Sunday, 2 March 2014

Within Temptation's 'Hydra' - Album Review

Within Temptation are probably one of the most commercially successful modern metal bands. Their albums always sell well and they tour around the world a lot playing to big crowds of their many die-hard fans. While I have always enjoyed their music, I feel that they are probably the least interesting when you compare them to their contemporaries. They have never been as bombastic or progressive as Epica; and bands like Delain do the more simple, poppier songs better; so Within Temptation, for me at least, have always been stuck between those two ends of the spectrum. Their last album The Unforgiving, released in 2011, seemed to be an attempt to move away somewhat from the symphonic metal sound that characterised their previous albums and focused more on the guitars and Sharon den Adel's powerful vocals. The Unforgiving was an album that I enjoyed a lot. The songs were good and I liked the more stripped-back sound as it allowed for the melodies to shine and not get lost in an over-produced confusion. Hydra, the band's sixth studio album, seems to be an attempt to continue the sound forged on The Unforgiving but it never seems to quite work. I find it hard to describe the feelings that I have when listening to Hydra but it seems that lightning has not struck twice for Within Temptation. Do not get me wrong, some of the songs here are very good, but overall the album feels a little bland and does not really have the bite that The Unforgiving had - nor does it have the epic orchestrations of 2007's The Heart of Everything so it is an album that seems to be caught in the middle somewhat. Long-time producer/collaborator Daniel Gibson's production is not bad but it does seem slightly congested in places, which is a shame considering how good The Unforgiving sounds. Much has been made of the numerous guest vocalists used on this album, and while none of the performances are bad, sometimes it all seems just a little redundant and a cynical attempt to try and pick up as much cross-over appeal as possible. Although, from a band that seems to have been more interested recently in covering famous pop songs than writing a new album, that is not really all that surprising! This is also the band's first album to feature drummer Mike Coolen (although he played on many tracks on the live album An Acoustic Night at the Theatre) and guitarist Stefan Helleblad as a full-time member of the band who has taken founding member Robert Westerholt's place on tour while Westerholt spends more time with his family and in the studio.

The album gets off to a strong start with Let Us Burn. It is very similar to the material found on The Unforgiving which is why it works very well as an album opener. The chorus is very memorable and den Adel's voice really soars during it. She might not have the most unique or original voice out there, but there is no doubting her power or the conviction in her delivery. The orchestrations are subtle and do not overpower the simple melodies, and overall it all just comes together nicely. The song even features a short guitar solo from Ruud Jolie which is something not often used by the band. Dangerous is probably the album's best song for me and is one case where the guest vocalist really brought something to the song. Howard Jones (Blood Has Been Shed; Killswitch Engage; Devil You Know) uses his smooth clean vocals to duet well with den Adel and the guitars lock in well with Martijn Spierenburg's keyboards to create a memorable riff and Coolen's simple double-bass drumming keeps the song steaming along. It has another very strong chorus that uses the best of both voices. I would have liked to see Jones use the harsher side of his voice somewhere in the song though, as I think that would have been awesome. And We Run is an interesting song but I am not 100% sure if it quite works. Rapper Xzibit lends his talents to the song, and his sections are good, but it does seem a little jarring. It is not a disaster however, which let's face it, it could have easily been! I am not sure what this is trying to achieve though, as I cannot imagine many Xzibit fans being converted to being Within Temptation fans on the strength of this song. It is the during the next song however that the wheels start to come off though. Paradise (What About Us?) is a pretty twee song that features Tarja Turunen (Nightwish) that really does not make use of her excellent voice. This song just stinks of the band pandering to the section of their fanbase that did not like the shift away from symphonic metal. The video was released long before the album was released in a clear attempt to get those fans back on board before the album was finished. The song is average at best, but the seeming cynicism that surrounds it is hard to take. The mediocrity carries on into Edge of the World which is a pretty dreary ballad that never really gets going. I do like the way that den Adel sings it however, using lots of good high notes, but overall the song falls flat.

Silver Moonlight sees things pick up a bit. It moves back to the riff-based sound of the album's first two songs and picks up a bit of metal credibility after the last two. Westerholt's harsh vocals, not really heard since their 1997 debut Enter, make a return in the chorus of this song which is an unexpected surprise and they fit with the rocking guitars and the gothic orchestrations. It is probably the heaviest song that they have written in a long time, and Jolie's fluid guitar solo works well. However, the up-turn only lasts a single song before Covered by Roses comes along and spoils it somewhat. The bland chorus and 'woah woahs' by den Adel are not very exciting at all and seem to be another attempt to appeal to the pop community. The short spoken word section really does sound like something from an early Nightwish album and does not really fit in with the rest of the song. Dog Days is not much better, and keeps well within the 'average' category. It plods along again without really ever getting going but has very little emotional hooks or amazing musical moments to make up for it. It is an unremarkable song that will appeal to those are like their music safe and dull, which for all I know is what the band were aiming for in attempt to further widen their fanbase. The album's final two songs do improve on the general poor quality of the previous couple however and ensure that the album ends on a relative high note. Tell Me Why has another decent riff but it is the chorus that is it's real strong point. It is similar to Let Us Burn's one in a way, but it still feels good and den Adel does what she does best, belting out a good tune. The rhythms are much more traditionally metal too, which gives the song a heavier feel and it keeps a good pace throughout. The album comes to an end with Whole World is Watching which is a good ballad that features Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum) dueting with den Adel. He has a good voice and they work together on what is a pretty laid back number. The chorus is very strong, with Pirner actually out singing den Adel in places which is nice to see. Overall, the album ends strongly and helps to slightly wipe away the mediocrity of some of the songs here. It is full of too many unremarkable moments to ever really be considered anything other than 'good' but some of the songs here are very enjoyable. It is just a shame that the rest were as dreary as they were as there was potential in some of them and Hydra could have been a great album.

The album was released on 3rd February 2014 via WT Recordings/Dramatico Entertainment. Below is the band's prmotional video for Dangerous.

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