One of the nice things about bands like Dutch symphonic metal maestros Within Temptation is that you always kind of know what to expect. I appreciate that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and it’s a crowded field with great bands like Leaves Eyes, Nightwish and a host of others vying for our attention.
Although (unfortunately) labelled with “female fronted”, “operatic” and “gothic”, these bands succeed because they’re more than just a pretty face and a beautiful voice. They have to have something extra, and there’s no denying that over the past few years Within Temptation have hit on a winning formula… not exactly hindered by Sharon den Adel ticking all the requisite boxes.
After 16 years sticking more-or-less to that winning formula and letting it gradually evolve (with the odd surprise now and again, like the doff of the cap to commercial appeal with 2011’s The Unforgiving), you’d be forgiven for expecting Hydra, the 6th studio album, to be “Business as usual”.. well you would until you saw some of the collaborations that they’ve lined up. Operatic Metal legend Tarja Turunen and Soul Asylum’s Dave Pinner may be performers you can imagine fitting into the whole Within Temptation universe, and maybe even ex Killswitch Engage frontman Howard Jones at a push… But would anyone in the “wheel of guest artist roulette” have money on Hippity-Hoppity bloke Xzibit making an appearance ??
Nope, me neither.
Certainly piqued the interest, that one but then again Within Temptation have never been quite THAT straightforward, and Hydra is certainly appropriately titled. According to founder member Robert Westerholt “The record represents the many different sides of our music. If you’re a fan of Within Temptation, you’re going to love ‘Hydra’, because it’s the most powerful album we’ve ever made, and it has some amazing and totally unexpected collaborations”.
Things kick off with Let Us Burn, which will be immediately familiar to long term fans. Sharon’s vocal performance here is restrained and perfectly balanced, while the track itself draws on the familiar elements of Within Temptation’s musical lexicon. Even when Howard Jones makes an understated but undeniably welcome contribution to Dangerous to kick off the guest appearances, you only just begin to hear hints that maybe Hydra isn’t going to be entirely what you may expect.
The most talked about track will undoubtedly be As We Run, the collaboration with the aforementioned Xzibit. Unfortunately in terms of the big name contributions on here it’s my least favourite.. not bad exactly but just comes over as a bit too much of a predictable “metal meets rap” mash up lacking both power and any real edge. Xzibit’s name may grab the attention, but it’s been done before, better, and it just never really delivers.
Fortunately it’s a brief aberration, and things are soon back on track with the pomp and glory of the suitably epic Paradise (What About Us) which has everything that a great symphonic metal track needs. Power and passion poured into a coursing riff fuelled extravaganza which sees Sharon put in one of her best performances on the album. Just as well really as she’s pitched against Tarja Turunen…
As well as the new musical directions the band explore, and the collective influences of the various guest appearances, Hydra sees them blend familiar old elements with some neat new touches. They can still do “over the top” with the best of ’em, tracks like Silver Moonlight being resplendant with Sharon giving it max in the operatic Whoaa-oooaaahhh-ooooooohhhh department, but there are also more restrained and nuanced spells on here that serve to help the ebb and flow of the whole thing and keep it from becoming an operatic warble-fest. Hydra is more than just something for existing Within Temptation fans, this is an album that will appeal to a vast swathe of the rock/metal fraternity.
This particular Hydra seems to have two main heads, in the first half it looks forward hinting at a new, less predictable, course being plotted, while the second looks back over its shoulder in glorious recap on the story so far, and a timely reminder that there is no one who can do the whole symphonic rock thing quite like Within Temptation.
Hydra is hallmarked by the awesome guest performances that it contains, but the best is saved for last with the slow burning majesty of Whole World Is Watching, which sees Sharon and Dave Pirner belting out one a proper old school epic to get fists in the air and lighters held aloft.
After consolidating their position at the forefront of the whole symphonic rock movement over the past few years, Hydra sees Within Temptation pushing at the boundaries of the genre. At a stage in their career when they could be forgiven for resting on their laurels, Sharon, Robert and the band are having none of it, and the result is their most varied and impressive work to date.
And you kinda get the feeling that this is just the beginning.