Within Temptation – The Unforgiving Review

What do you do if you’re a successful female-fronted rock band with a few MTV hits on your hands? You’ve just played your most famous concert ever – the triumphant Black Symphony with the The Metropole Orchestra – and you’re at the top of your game. What next? For most bands it would be a complete commercial crossover. Ditch most of the guitars, get yourself a flash Hollywood producer and make your next record sound like Beyonce.

What vocalist Sharon den Adel and guitarist Robert Westerholt did was went away and had lots of babies. Three years later they and their bandmates have returned with an album that’s part what you expected but also chock full of the unexpected. This certainly isn’t “Within Temptation Goes Pop” – not even close – it’s an astonishing canny release for a band that had reached its peak and has set course for an entirely new destination. Right that’s Symphonic Metal sewn up, they seem to have said, lets go create an eighties metal masterpiece.

One thing you wouldn’t expect Within Temptation to return with is a concept album based on a horror/fantasy comic book (by writer Steven O’Connell and artist Romano Molenaar). That’s old school, that’s old fashioned metal – that’s brilliant. Before you’ve heard a note you already know that this is one band that is not going to give up its rocking core for MTV. And the resultant album – although there’s plenty of pop on offer – isn’t the pop you might expect.

By the time Within Temptation released The Heart of Everything it was top of the heap of European symphonic metal bands. Soprano Sharon den Adel operatic vocals fitted with Robert Westerholt’s pomp rock – a balance few bands have achieved. And yes while sometimes the band skirted close to sounding like Lloyd-Webber trash, most of the time Within Temptation was leading the genre on not following someone else’s template.

The Heart of Everything saw a more commercial sound emerging – Sharon singing with her rock voice rather than the soprano – and songs with more MTV-friendly hooks. The symphonic metal roots were still there – but we heading more for mainstream rock and good though Within Temptation is – there are better straight rock bands around. Then came the gig with the The Metropole Orchestra – the turning point for the band’s sound.

Now three years later Within Temptation has returned with the very same orchestra to weave a modern spell that joyously wears its influences up front – 1980s pop, rock and metal. Yes The Unforgiving may have a commercial sound – but it’s a commercial sound from over 20 years ago.

The other surprise is the pace of the album. Sharon always did like her slow ballads and for me they were the band’s weakest songs. The Unforgiving is a very uptempo album, blisteringly fast at times such as my album highlight In the Middle of the Night. There’s only one real ballad – Fire And Ice – and even that picks up the power and the tempo later on. And that song is sandwiched between to massive slabs of symphonic rock – the radio airplay hit Faster (which is a ripoff of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game – but played faster – geddit?), and Iron. The latter sounding a surprisingly like mid eighties Iron Maiden, perhaps the reason for the title.

You could argue this is Within Temptation’s most pop album, certainly in production terms and the subtle use of orchestral strings that’s correct. But the funny thing is The Unforgiving is also the band’s most metal record. There are some huge chunky metal riffs on show and this is the first WT record where I’ve really noticed memorable guitar solos. The Unforgiving does something rather clever – it sneaks under the radar thanks to some poppy moments – most obviously the disco-tempo Sinead – and then delivers a stealth payload of chuffing great Iommi/Hetfield riffs.

In the Middle of the Night, Iron, Lost, Murder and A Demon’s Fate all rock hard, with the album seemingly getting heavier as it progresses. It’s a great trick. You can imagine Lady Gaga fans digging the first few tracks and by the end of the album ordering the new Amon Amarth record from Amazon.

While Black Symphony saw Within Temptation bury their band sound under the weight of the orchestra. What shines through on The Unforgiving is the musicianship and power of the group itself. The guitars are crunchy and loud, the rhythm section pounding and brutal and its only when these foundations have been laid strongly in the track that the more symphonic elements are allowed to play long. The band’s best asset – Sharon’s voice – is up front and has never sounded better, left to stand on its own merits rather than the overuse of effects we heard in The Heart of Everything.

The Unforgiving is a great rock record and perhaps the best fusion of the symphonic and metal that any group has managed so far. As a rock fan whose first journey into the dark side of the pentatonic was Maiden’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son this seems the perfect commercial metal release. The Unforgiving is a beautiful, fast, powerful, rocking slab of guitar-driven pomposity and a strong contender for the best rock album of 2011 already. Nightwish, your move.