of them run together! Now thankfully Sharon's voice does come through and we do get some songs that have a little more of a melodic hook - like the synths trying to desperately drive 'Mad World' and 'Supernova' or how 'Mercy Mirror' tries to anchor more of a guitar line, and I'll even give 'Endless War' and 'The Reckoning' some credit for trying to establish a melodic motif they'll hammer into the ground, but even by the standards of other overcompressed Within Temptation songs - and let's be real, there's a lot of them - there's no melodic equivalent to 'The Howling' or 'Iron' or 'Faster' or 'Sinead', not helped by the solos feeling tacked on and sadly none of the electronics feeling all that innovative either! The closest we get to a moment of real dynamics comes on 'Firelight', but I don't think the backing vocals quite click and I'm not wild about the hook.

Granted, all of this would be helped if the lyrics connected at all, and here's were we run into the other big problem: Within Temptation is just not that deep. And the big secret is that they've never needed to be - the hooks were great, Sharon could sing her ass off, it felt so epic and sweeping the content almost became incidental. But when you don't have that in the same way, the broadly sketched vengeful rebellion narratives feel increasingly shallow - the plot of The Unforgiving might have been shallow, but there was a core to something. Here... well, I can tell whatever personal drama Sharon went through gives the lyrics some personal bite the way she sings them, but step back from the tortured, back-and-forth relationships, and not only does any political angle utterly evaporate, but it's so broadly sketched to feel increasingly hollow. It doesn't help that the metaphors are really hyperbolic - which yes, you can get away with in symphonic metal, but the lack of greater detail contributes to the problem of so few of these songs standing out.

And as a whole... folks, I won't mince words, this is the first big disappointment for me in 2019, and what's genuinely frustrating is that I'm not sure how to explain it. There's a part of me that just wants to say they were chasing trends at a new label and it didn't work - which can be what happens when you're riding off years of writers block and undisclosed personal drama - but if anything this feels worse, like the wellspring of ideas and solid songs just wasn't here, which leaves you with an album where some isolated snippets might connect but rarely as good as what the band has done before and always showing just enough to inform you they're capable of better. And that raw talent means I can't outright fail this album, but it feels like an album of filler and I know they can do better, so me it's a 6/10 and only recommended for the diehard fans - but given I count myself in that group, I can't promise you'll get what you want. Otherwise... yeah, it's been a long five years to come back to this - sorry.

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